spy level chinese

144. Spy-level Chinese

Podcast Duration: 01:18:05

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The Mandarin Blueprint Podcast focuses primarily on The Mandarin Blueprint Method online curriculum. Creators Luke Neale & Phil Crimmins answer questions and comments, discuss topics related to China and Mandarin learning, and have special guests.

144. Spy-Level Chinese

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1:21 Comments & Emails

Anonymous by Email


Hi Luke & Phil,

I´m just getting started with speaking. I was not going to yet, but I happened to notice someone on a language app who was isolating in a hotel and I thought “Yay, here´s someone who cannot escape saying he´s busy, I´ll see if he´ll help correct my writing”. 🙂

It turned out he did not want to write AT ALL, just speak. So we started talking, very very simple language on the level of “where are you from and what is the weather like in Beijing today?” It´s been great fun although he needs to repeat every short sentence 2-3 times very slowly before I MAYBE get what he´s saying. It takes me even longer to say anything myself. But he’s locked inside a hotel room, so he has time and therefore infinite patience and I decided to take the opportunity to speak daily for these two weeks. Luckily his Spanish is not that much better than my Chinese so I have done my share of repeating and speaking very slowly in return.

I´m a bit obsessed with pronunciation. I think that I can do OK on pronouncing single syllables and tone pairs. Maybe not great, problem initials are still very hard, but when I repeat after another person, whether it´s shadowing sentences online or speaking to someone, I think I´m mostly understandable. That´s the most important thing for me now, although in the long run I do hope to get much better than just “understandable”.

But speaking freely…. it´s a totally different thing! I find there is a HUGE gap in my level of trying to pronounce a sentence freely to shadowing them. So much so that I don´t really understand why… I mean I guess it´s normal, but still: if I can say things more or less correctly when shadowing I must have SOMEHOW understood how to use my facial muscles to pronounce those sounds. But when the model audio is not there it´s as if my face just cannot make those sounds and something totally different comes out. I don´t know if it is because I am maybe trying to speak too early or too fast? It feels like there must be some switch to flick in my brain to apply the “shadowing mode” into free speech, but I´m just totally in the dark ast to WHERE that switch is? Why does it feel SO different?

They say it´s good to have a silent period in the beginning and I get that, but I have been listening to Chinese (online only) daily for almost two years. Most of it has not been comprehensible to me and I do notice that listening to the MB sentences seems to help MUCH more than other, more difficult material.

What to do and how to bridge that gap between shadowing and speaking freely? Should I stay silent a bit longer to avoid developing bad pronunciation habits? Just listen to more comprehensible stuff, like the MB stories and sentences? Should I just shadow more? Study the pronunciation mastery course again? Keep speaking but make sure to keep it on my level and just repeat in a conversation, supposing I find people patient enough to do that for me? WHERE is that switch? I know it has to be there in my brain somewhere, if I can shadow, why can´t I speak? 这很麻烦!

I feel very frustrated and also very excited and happy at the same time, really looking forward to getting to a point where I could actually speak Chinese to communicate with people!

Kind regards and thank you!


Hahaha, my total hours of speaking Chinese? Really easy to count!  Maybe six in total, three of them way too early, a year ago, an hour a month ago, and maybe a total of two hours over the past 10 days. I do realise I’m being ”a little” impatient here, lol.

This person is not a bad teacher though, he’s a 北外English major, professional interpreter and seriously studying his second foreign language, close to my age (most in HelloTalk are around 25 at the most) and seems willing to help – I help him a lot too – and he is not there to flirt. 

So far I have been doing a LOT of character learning, reviewing Anki and maintaining my pre-MB characters on Skritter, reading, writing simple things on Hello Talk, and reading answers there that are way beyond my level. My challenge is to have the patience to stay on the comprehensible level in input and not try to say too difficult things when writing or speaking although I find that in general people understand me even if I try to write things above my level. But if they don’t correct me there’s a risk in that. 

All of my HT friends are language majors. I write regularly with 4-5 people trying to do a little bit every day, plus there is a mother in Finland (the only one who is not a language major) who reads little 成语 stories to her 2-year-old daughter and they read them to me together. I don’t try to understand them or memorise them, just try to transcribe the pinyin (hard!) and repeat, when I send my audio I get comments on pronunciation and explanation of the meaning of the 成语. Listening to the tiny learner and her mother who sounds quite a sargeant pronouncing CLEARLY AND LOUDLY for the kid is a nice way to practise. I know, I know, we shouldn’t do kid’s stuff but there is a human connection in this, I know her kids are having a bit of a hard time in Finnish daycare and maybe feel good about listening to a Finn trying to learn their language and I thought it was nice who this just happened, unplanned.

I thought speaking a weird small language like Finnish was a huge handicap for any language exchange but NOT AT ALL, people who want to learn Finnish are generally very interested in languages. Maybe not all, but I’ve been out there (on HelloTalk I mean) for seven months picking out the best through actively helping them to keep them motivated to chat with me.

In any case, I’ve had now my fun trying to go above my level lately and start communicating, I think now is the time to come back to my real level again and stay there for a while before I venture out too far into HelloTalk land.

Thank you for everything, I’m here and studying every day even if you haven’t heard from me much lately. 


Hi Luke & Phil,

I just have to share with you some feedback from (yet another) new Hello Talk friend of mine, I had a big laugh with this today!

We have been chatting in a happy mix of very simple Chinese, beginner-level “hello how are you”  Finnish and some English for two days, and this time I have done my best to keep things simple and NOT go above the level of what I actually CAN do so that my Chinese would sound like Chinese and not just a bunch of barely comprehensible things put together without much order.

我:           我觉得我们可以一起学习简单的句子,练习发音。
HT朋友:   Your Chinese doesn´t have any grammatical problems. How did you do that? It´s amazing.
我:           It´s called comprehensible input. My online Chinese course teaches with that method. Those guys are my language learning heroes!
HT朋友:  Wow, then they really are heroes, your Chinese is spy level!

So thank you, Luke and Phil, my language learning heroes, for taking me to “spy level Chinese” by the end of the Foundation Course! I´m just finishing the last final touches of level 36, you can officially rename it “spy level” now if you wish LOL 

My Chinese is of course still very very basic, but I am having SO much fun with this and you have made feel easy all the way! 谢谢你们!


Sorcha by Community

My name is Sorcha and I purchased the course a while ago but wasn’t ready. I didn’t have a fire under my ‘why’ and my self-confidence was beyond lacking, it was non-existent. 

Things are different now. I’ve been listening to the podcast (highly recommended for newbies) and getting an overall feel for ‘the MB way’ and the case studies are massively inspiring. I’ve reached a tipping point of sorts where I just knew that I was in the right frame of mind to give it a red hot go and do the work that this course would require if I wanted to be successful (which I do). 

I live in Australia and we have a number of mainstream programmes that are in Chinese now (news, Dateline, etc) as well as a number of tv shows, etc so this language is definitely on the move here. We also have a channel dedicated to international broadcasting and Chinese movies (in Cantonese or Mandarin) and tv are easy to find.

I regularly watch a dating show called ‘If You Are the One’ which is a cultural mind-blower. Haha. With movies, I enjoy heartwarmers and comedy (as opposed to action and war with flying warriors although I’ll watch them too). Last week I saw The Nightingale which I loved. The other night I watched Lucky Grandma which I found hilarious. I’ll be watching that one again. The main character reminded me of a neighbour I once had. 

I have a timeframe, materials, got my head around Anki and I’m organised, so here I go. 

Hi everybody!! 


George by Community

Hi everyone! I’m just in the early stages of the pronunciation course. I had also started the characters course but found the movie making a bit daunting. For now, I’ll concentrate on the pronunciation, also using that to familiarize myself with Anki.

I’ve been studying Mandarin for just over 3 years now but found I just seemed to be going round in circles at beginner/elementary level, doing one course after another but never feeling confident enough to move on. While looking for materials and tips to help me improve pronunciation I came across Mandarin Blueprint via the shadowing technique video on Youtube. My interest was triggered and here I am.

My reason for learning Chinese is that I love all things language and I like a challenge. I already speak reasonable but rusty French and I’m fluent in Indonesian. Chinese was always on my language bucket list but I guessed it would not be easy and so never got round to it. Now I’m retired and have time that needs to be filled and a brain that needs to be exercised. I started three and a half years ago with the Open University’s 1st-year Chinese program and then continued on my own. At that time I had vaguely imagined a structured system that might have guided my journey but never really managed to work it out. So when I came across Mandarin Blueprint I recognized the sort of system I had dimly imagined before.

I spend a lot of time on passive input i.e. watching Chinese films and dramas without any explicit study involved and also use Duchinese, TCB, and graded readers in addition to whatever study program I’m actually following, most recently Chinese4Us.

My experience so far with pronunciation is that it seems to be working. I think where you win out is that most courses focus on the presentation of language but fall short by not providing adequate practice opportunities. Your use of Anki provides that.

I’m cautiously confident about my success this time.


Keith Travis on Level 16 Complete


Hello Teachers,

Halfway through Phase 3 and a few observations are jumping out; some of which may be inadvertent results of the way I’m approaching your material; I believe I’ve been spending quite a bit more time doing character writing in the way of compiling great stacks and lists consolidated from your various Anki and Website sections. And, for context, as a professional test prep instructor, I am trying to some good and bad in how I/my mind seems to be reconciling material.

1) I have recently begun reviewing HSK practice tests to sort of gauge my progress as a positive side-effect of your course. I’m pleased to inform you that although prior to beginning Phase 3, even HSK 1 still seemed to be a bit of a guessing gander, by about level 14 I could crush both reading and listening with full confidence and could stumble my way to a pass on HSK 2. Just one level later, I began to realize that I could almost instantly tell upon looking at a sentence whether or not I ‘would be able to read it and whether or not any or all of the words were already given exposure to this point in Mandarin Blueprint and I had yet but to reinforce them.

— This is an interesting effect. It resembles Test Prep strategies for it helps to save time and prioritize how to skip around questions. It also seems to be a side-effect of my having committed to writing out pretty much every sentence prior to Phase 2 and more-or-less fully writing every character examples from all MB sources upon, first, second, and even third sightings and so on. I can also readily translate most sentences directly to English with little trouble although I am still extremely sluggish when it comes to managing a full spoken verbalization. I expect this is what stands to improve with the incoming concentration on sentences and then again in Phase 4 working on greater celerity.

2) A day prior to writing this, I realized I was able to successfully negotiate a pass on HSK 3 reading and writing, and that HSK 4 was already very much just around the corner so far as reading and writing go. Having scanned ahead to see how the tests at the HSK 5 and 6 levels look, nothing seems at all in excess of the lengths of the Graded Reading materials you have set out for Phase 4 and 5.

3) And all this brings me to reflect on the guarantee which I believe I remember reading on your website at some point or other to the effect of ‘A guaranteed HSK 4 pass.’ Well certainly! A person is practically there already simply by mastering the material through to the end of Phase 3 it would seem. However, this ‘mastery’ would seem to also require a bit more devotion to many of the ‘top-down’ words, grammar points, and word structure bits so as to come as close to the same vocabulary as tested upon in HSK 4. I have not done a detailed comparison, but I already know that the vocabulary given exposure so far mostly exceeds the current, (if not the soon-to-be HSK 3.0 level 4), requirements. Indeed, I can see that by the end of the intermediate course that HSK 5 reading and writing should be no struggle. It remains again that my listening skills are able to come up to par.

4) These things being the case – that my progress is good although it seems to me quite shifted away from the mainline intentions of your recommendations – would you generally< (or strongly), recommend that I greatly reduce the sorts of ‘extracurricular’ bits and focus more on just ‘plowing through’ the levels as you’ve set them up or do you think it might be better if – after finishing the initial reviews through to the rest of Phase 3 – to just chill and put off moving on to Phase 4 until after having more-or-less thoroughly digested all of the Phase 3 materials as it cycles through Anki with me?

Thank you much for this and your previous swift and helpful replies. : )


Thank you for the suggestion and encouragement.

By your use of the word ‘plough’ instead of my use of ‘plow’, I’m guessing that you are Luke. I look forward to the next podcast then! It will a week from now I assume, as the one just put out focused on a fellow learning Chinese as a fourth language.

Update: I was able to pass HSK 2 yesterday with excellent reading and a 29/35 on Listening. The Anki Sentences for Phase 3 are just starting to come in thick now on my settings. I’ve decided to split the difference between the two approaches and dedicate now through Sunday, June 13th to consolidate and review notes for reinforcement and refine my Hanzi Movie stories and elements before moving ahead full steam through Phase 4. I’ll attempt HSK 3 as a final Bonus before starting Phase 4 this Monday, posting my results in a brief post at the outset of the lessons.

Thank you.

I’m excited about Phase 4 like a child waiting for Christmas.


Scott Schneider by Community

Traditional vs Simplified ??
When looking at Mandarin Companion and other resources to buy beginner books some ask about Traditional vs Simplified characters. Taking MB, HSK, and other things into consideration is there a way we should / need to go? If no option, does moving between the two cause major problems?


Helen on Intro to Phase 1 – Characters & Components

Hi there, I would like to have recommendations on how to listen to Mandarin, it seems difficult to understand conversations. It’s so fast to understand everything! Also is it really important to speak with tones because when I hear casual or formal conversations I don’t really hear the tones? Pls and thank you.


Soren Korsbaek on Vocab Unlocked from 志

他虽然只有六岁, 但已经能认识很多汽车品牌的标志了。

Really cool to read a relatively advanced sentence like this and feel it is super easy!


Kris Adrian on (BONUS) Our Top Five Most Difficult Tone Pairs

Great video. I can make these sounds correctly SLOWLY, but struggle to do it at anything approaching normal conversational speed. I look forward to the day they start coming out a bit more naturally!


Hank Elliott on Vocab Unlocked from 梯

I love how so many of the compound words make total sense.

Here an elevator is an ‘electric ladder’ and stairs are a ‘building ladder’.

Perfection and simplicity!!


Kris Adrian on What About the Mandarin Tones?

This is very intriguing. I’ve learned about 600 words over the past few months using other methods, but I’m at the point described in the video at 4:24, where I can remember the pinyin spelling but not necessarily the tones.


Doug Casey on Anny 老师 Review: Nasal Finals ÜAN & ÜN (YUAN & YUN)

I am finding -üan particularly difficult. Often, the native recordings sound, to my ear, more like they have an “a” as in “cat” rather than “e” as in “ten”. Does this particular final tend to be inconsistent?


Matt Shubert on 花 in Context

I have a small tone question – I’m still getting used to the

usage of 下来 in sentence 2:

In Pleco, it specifically calls out the “verb+下来” formula (indicating “finality” or “completion” of the verb) as both characters being 5th tone. Is that correct here? So spoken, would it come out sort of quickly, 拍照下来,as just one phrase (4th – 4th – 5th – 5th), meaning “the picture will come out (looking better)”?


Rick Angleland on 多 in Context

Not sure how 每天都比我吃得多得多 is working:

is it 吃得 + 多得多?

i.e. 多得多 is a complement to 吃得, but what is happening with 多得多?

1:07:40 Vocab Living Links

This section covers “Living Link” mnemonic techniques to remember Chinese words of two or more characters. Here’s a video explaining the theory behind it.

Alfred Hong on Vocab Unlocked from 周: 周末

The Weekend performing on Saturday Night Live


Alfred Hong on Vocab Unlocked from 住: 记住

Anki flashcards

01:09:35 Movies! 

This blog post explains the theory behind Movie Scenes and learning characters.

Hank Elliott on Make a Movie 朵

Darth Vador (Du-actor) is in my grandparents sleeping porch (0-set and bedroom). He is sitting at a little school desk (prop) that I grew up using, learning a new way to use the force. He is making a tree (prop) grow by pulling on his Ear Lobe (key word). The more he yanks on his ear lobe the higher the tree grows.


Will Raley on Make a Movie 嘴

嘴 zuǐ Mouth Orifice

1. Dr. Zoidberg at -ei’s Living Room
2. Zoidberg is playing with the Unicorn (角)
3. Zoidberg is making the Unicorn run towards wherever he points his Lazer Pen (此)
4. The Mouth (口) walk in and Zoidberg accidentally points the Lazer Pen into the Mouth’s ORIFICE
5. The Unicorn follows the Lazer Pen and jumps right into the Mouth’s ORIFICE
6. The Mouth does not look very happy at Zoidberg now that the Mouth has a Unicorn sticking out of his ORIFICE (嘴)


Ric Santos on Make a Movie 欧

Jackie Chan is outside the entrance (1st tone) of the -ou set. He was surprised when a courier delivered a huge box (匸) from his boss. Hmm… what could it be? When he opened the box ( 匸) there was a brand new red lawnmower (乂) inside : what a real surprise. He was very happy! But then he was more surprised when he saw that the bill was already pre-charged to his credit card (欠)… and the whole box came all the way from Europe !!! (欧) . Ooohh!


Ric Santos on Make a Movie 疗

Li-actress complains of an unexplained sickness. And she goes to see a doctor (疒) who holds clinic in the kitchen (2nd tone) of the-ao set.

After consulting the doctor about her sickness, the doctor (疒) quietly reaches for a dark crimson hatchet (了) hanging on the kitchen wall . Upon seeing the scary hatchet (了) , Li-actress suddenly jumps and exclaims that she is cured (疗)… miraculously ! Her sickness is gone already – and she hurries out of the kitchen. Just like that ! Doctor Hatchet can heal ! 疗.


Luke Eberhard on Make a Movie 安

‘Jackie Chan’ is outside the entrance to my ‘Dormitary in Japan.’ He’s dressed as a Chimney Sweep and is excited to help out with the job he’s been given with the Dorm’s CHIMNEY smoking quite badly. SALMA HAYEK then comes out to meet up with Chan and shakes his hand to which she feels more AT EASE shaking hands with a Chimney Sweep.


Nick Sims (戴燚)on Make a Movie 条

Tina Turner (ti-) is in the cafe at Lifetime Fitness (-ao) looking for a smoothie at the bar when to her surprise a sloth ? (夂) is there serving. The sloth lays out three choices for an olive ? smoothie: STRIP #1 green olives w/ twig branch, STRIP #2 black olives w/ twig branch and STRIP #3 no olive, just a twig branch. Pick one!

22 June, 2021