If Your Customers don’t Understand Your Product, it’s Your Fault
I’ve been trying to learn Mandarin. It’s not exactly easy. I would really like to be able to read Mandarin since I think that’s how I became reasonably good at English, but during my trip to China, I realized that almost no one who learns a language starts by reading it. Our daughter knows a lot of Mandarin—way more than me, but she can’t read a word. Someday, this verbal fluency will be what enables her to read.
So, I went in search of ways to learn spoken Mandarin and put reading to the side.
There is a bunch of research out there that people learn a language when they are given comprehensible input. If someone waves a cookie in front of a kid who has tasted one before and asks “do you want a cookie?”, the kid will be in a good position to learn the word “cookie”. This is not as likely when a kid hears something about multicollinearity.
But I’m not a child. How do I replicate these sorts of experiences so that I can listen to Mandarin while understanding what is being said?
There are several options.
Assimil, for example, is a book that has a bunch of dialogues. A woman might be at a train station talking to a friend who needs to buy tickets. The book comes with slow, enunciated recordings of what is being said. The book has the phonetics and English translations. This is a great way to learn, and I think a lot of successful Mandarin speakers have used it.
I don’t know that it’s the best way though. The dialogues use useful vocabulary, but they aren’t actually interesting. You listen to Assimil because you want to learn the language, not because you are engaged with the lives of the characters. This problem infects almost every language-learning option out there.
PopupChinese is the only exception to the rule I have found. Even the very short absolute beginner dialogues are genuinely funny. Other times, they manage to wring an enormous amount of drama into just a few lines. I have yet to find anyone else’s content who is engaging at all. It’s a nice change of pace from it’s main competitor, Chinesepod, whose dialogues seem to revolve almost entirely around the same few situations, never with humor. Chinesepod does try to entertain you, but it does so solely through the charisma of its English speakers who explain the content of the vanilla dialogues in enthusiastic early morning mix-radio-station voices. People do seem to like them, but how much of your Mandarin study time do you want to spend listening to English? The idea of comprehensible input is that you need to listen to things you can understand in your target language, not English.
That said, Chinesepod has many, many more episodes available than PopupChinese. Whenever people compare the two products, they bring up this comparison. Personally, I feel this is a bad metric to use. PopupChinese has far fewer episodes, but it has enough episodes at each level for you to progress to the next one. As they say on one of their forums:
…if people want to treat us as a stockpile of listening materials there is nothing we can do about that and even there I think we’re hands-down the best stockpile around. I’m guessing you’ve never thought much about *why* we produce all of this irrelevant stuff, and leaving aside the fact that we could easily ramp up more boring content if we felt it was useful…
I understand this, but I take issue with the underlying attitude and assumptions. If we customers are not supposed to use PopupChinese as just a repository of episodes, how are we supposed to use it? I Yahoo-ed for an answer (since I can’t use Google in China) and didn’t find anything. I searched for the pedalogical philosophy of PopupChinese and found nothing. I logged into the site, where I am premium subscriber and see no guidance as to how to use the site as anything other than repository of episodes. If there is a PopupChinese blog where this sort of thing is talked about, there are no obvious links from the PopupChinese site itself.
I understand the frustration of PopupChinese in having their superior product be misunderstood, but it’s unproductive to blame their customers for that misunderstanding when the blame seems solidly in their court.
“The customer is always right” is a dead trope now. Still, it’s a good idea for businesses to internalize the idea that if the customer doesn’t understand the product, it’s the business that messed up somehow. There are limits, of course. Someone will occasionally walk into your hardware store and not understand why you don’t offer dry cleaning. In general though, the customer being an idiot should be the last resort. The first should be that your own communication was unclear, inconsistent, or incomplete.