Resource Review: Rocket Chinese

A while ago I started learning French, and picked up the Rocket French course (which had gotten some pretty good reviews) to get started.  Around the same time, my girlfriend, who had wanted to learn Chinese for quite some time, bought Rocket Chinese.

I hadn’t seen many useful reviews of Rocket Chinese, so I thought I’d write one up on this blog.  First, two disclaimers:

  • I have signed up as a Rocket Languages affiliate, so if you buy the program through this link, I get a commission.  However, I am going to be completely honest in this review, pointing out the limitations of the program as well as the benefits.  While the commission would be nice, I don’t want you to buy a product that’s not suitable for you (and Rocket Chinese is not suitable for everyone).
  • I haven’t had the chance to compare it with many other Chinese learning programs yet.  I hope to be able to review other programs in time.

Now, on to my review.  This will be quite in-depth – skip to the end if you want the cliff notes version.

Overview of the course

Rocket Chinese (currently) has two levels available to purchase. Level 1 is where complete beginners will start, Level 2 is more for intermediates. Each level has 8 modules and each module has 4 interactive audio lessons and 4 (except module 8 which doesn’t have any language and culture lessons, and module 16, which only has 3 language and culture lessons).  There are also a few bonus lessons in the Survival Kit, covering things like food, tones, numbers/days, and business vocab.

I should point out here that I would recommend that the tones lesson be the first, or at least one of the first 3 lessons you do.  And I highly recommend that you do this lesson with a Chinese speaker by your side.  It is absolutely imperative that you get the tones down as best as you can at an early stage, and the tones lesson is surprisingly decent.  Unfortunately, the computer testing really cannot pick up the differences between tones, so don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by your perfect score in the self-test section of this lesson!

Interactive Audio Lessons

The level 1 interactive audio lessons range from between 20-40 minutes long. The earlier modules are easier, and the lessons are shorter (under 30 mins) while most/all of the ones in Level 2 are over 30 mins.  You can listen to the lessons on the website “portal”, or download them in mp3 format.  Conveniently, you can also download only the dialogue portion of all lessons (it’s in a single file for each level, though), so you can listen to that when you want to do a quick review but are pressed for time.

An audio lesson follows a typical podcast lesson format: it starts with a dialogue between two speakers (Dave and Lin), and then it breaks down the sentences into smaller parts, explaining the translation and any new words.  At the end of the lesson, there’s a “Rocket Review”, where Dave will say the new vocabulary in English, and there’s a pause before Lin says the answer in Chinese where you’re supposed to fill in the answer.  They then repeat the dialogue again.  It’s a common format, and for good reason – it’s effective.

However, Dave kind of annoys me.  He’s not particularly charismatic (in my opinion), and his Chinese pronunciation is quite abysmal. I would strongly advise against trying to imitate his Chinese.  Luckily, Lin, a native speaker, repeats everything during the “break down” phase, while Dave explains things in English.  And by the time you get to Level 2, Dave is replaced by Tao, another native speaker, thankfully.

Each lesson comes with a PDF transcript, which has the dialogue in Chinese, pinyin, and English.  Selected vocabulary words not in the dialogue, but featured in the lesson, are also included with translations.

If you’re working off the course online, you can play small parts of the conversation or extra vocabulary and then repeat them out loud until you’re happy with your own pronunciation.  Here’s an example from Level 2 (it’s not this hard at the outset, don’t worry):

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You press the play button below Lin’s name, and you hear her say the sentence.  You can then click the red microphone, and repeat the sentence.  It then gives you a grade based on your pronunciation.  The grading is not very good – it picks up whether you have said all the words correctly but cannot pick out tones at all.  So in the above example, it picked up something off in the “Ai Tao” (may have been background noise because I did not say “italk”) but ignored the fact that I deliberately pronounced the whole sentence in the first tone.  At least it makes you start speaking Chinese early on, but there really is no substitute for a real Chinese teacher.

After you’re satisfied with your grasp of the lesson, you move on to the “Testing section”.  There are 4 parts here:

Hear it say it 

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Pretty self-explanatory – you hear a word/phrase, then you have to record yourself saying it.  The writing on the right hand side doesn’t appear until you’ve done the recording.  You then rate how easy you found the word.  You can keep repeating all the ones you find hard until they get to “easy”.

Write it

The format is like hear it say it, but instead of recording yourself speak after Lin, you have to type in Chinese characters what she says.  You can type either with your computer’s own Chinese typing program, or with the Rocket Chinese keyboard (which is not as good as my laptop’s Chinese typing, but it’s easy enough to use).  Again, you rate how well you did.  Rocket Chinese has a separate part that teaches you how to write characters by hand, which I’ll cover below.

Know it

Here you have to translate English by recording yourself saying the Chinese translation for a given phrase.  As with all computer programs, you have to say exactly the right words in order to pass, even if there’s another way to say the same thing which is equally correct.  Again, you self-rate how well you did though (but the computer does suggest a rating based on your recording), so you can give yourself higher marks than the computer does if you’re sure you’re right.

Play it

Next you have to participate in the conversation, by taking on the part of first Lin, then Dave.  It gets progressively harder, as first it writes down fully in Chinese and pinyin what you have to say, but by the end it only has one Chinese character as a “prompt” for you.  I hate this part because it’s time consuming and hard – but it’s probably the most important part to get you speaking Chinese comfortably!  Again, self-rating how you did.

Quiz

Last, there’s a quiz with a few multiple choice questions.  They’re not bad to just test your knowledge, though of limited use perhaps as they tend to be quite easy.

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Conclusion on Interactive Audio Lessons

I think these are very good audio lessons.  The interactive part makes sure you engage, and forces you to learn more than you would by passive listening (it’s also a lot harder as a result!).  The topics covered are practical and cover things like booking at a restaurant, buying plane tickets (though trains are more common in China), asking for directions, and talking about family, work, etc.  However, some of the conversations seem a bit artificial and stilted – not quite the language you’d encounter in “real life”.  Of course, this is common of beginner and intermediate programs – in real life, Chinese is a lot more heavily accented, full of slang, and garbled.

The lessons build on each other and get progressively harder, without repeating the same material.  (This is an advantage Rocket Chinese has over podcasts which tend to be unstructured – though it’s been a long time since I used Chinesepod and they may have become more structured since.)

It takes a fair bit of time to get through an audio lesson (other than the first few lessons which are easier) – I’d say over an hour on average, as it often takes 30 minutes or more just to hear it initially.  The conversation itself is only about 30 seconds though usually, so if you’re a fast learner and don’t want to do ALL the interactive parts, you can get through a lesson faster.  If you’re doing a lesson a day – that’s a pretty good effort and you’d progress quickly.  If you’re doing a lesson a week (more realistic for those of us with full time jobs or other commitments), that’s still steady progress.

Language and Culture Lessons

These lessons cover grammar points (e.g. using 把, using 走, neutral tones, making comparisons, etc) and some more general conversational points (e.g. talking about the weather, food, where and how to find jobs).

They are like the interactive audio lessons in that they also have the “listen and record” sections as well as the 4 testing sections (hear it say it, etc).  However, the language and culture lessons are a lot shorter as they do not include dialogue or the 20-40 minute audio lesson at the start.

Writing

Although Rocket Chinese’s handwriting support is limited, it does cover most of what you need to know.  As I’ve said before, I don’t think it’s necessary to learn to write all/most Chinese characters by hand.

Rocket Chinese has a few short videos which teach you how to write basic characters by hand (e.g. 女, 子, 男, 好).  By the time you get to Level 2, the characters become a bit harder (e.g. 喜, 满足, 傻) – so fairly complex, but still common characters.  The point is though – by the time you get to write these characters, you should be comfortable writing Chinese characters with the correct stroke order – and that is the important thing.  Rote-memorising how to write every single character is not necessary, and is not an efficient use of time in my opinion.

Rocket Chinese’s approach is quite good in that it teaches you basic characters, teaches you the stroke order, and also shows you the modern form compared to the ancient and archaic forms.  Some people will undoubtedly find this interesting.  What is really helpful though, is how Rocket Chinese breaks down the different components of a character and explains why it is written the way it is.  Here’s an example:

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This is excellent.  It helps you to remember what appear to be a mess of squiggly lines (to the beginner’s eye) by explaining the logic behind the characters.  Understanding the logic behind characters and the character components (including radicals) is essential to learning Chinese quickly and effectively.  I cannot emphasise this enough, and I’m fairly impressed by Rocket Chinese’s coverage of this (albeit it is somewhat limited coverage).

Unfortunately, there is no “testing” of your writing ability in Rocket Chinese at all, so you’ll have to use Skritter or something as a supplement.

Other features

Rocket Chinese has a notes section at the end of each lesson, so you can write some notes up and save them for later.  I haven’t used it so far, but others might find it helpful.

The “My Vocab” section allows you to save particular words, which will then be underlined in all the lessons.  There are also flashcards for each lesson, but there’s no spaced repetition or anything.  Honestly, just use Pleco – it’s a million times better, and you can continue to use it even after you’ve “graduated” from Rocket Chinese.

There’s also a points/badge thing in the sidebar, which is a good motivational tool if you’re the competitive type (whether against yourself or others!).  I’ve found this to be a great motivator in Rocket French, even though I know it’s a little silly.

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Summary

Advantages:

  • Relatively cheap – $100 for a beginner’s course with over 30 one-hour lessons (including the interactive parts) and another 28 language and culture lessons is definitely a good deal.
  • 60 day trial period – can get your money back if not satisfied
  • Purchase is for life – not subscription based.
  • App support – both iOS and Android, and the app is pretty decent.
  • Comprehensive, structured course – lessons build on one another
  • The format is a good one – if you stick to the lessons and do them regularly, your Chinese listening and comprehension should improve a lot
  • Excellent breakdown of characters into character components and explanations of history of characters
  • The points system is a good motivator

Disadvantages

  • Not so suitable for advanced learners – there are only 2 levels, and the second level is still fairly easy.  There are no heavy accents, slang or 成语 here, only crisp, standard, conversational Mandarin, so it’s not that similar to what you’d encounter in real life in China.
  • A lot of pinyin – while helpful for beginners, it can easily become a crutch.  You will not become adept at reading Chinese characters if the pinyin is always there beside it.
  • It can give you a false sense of confidence as to the accuracy of your tones – it will give you 100% for your sound recording even if you say every word in the first tone.  I think the only way around this is a real-life teacher who is unforgiving of your tonal mistakes, unfortunately.
  • Focus is mainly on listening and speaking – i.e. conversational Chinese
  • No testing of handwritten Chinese
  • Dave, in the Level 1 lessons, cannot speak Chinese properly.  Ignore him.
  • Flashcards are useless – use Pleco instead
  • Forum is not terribly active – though there do seem to be a few helpful posters who respond to questions

Even though the list of “disadvantages” looks longer than the “advantages, I really do think Rocket Chinese is a decent “foundation” course for beginners.  It’s just not suitable for someone at an advanced level.  Rocket Chinese is about as good as you can expect from an online course, particularly at this price.  You will need to supplement it with other resources though (including ideally, a Chinese teacher).  I’ve started teaching my girlfriend Chinese and am using this course as a foundation, but I’ve still told her to supplement it with other resources.

If you do decide to buy Rocket Chinese (or just try it out during the trial period), I would appreciate you buying through this link, to help out my site.  You’ll get the $50 off and bonus material (which I think comes with every purchase anyway).

If you’re using Rocket Chinese now, please let us know what you think of it in the comments section! I’m sure others considering whether or not to buy it would be grateful for your feedback.

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