Happy Chinese Learning Obsession Time

I’m currently obsessed with the Happy Chinese Learning series.  Here’s a sample, if you have time to watch:

Here’s a playlist of the whole series.

There is a website with seemingly related material.  Or maybe they’re unrelated, I can’t tell.

Anyway, the cool thing about this Happy Chinese Learning is that the video is actually very high quality language-learning material.  There is highly polished videos… some would say that the transitions and animated vignettes… and certainly the audio design… are all overproduced.  But the live-action itself is excellent.  Here’s why I like it:

  • The actors are all native speakers (including Susan, the white girl).
  • They are all over-acting, which is a dream for language-learners.
  • The speech is not dumbed-down to insulting level, they use real expressions that wouldn’t be taught in a curriculum (remember, listening comprehension follows a radically different syllabus than first year textbooks).
  • They’re talking normal speed for actors.
  • The characters are sit-com goofy, written to be lovable.
  • The animated vignettes that review the vocabulary are kind of awesome.
Happy Chinese Learning does have some shortcomings, which makes it all the more endearing:
  • Listening comprehension target is just above where I am now, which is great for me, but since they start with “你好” I have to conclude their aim was quite a bit lower.  Someone with listening proficiency lower than my own could enjoy this show aesthetically, but they’d need hella support to even start to focus on form.  It shows that they have zero concept of the novice language learner’s experience.  In the classroom, that’s maddening… but as a YouTube artifact it’s kinda funny.
  • The grammatical commentary is presented in a special segment… but it’s so textbooky and technical that, although it’s academically solid, it’s all kinds of ineffective.  Paired with over-wrought sound design and animation overload, I cannot help but see comedy in it.
  • There’s the requisite clueless foreigner whose personal life is a disaster, and who speaks perfectly but due to some cultural differences, ends up stumbling into hilarious situations that everyone learns from.  The character is supposed to be American, but her mannerisms are 100% Asian (trust me, I know) and the rare occasions when she does say English words (e.g., “dad,” “early”) she manages to not say them with the accent of an native speaker of American English.  There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but as a character I find her hard to believe in.
So the show is kind of ideal as a language-learning media artifact; it’s authentic, it’s entertaining, it’s academically solid, and it’s culturally appropriate (even in ways it doesn’t intent to be).  If you’re focused on form (which you should be!  don’t just read the subtitles!) it’s easy enough to rewind and re-watch, down to the sentence or the word you missed.

What’s not to like?

One last thing:  besides the writing being authentic target language delivered at normal speed, I really appreciate that there’s plot which involves conflict.  Not violent conflict, but conflict nonetheless.  The first few that I’ve watched involve some innocent mistakes or misunderstandings, which lead to people taking actions based on assumptions, which serve to escalate the confusion until the end, when everything gets happily resolved.  Yes, it’s a formula, but it’s a theatrical formula; there was someone there that has studied theater and screen writing and it’s not just some academic trying pathetically to string a bunch of target vocabulary into a poorly-written scene. There’s obviously a director working with the actors, who is making sure the actors know their motivation and timing.  My point is that they made not just a language-learning sit-com, but an actual sit-com as well.

Compare that to the relatively clunky French in Action or worse, the mind-numbing Destinos.

Thank goodness this post is done, I’m going to watch another episode of Happy Chinese Learning.

UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE! In lesson six part one: Americans eat nothing but hamburgers; breakfast, lunch, and dinner! In lesson six part two: Americans’ expectation that Chinese people are always practicing kungfu is CONFIRMED!

16 thoughts on “Happy Chinese Learning Obsession Time

    • Nathan, Thanks for the link! I got to 1:50, right to where the white dude says “见证 means ‘to bear witness'” and gagged.

      Listen, anyone who gives you a vocab word, gives you the English, and then gives you a bunch of complicated, uninteresting sample sentences with immediate English translation is not a language teaching professional. That does not qualify as a vocabulary presentation.

      What’s ironic to me is that Chinese people always want to portray the 老外 as a young, dopey, attractive, very earnest innocent on a journey of discovery. It seems nobody has told them yet that Americans actually kind of hate that representation. We Americans would much rather see an American portrayed as a seasoned expert, or a savvy insider… or even an evil jackass, but that milktoast sweater-wearin’ smily non-threatening fakey learning-at-the-feet-of-his-guide is off-putting. Americans want to see Americans that happen to speak Chinese (even if they’re not white!) but Chinese people want to portray someone that’s American BUT ACTUALLY he speaks Chinese too!

      Anyway, Nathan, thanks for the link 😉


      • sweet. merciful. crap. that video is amazing. it’s got that whole rhythm and repetition and kinetic aspect coupled with extremely specific low-frequency vocabulary. I’m going to have share that…


  1. Hehe, I’m glad I didn’t know your opinion about Destinos four years ago; otherwise I probably wouldn’t have watched it. 😉


    • Haha martinillo, well I’m glad you enjoyed the Destinos experience then!

      You know, often when I hear from my German listeners, many of them ask me for a more austere learning experience; either slower pronunciation, isolated vocabulary (i.e., without background music); I’m starting to wonder if it’s a cultural phenomenon. If that’s so, maybe that explains your affection for Destinos!

      Bill Van Patten, who made Destinos, is a huge force of nature in Spanish-learning materials development, and I must say that he has a massive influence on my teaching philosophy and teaching in general. The Destinos package is complete and is 100% grounded in the most current pedagogy of the time.

      The problems I had with Destinos are not in the academics: the slow pace of the plot and the slow speech of the actors bored me to tears. My students didn’t enjoy it either, it was too damn slow. It wasn’t long before they stopped watching for pleasure and started looking at it purely as an academic object; an obligation.

      To be honest, I thought it was boring to the point of being culturally inappropriate.

      I’d love to know your point of view on Destinos, though, martinillo! Would you watch it again?


  2. My theory is that the lack of pauses between words makes it particularly hard for Germans to understand a foreign language because there are so many pauses in German – even within words; thus, we might rely more than other speakers on these pauses to identify individual words. (I remember that I once talked with a Spanish friend in Spanish and asked what “mela” means. She was surprised by the question and insisted that I know what it means. I think she just couldn’t believe that I was seriously asking what “mela” means. It took me quite some time to realize that it was just “me la”.)

    I started watching Destinos when I already had learned most of what the series teaches in that slow pace you describe. However, you might remember that apart from the main characters there are also lots of supporting characters who often speak at a normal speed in their local accent. I guess the idea is that students just listen to the melody and sound of different accents of real Spanish without understanding the words. However, I was at a level where it was challenging but possible to understand those supporting characters while the slow pace of the main characters and the explanations of the basic elements of Spanish was a welcome break and reminded me that I already know a lot of stuff even though I had a hard time to understand all of the supporting characters. Actually, I remember that I usually fast-forwarded over the review of the previous episode because in those reviews most (if not all) of the interesting normal-paced Spanish was missing.

    Thus, I guess I didn’t use it in the way it was intended to be used, but nonetheless it worked for me at that point in time. Therefore, I think in the same situation I would watch it again.

    Would I have used it earlier, i.e. when I had been on the learning level that Destinos is designed for? Probably not. I think the amount of incomprehensible Spanish would have put me off – much more than the slow pace of the plot and the explanations.


    • Martinillo,
      That’s an interesting theory, the pause theory!

      It’s funny, my students always complain that latinos speak too fast, even when they’re going slow, like in songs. I always have to explain to them that they’re not actually talking fast; the reason that they don’t understand is that they (the students) DON’T SPEAK SPANISH, and any amount of fast or slow is going to sound fast to them.

      Also, my students tend to be very slow to believe that the rules for eliding words are different in Spanish than they are in English. I tell them, and they don’t believe me. Oh well, ni modo!


      • OK, OK, I looked it up, the correct word is “glottal stop”, and it is a common feature of the pronunciation of vowels at the beginning of German words (and syllables) in Germany (not in Switzerland though). Also, there is a general tendency in German that syllables begin and end with an obstruent (moreover the final obstruent if often hardened (“Auslautverhärtung”) such that a lenis consonant is pronounced as a fortis consonant; “Madrid” is pronounced “Madrit” [maˈdrɪt] in German). Thus, there are many more stops between German words than in English, French or Spanish. According to Wikipedia (and my own experience) it is very hard for German native speakers to get rid of the tendencies to insert glottal stops and pronounce final consonants harder than they should be pronounced. Thus, I guess it is a plausible hypothesis that German native speakers used these stops to identify individual words when they learned German as their first language. Thus, I guess it is not surprising that they get into trouble when they try to identify words in the same way when they learn a second language without these stops.

        Isn’t it an interesting thought that some techniques that we develop when learning our first language might make it harder to learn a second language? I guess you know more examples of this kind.


      • Martinillo, that’s awesome!

        You may be interested to know that Americans also have a tendency to read Spanish with glottal stops all over the place, and there is very little I can do to stop them!

        Why do you insist on reading like robots, I ask them, does that sound nice to you? Because you didn’t learn that from Shakira!

        Our habits that we have in our first languages carry over into our second languages; people recognize them in pronunciation as foreign accents, but most people don’t realize that their audio perception is also filtered though their native languages… as if our ears have an accent!

        The good news is, the more you practice, the more the filters fade away. Also, you could take a phonology class, which is what my latest post is about.


        By the way, Martinillo, I was just looking at my stats, and after the USA, the second highest number of hits to my blog comes from Germany! Do you think I have some strange, exotic appeal to German people? Maybe I should pay you all a visit! 🙂


  3. oh, crap! the user’s account got deleted by youtube. luckily i had ripped the first 74 episodes to mp4 but i wanted the last 30 :(. anybody have any other sources?


    • Oh crap! That is a disaster. I was really enjoying that (although Sushan seems to be getting dumber as the series progresses).

      I’ll look around for other sources; is there a chance you’d share the first 74 with me somehow?


      • Yeah, sure, I could put them on dropbox for you. Send me an e-mail to my address for this post and I’ll send you some links when they’re up. About 4.5 GB I believe.


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