Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Improving your Chinese while watching TV shows

Watching TV is a great way to learn languages. It combines lots of useful Chinese words and phrases while providing rich context because of the visual nature of the medium.

I, however, am not a TV person, regardless of language, even if I understand its benefits and uses. To help me cover this area of learning Chinese more thoroughly, the people over at That’s Mandarin wrote this article. It contains ideas about how to learn Chinese through TV, as well as plenty of recommendations for beginner, intermediate and advanced learners. If your favourite is not covered, please leave comment!

Learning Chinese is a marathon rather than a sprint. Some of the most common ways to quickly improve your Chinese include making Chinese friends and watching Chinese TV programs. What you can benefit from watching Chinese TV shows (especially TV series) is that it allows you to get used to different accents and gain a deeper understanding of different people’s speaking habits. 

Generally speaking, Chinese people prefer to watch comedies, or at least TV dramas with happy endings. It’s perfectly understandable as young people in Chinese are constantly facing huge work pressure, and something relaxing and fun is what they need after work. 

Well, if you would like to consolidate your knowledge of Chinese by watching Chinese TV programs, there are a couple of popular Chinese TV shows that can be considered decent learning materials for Chinese learners of different levels. 

That’s Mandarin also recorded an audio version of this if you prefer listening instead of reading:

The recommendations are arranged by level of proficiency:

  1. Elementary level
  2. Intermediate level
  3. Advanced level

1. Elementary level

Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf: 喜羊羊与灰太狼 (Xǐyángyáng Yǔ Huītàiláng)

Since elementary level students can only understand simple words and sentence structures, there are not many TV programs available for you to watch in order to achieve your learning goals. Even some TV shows for kids contain a large number of advanced vocabularies and expressions which Chinese learners would find very difficult to understand.

喜羊羊与灰太狼 (Xǐyángyáng Yǔ Huītàiláng): Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf is one of the very few cartoon series that can serve as a good learning material for elementary and lower-intermediate students. 

What is this program about?

This popular TV show is about interesting stories happening between a group of playful and smart goats and a humble wolf (Grey Wolf) who is constantly trying to hunt them in order to please his tyrannical wife (Red Wolf). In fact, this cartoon series is also extremely popular among young girls in China as they consider Grey Wolf an “exemplary husband” based on his submissive attitude towards his wife. The funny bits of this program are usually about how the agile goats manage to escape from the traps set by Grey Wolf.  

Why is it a good choice for elementary and lower-intermediate students?

If you choose to improve your Chinese by watching this cartoon series, the main advantage of it in terms of Chinese learning is that each of its episodes contains a separate story and only lasts for 15 minutes, which means it is highly unlikely that your patience would be exhausted by the end of each episode.

In addition, the plots are easy enough to allow you to get a rough idea of each story even if you come across words and phrases that you are not familiar with when watching the program. A lot of conversations in the program contain basic but useful expressions that can be used in real life situations, which is another reason why it is an ideal choice for Chinese learners. 

Which words and phrases are particularly worth learning?

There are quite a few small talk phrases and words used for greetings that you should pay extra attention to when watching the program. Moreover, various grammatical structures that Chinese people often use to make imperative and exclamative sentences such as “好 (hǎo) + adj. + 啊 (a)” (which means extremely/so + adj.) are exactly what you need to improve your spoken Chinese. 


What learning activities can be carried out when watching the program? 

You are advised to watch this cartoon series under the guidance of your teacher in order to achieve maximum learning results. Since English subtitles are not available for most of the Chinese TV programs, one of the most common learning activities is to improve your listening skills by watching a complete episode part by part after new words and expressions have been clearly explained.

For example, the first episode consists of a brief introduction on the wolf tribe and Grey Wolf’s very first attempt to hunt the goats by acting under the disguise of a middle-aged female goat. It would be helpful if your teacher could give you a general idea of the whole episode beforehand and pick some simple dialogues for you to focus on (for instance, the dialogue in which Grey Wolf is trying to persuade 懒羊羊 (Lǎnyángyang: lazy goat) to open the gate so that he will have the chance to catch him).

By listening to these dialogues and trying to repeat them sentence by sentence, you will be able to check your overall understanding of the story. Meanwhile, your teacher should write down those sentences (with pinyin provided for each character) that you are not familiar with and help you practice useful words and phrases contained in them. This is actually also a good opportunity for you to improve your pronunciation and learn Chinese characters.

Where to find this program?

If you would like to watch this TV series, you can access numerous videos on YouTube by entering “喜羊羊与灰太狼” (Xǐyángyáng Yǔ Huītàiláng). However, it will be easier to watch them on 优酷 (Yōukù) or 爱奇艺 (Àiqíyì) if you happen to be in China as they are the two biggest Chinese online websites.  

Below are the links to the first two episodes of this program on 优酷 (Yōukù):

  1. 喜羊羊与灰太狼:02 狼来了(下)

Bonus

Another program which can be helpful for students of this level is 大头儿子和小头爸爸 (Dàtóu Érzi Hé Xiǎotóu Bàbà: The Big Head Son and Little Head Father), which focuses on the entertaining stories and harmonic relationship between a lovely “big-head” boy and his smart “little-head” father. It can also be easily found on youku or iqiyi.

Here are the links to the first two episodes of this TV show in order for you to have a general idea about it:

  1. 大头儿子小头爸爸1:小鸽子
  2. 大头儿子小头爸爸1:旱鸭子下海

2. Intermediate level

家有儿女 (Jiā Yǒu Érnǚ): Home with Kids

An important task for students at this stage is to gain a general understanding of Chinese culture and traditions. One of the most effective ways to achieve it is to observe cultural-related elements from Chinese people’s daily life. 家有儿女 (Jiā Yǒu Érnǚ): Home with kids is what can help you become familiar with Chinese culture and in the meantime improve your Chinese language skills. 

What is this program about?

This TV series is mainly about the joyful but also hectic life of a remarried couple with their three kids. Each episode contains a separate scenario which is closely related to what Chinese children come across on a regular basis like asking their parents for a relatively expensive gift. The main purpose of this TV series is to shed light on how Chinese parents should educate their kids.  

Why is it a good choice for intermediate and upper-intermediate students?

Chinese culture and knowledge of Chinese people’s life are two inalienable parts of Chinese learning. This TV series offers you an excellent opportunity to have an insight into an ordinary Chinese family’s daily life.

On one hand, some typical topics that usually lead to hot debate such as Chinese parents’ attitude towards education are reflected in this TV series. On the other hand, a comparison between Chinese and Western approaches to social dilemmas can serve as a separate area of learning from a cultural point of view. 

Which words and phrases are particularly worth learning?

You will have the opportunity to make yourself sound like a local by watching this TV series. There are quite a few youth slang words that you would be interested in knowing from a language learning perspective.

Moreover, as the TV series was shot in Beijing, you will be able to know more about some dialect words like “甭管 (béngguǎn): no matter, irrespective of” which are only used in Northern China. 

What learning activities can be carried out when watching the program?

Being an intermediate (or upper-intermediate) student, you have acquired a solid basic knowledge of Chinese grammar and vocabulary, thus you can choose to watch it by yourself or with your teacher. This TV series is an excellent learning material for you to improve your speaking.

Like the program recommended to elementary and lower-intermediate students, each episode of this TV series represents a separate story, which can be used as a topic for discussion with your friends or teacher.

An interesting learning activity from a cultural perspective could be exploring Chinese people’s views on different social problems and social phenomena like family education and reconstituted family based on the program. In addition, it will be also a good idea to write a short summary or a paragraph concerning a specific topic related to each episode that you have watched. 

Where to find the program?

This TV series can be easily found on Youtube and most of the Chinese video websites like Youku, iQIYI and Tencent. In addition, a multi-skill Chinese course material dedicated to this TV series is now also available in major foreign language bookstores across China. 

Here is a chance for you to enjoy the first two episodes of this program (be prepared to watch some advertising before the program actually starts):

  1. 家有儿女主演
  2. 家有儿女 第2集

Bonus

In addition, here are some more TV shows that can serve as suitable learning materials for intermediate students:

大耳朵图图 (Dà Ěrduo Tútú), which is a cartoon series devoted to the carefree life of an adorable little boy named 图图 (tútú). All the interesting stories happening around him are the reflection of what Chinese kids come across in their daily lives.

Watch the first two episodes on Youku here:

  1. 大耳朵图图 第1部:01 出生的秘密
  2. 大耳朵图图 第1部:02 图图的生日礼物

爱情公寓 (Àiqíng Gōngyù), or known as iPartment depicts seven young people’s hilarious flat-sharing experience. This program more or less reminds the audience of the famous American TV series Friends.

Watch the first two episodes on Youku here:

  1. 爱情公寓 第一季:第1集
  2. 爱情公寓 第一季:第2集

3. Advanced level

非正式会谈 (Fēizhèngshì Huìtán): Informal Talks

Many advanced Chinese learners are interested in knowing if their level is high enough to understand Chinese TV shows related to politics and different social phenomena. Well, if you would also like to try watching some exhilarating Chinese TV programs that require a good command of advanced Chinese grammar and vocabulary, 非正式会谈 (Fēizhèngshì Huìtán): Informal Talks is the one that you are looking for. 

What’s this program about?

Each episode of this program represents a roundtable meeting devoted to a specific topic with all the participants being non-native speakers but fluent in Chinese. A variety of topics ranging from food culture to environmental protection are covered in this talk show. During the meeting, each participant is expected to express his own opinion on the topic which is being discussed in Chinese, taking into account some cultural features of the country that he is representing.

Why is it a good choice for advanced students?  

One of the essential requirements for advanced Chinese learners is to be able to understand Chinese news reports and interviews, which is why this TV program is an excellent choice for you to improve your listening comprehension. In addition, you will have the opportunity to know more about how people from different cultural backgrounds approach social and political issues. 

Which words and phrases are particularly worth learning?

As the most of the topics covered in this talk show are more or less related to culture, finance and politics, advanced vocabularies such as “环境 (huánjìng): environment” and “货币 (huòbì): monetary” used when writing or giving speeches for professional or academic purposes are what you are expected to learn from this program.  

What learning activities can be carried out when watching the program?

If you would like to watch this TV show by yourself, what you could do is to compare your own opinion on a certain issue with that of one of the participants of the program and then write it down in Chinese. However, you can also choose to watch it with your Chinese friends or your private tutor if you have one, and it will be quite interesting to carry out a debate with native Chinese speakers in that you will be able to learn formal phrases and expressions which are not often used in Chinese people’s daily life. 

Where to find this program?

All the six seasons can be found on Youtube. A large number of videos related to this talk show can also be found on most of the major Chinese video websites such as youku and iQIYI.

You may click on the links below to know more about the topics that the participants discuss: 

  1. 第一期全球男女关系大讨论!9国青年反对女友翻看手机
  2. 《非正式会谈》 各国传统饮食文化

Bonus

If you would like to watch more Chinese TV shows that are suitable for advanced students, you might be interested in searching for the following TV programs on Youtube or Youku:

西游记 (Xīyóujì), known as Journey to the West,  is a classical Chinese novel about a monk setting out on an arduous journey to the West (where he is expected to face 81 adventures) with his three disciples. This TV series contains quite a few interesting vocabularies that were only used in ancient China, which offers a good opportunity for lovers of Chinese culture to know more about ancient China from a language learning perspective.

  1. 西游记:第1集
  2. 西游记:第2集

舌尖上的中国 (Shéjiānshàng De Zhōngguó: A Bite of China) is a documentary TV series that offers detailed information about Chinese cuisine and China’s rich food culture.

  1. 舌尖上的中国 第一季 第1集 自然的馈赠 美味背后人和自然的故事
  2. 舌尖上的中国 第一季 第2集 主食的故事 中国人餐桌上最后的主角

By That’s Mandarin Chinese Language School

That’s Mandarin is one of the oldest private Chinese schools in China. It was founded in Beijing in 2005 and has been growing ever since, with campuses in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. That’s Mandarin has been delivering excellence in online and offline Chinese teaching for over 14 years to more than 30,000 students of different nationalities.



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