I’ve talked with several of my friends who are advanced students, and there is much frustration that there is such little interesting material out there for people at our level.

Some people say, “Just study material made for native speakers!” Of course we all spend some time with those materials, but are quite frustrated by how hard they are. We aspiring extensive readers and listeners are looking for 98% comprehensibility, and these materials are often so far removed that it’s exasperating.

Materials that actually are at our level are often so boring that they are equally exasperating.

At the lower levels, there is growing awareness in the CFL world of the need for fun extensive reading. The Mandarin Companion readers, for example, are fantastic, and would have revolutionized my progress had they come out a few years earlier.

At my current level, however, the one resource I keep coming back to is a decade old. If you know which lessons to study, ChinesePod dialogues and expansion sentences are wonderful for comprehensible input. I collect study materials from lots of different resources, but there are three things that keep pulling me back to ChinesePod, especially at the Advanced level.

Carefully Graded Dialogues

Before 2014, ChinesePod Advanced lessons were carefully graded to be slightly lower than native-speaker level (C1 instead of C2). This is what made those lessons so useful: They’re hard, but still easier than materials made for native speakers.

I never do the newer Advanced lessons (post-2014), because they are often as hard as materials for native speakers. In my mind, this makes them useless. If ChinesePod is just as hard as watching 《人民的名义》, then why in the world would I study ChinesePod? I should go straight to the real thing!

Well-written Expansion Sentences

The words used in the expansion sentences are well-chosen. Each Advanced lesson has tons of topic-specific vocabulary, but the writers carefully chose higher-frequency advanced words for the expansion sentences. I give most of my attention to those words.

The expansion sentences themselves are usually written in such a way as to illustrate the meaning of the words in different contexts – one context similar to the dialogue, and two other different contexts. These sentences have sparked many engaging conversations with tutors. Other materials, like the HSK Standard Course, just don’t do that.

In 90% of the 2008-2013 lessons I’ve done, the expansion sentences are as carefully graded as the dialogue, and have served as an effective indicator of how I’m progressing through that level. These sentences use lots of words from other lessons at that same level, and are careful not to push too much vocabulary outside that corpus. Now that I’ve done over 120 Advanced lessons, it’s pretty typical that the only word in the sentence I don’t know is the one word from the lesson that’s being highlighted.

Fun, Memorable, True-to-Life

The third thing that keeps bringing me back to Advanced ChinesePod lessons is that they are so much more interesting than any other CFL materials – mostly because they are so close to real life. Most other materials seem to put my tutors to sleep, while many of the ChinesePod lessons wake them up. So many times they laugh and say things like, “Just the other day, I had a conversation just like this.”

Here is a specific example: After reading the dialogue for 《这红包该不该送?》, my tutor said something like, “When my son was born, I had this exact conversation with my mom when we were in the hospital – with the same outcome.”

These lessons find clever ways to make even boring topics interesting. A good example is 《疯狂的球迷》. I don’t think there is any topic on planet earth more boring than Chinese soccer, and yet this is one of the most memorable lessons I’ve ever done.

When a lesson departs from real life, it’s to make the lesson more ludicrously memorable. A good example is 《太空旅游》, which, by the way, my tutor loved (“无厘头的幽默!”).

Two Major Flaws

There are two major drawbacks to these Advanced ChinesePod lessons. The first is that it’s distressingly rare to get a lengthy series that provides an immersive extensive reading/listening experience. There are a few series, the longest being the 小太监进宫 story, but even that one only clocks in at 19 minutes. Not exactly a novel.

小太监进宫系列
小太监进宫系列

The second drawback is that, while many of the lessons are timeless, many others are beginning to show their age. Today when I study these lessons with tutors in their early 30’s, it tends to create a highly engaged learning atmosphere; they fondly remember having these conversations in college dormitories. When I study these lessons with younger tutors, it’s clear they just don’t connect that well. These conversations were before their time.

What could the future hold for us advanced learners? Maybe the geniuses behind Mandarin Companion could come up with a learn-Chinese-through-stories platform. They clearly have what it takes: Expertise with consistent grading, coupled with an intolerance for boring. That magical combination seems to be what nobody else out there has.

But producing this kind of material is difficult, slow, and if you want the audio quality to match the delightfully dramatic glory days of ChinesePod, expensive. But maybe there are people out there who can pull this rabbit out of their hat.

Photo: Viewing Pudong from a Reflection in Puxi, Shanghai, China © 2018 Elijah Wilcott