There’s something intriguing about Koala Know’s online Chinese classes.
I wasn’t looking for another class for my kids, but after hearing how Koala Know’s curriculum had been so carefully and scientifically put together, my curiosity was piqued to learn more. After observing ten classes, I must say, I’m seriously impressed!
This post is our honest review of Koala Know, and how it compares to other online Chinese classes our family has tried like Lingo Bus, Lingo Ace and Vivaling. This blog post covers:
1. Introduction to Koala Know
2. Curriculum of Koala Know
3. Differences from other online Chinese classes (eg Lingo Ace, Lingo Bus etc)
4. Pros & Cons
5. Signing up – in Singapore or online
What is Koala Know?
Koala Know is an online Chinese language learning service, designed for children aged 4 to 12 years old – it’s engaging, cleverly designed, and very reasonably priced. My kids have done a few online classes taught in Chinese – both language related, and non-academic classes which I’ve reviewed previously – but Koala Know is a little different.
Koala Know uses “character roots and trees” – or perhaps what someone with an engineering or IT background would call “systems thinking”, to base their syllabus around. This to me, is a key differentiator between Koala Know and other curriculums which I’ve seen. The main focus is on characters – how they came to be, and how they fit into the Chinese language and interact. It’s done in a simple, elegant and powerful way.
The company was founded in 2018 in Los Angeles, and globally has more than 10,000 students in 60+ countries. Why the weird Australian name? According to the founders, KOALA stands for “Knowledge Of A Lifelong Advantage” – I totally agree with them a good grasp of Chinese is key differentiator for the future.
Koala Know Curriculum
“Systems thinking” is a mindset change from linear to circular understanding. And, that’s exactly how the Koala Know curriculum comes together. Instead of having classes either following the local school curriculum (like Lingo Ace does), or topical themes (eg colours, animals, birds, like Lingo Bus does), Koala Know uses a linguistic lens to design their syllabus.
“Systems thinking” is about understanding how the individual constituent parts interrelate, and fit together – in this case, Chinese characters. For anyone who has taken this topic at university, words like ‘synthesis’, ‘interconnectedness’ and ‘feedback loops’ are likely themes you studied for an exam. Systems thinking uses these themes to untangle puzzles and work within the complexity of life on Earth. Such processes are being used now to solve the world’s biggest problems like global warming, carbon footprints, income disparity, and racism. And, evidently learning languages
Koala Know is applying systems thinking to Chinese linguistics. They have developed a proprietary curriculum which untangles Chinese characters based on ancient principles and systematically enables the child to use the language in non-linear ways and interconnect feedback loops. Does that all sound too overwhelming? Well, it’s delivered in such a smooth and entertaining manner that the child would have no idea how much effort has gone into the backend.
The first stage of their curriculum focuses on “Character Tree Theory”, to teach 90% of the roots in Chinese, and derive many words, idioms and cultural stories. The stages beyond this are comprehensive study of Chinese linguistics, learning how the characters/words they already learnt are combined to form phrases and longer literature.
To support this, there are optional theme-based classes each month (eg festival related topics, or real life issues) for students to use their language and theoretical knowledge to a broader level.
What are the “Character Roots and Trees”?
The core principal of the Koala Know curriculum is creating Chinese character trees – whereby a part of a character, or radical, is used as the “root”, and then a series of other words / characters are grown from this. It’s a modern spin on a system by Chinese philosopher Xu Shen’s in which he derived a method of analysing Chinese characters, as documented in his ancient text Shuowen Jiezi (說文解字 literally “Discussing writing and explaining characters’). This book, written in ~100AD, is credited as one of the first dictionaries in the world and divides 540 characters roots to explain the original of >9000 Chinese characters.
Koala Know draws on on Xu Shen’s “character roots”, with individual lessons focussing on each root. Each lesson uses animation to show these Chinese ideographs evolving from their ancient to modern forms, and then identifies the words and contexts where these roots have grown. To me, this interesting “breaking down” of the characters creates a powerfully deep understanding of Chinese characters.
(As a side observation: yes there are other online classes that have animations of characters in their curricula. However, these need to be taken with some caution. The shape and structure of a Chinese character can represent its meaning – but some learning materials do give misleading illustrations of this. We’ve seen animations other online trial classes which have been engaging, but they haven’t all been classically correct. This could be teaching bad habits for students who will be going deeper with their Chinese studies.)
Here’s a simple example of what is taught in “Grade 2” Koala Know:
The word “home” 家 (jiā) … is perhaps one of the most well-known Chinese characters. The lower part is 豕”(zhì) which means pig. People used to raise pigs at home (pigs are said to be the first animal which Chinese ancestors domesticated and kept as livestock), so having a pig under a roof “家” indicated that it was a place where people also lived, thus a “home”. Sometimes in ancient oracle bones from Shang Dynasty, one can even see versions of 家 that depict a house with two pigs inside!
In Koala Know, the syllabus explains this about the original character. However, others online classes (and flash cards) use animations which don’t bring out this context. It hides the cultural context of the Chinese character and makes it harder for a child to go on and self-study later in life. If the animation is correct, a child can easily learn many more characters.
The symbol, “家” then forms a place in many related words like 家庭 (jiā tíng = family), 老家 (lǎo jiā = home town), 农家 (nong jia = farmer); 专家 (zhuān jiā expert, people who are specialized in a field); and domesticated animals 家畜 (jiā chù = livestock) and家禽 (jiā qín = poultry), just to name a few.
(It’s interesting to note that symbol 牢 …. being a cow “牛” under a roof “宀”….. is the term for prison cell or jail!)
For contrast, see this image below from another online class which puts a graphic around “家” which brings out ‘family’, but doesn’t explain the try building blocks.
Here’s another example, for Grade 1 Koala Know:
The characters for “above”/up” 上 (shàng) and “below/down” 下 (xià) are categorised as ideograms in Chinese. Ideograms express an abstract idea through an iconic form. If you combine the two character together, you get “卡” (kă) which means “stuck”, as in, “stuck in the middle”.
How else is it different from other online classes?
1. It’s not just a lesson, it’s an entire online platform: Koala Know isn’t just a lesson carried out through Zoom or Skype. It’s an entire platform, filled with learning resources, books to read, and cleverly curated lessons. Other online classes we have tried use Powerpoint-based materials, however Koala Know has their curriculum fully delivered through elaborate, proprietary animations and interactive classroom games (eg the child can click on the screen and play a game with another child), which are shared over the screen.
2. Classes are aimed at truly bilingual speaking children: Whereas services like Vivaling (which we really love!) and Lingo Bus are targeting international children who learn Mandarin as a second language, Koala Know is aiming specifically at families who already speak Chinese, and wish to dig deeper into the beauty of the language, along with history and culture. Of course, like our family, despite not being culturally Chinese, my kids had a relatively solid foundation of Chinese, and Koala Know suits them well.
3. Quality of full time teaching staff: Research suggests an important variable in any students’ learning is the quality of their teacher. It was encouraging to see that even in the promotional materials for Koala Know, they state their teaching staff are fulltime and fully trained in Koala Know pedagogy. In fact, it takes six months of full-time training of their staff before they can teach on the platform. This demonstrates Koala Know’s commitment to its team of staff, and I didn’t read anything similar on other platforms.
4. Format of class – balanced between interaction and theory. In the other online classes we’ve done, they’ve either had no real interaction between other class participants, or, it’s been an ongoing game / ‘competition’ with trophies awarded for the fastest correct response. Koala Know does have some competing games (not as many as other classes we’ve done), but it also encourages real co-operative participation between classmates, eg in some activities they make up a story by each doing part of it, and the teacher guides them to take turns, listen and respect each other. The same student cohort is fixed for each class too, which helps create this supportive class environment.
Pros & Cons of Koala Know online classes
- The lessons are fully recorded and able to be played back through their platform
- Fixed teacher and small class size (maximum 3) to promote interaction
- Essentially a one-stop-shop stand along syllabus: Effective curriculum, delivered in an engaging manner, which logically links between characters, words and context
- Classes involve both speaking and writing
- 25 minutes length, which is realistic length for a child’s attention span and shorter screen time than other options
- Interactive platform loaded with additional features to use outside of the class, including book reading, thematic and cultural classes, and fun interactive “games” as homework
- Simple to book classes at convenient times (it runs 24/7) in comfort of your own home. However, note that class time is fixed once set by the parents, to the teacher and other classmates are consistent.
- Customer service based in Singapore (or US, or China … depending on your region)
- Online learning may not suit all children – eg a quieter child may not speak up in an online format… this is true of all online platforms, not just Koala Know. However, the Koala Know structure of having the same teacher and classmates (in contrast to say Lingo Bus or Vivaling) actually helps to facilitate a more shy children to make good use of the online format.
- Not for beginners – it’s for a child who is already bilingual in Chinese, and wanting to explore to the next level, especially from a literacy perspective. It doesn’t just simply mirror the Singapore school curriculum.
- It does involve screen time – that said, Koala Know do offer in-person classes in Singapore with the same curriculum
- It wasn’t as instantly “fun” as other online trial classes we have done – things like Lingo Ace (with lots and lots of games) and Lingo Bus (with plenty of rhymes and songs) are certainly more fun play for a child. Koala Know has a more academic / theoretical focus and instilment of values. In a nutshell, I imagine Koala Know is like the “Berries” of online tuition options.
Based on our experiences of four lessons so far, I feel that Koala Know is an effective and engaging alternative to Chinese tuition and enrichment centres in Singapore. It would also be excellent for homeschooling. In particular, it’s an excellent starting point for preschoolers to get a firm grounding in radicals and character components, to enable future literary development.
What other online Chinese Classes have we tried?
During COVID lockdown of 2020, and we were lucky enough to try out a few very interesting online Chinese learning classes, as summarised in table below. For more info on these options, so my earlier post.
|Lingo Ace||Lingo Bus||Koala Know||Viva Ling|
|Student age||6 – 16||5 – 12||4 – 12||3 -18|
|Teacher background||Singaporeans with teaching certificates||Mainland Chinese with higher degrees||Mainland Chinese with higher degrees||Large mixture |
to choose from
|Able to choose teacher||No||No||Yes||Yes|
|Class size||Up to 4||Up to 4||Up to 3||1|
|Class timing||55 minutes, twice a week||25 minutes, once a week||25 minutes, twice a week||Flexible – 15 minutes through to 60 minutes, as regularly as wanted|
|Price (without promotion)||S$240 / month (8 classes)||US$200 / term (10 classes)||~US$699 for 36 lessons||US$18 per 25 minutes|
|Effective Price per class||S$30||US$30||US$19||US$18|
|Effective Price per minute||S$0.55||US$1.20||US$0.78||US$0.72|
|Requires software installation||No – web interface||No – web interface||No – web interface||Zoom|
|Homework||Yes – written homework||Yes – written homework||Yes – but done in form of online game||Optional|
In summary, whilst all the online classes are very different, with different pros and cons, I feel Koala Know is a wonderful way for bilingual children to dig deeper into the language, and explore beyond what they probably have been taught within the traditional classroom.
How to sign up for Koala Know?
I mentioned in my previous post when we tried several trials of online classes during COVID lockdown, that there was a large benefit having customer service in English, and located in the same time zone that you’re in. Thankfully, Koala Know has customer service and physical premises in Singapore.
Koala Know in headquartered in California, with all online teachers in mainland China. In some geographies, they also have “Koala Clubs” which provide a physical presence. In Singapore, Koala Know are implementing an online-offline model. Parents can choose a combination of both online classes, and physical in-person classes. The Koala Know Singapore Centre provides customer service, along with offline activities like story telling sessions, workshops, structured language courses, and onsite trial classes for the online programme.
We visited their new centre in Novena (my 3 year old literally ran into a corner of the reading room, sat on a chair and starting reading books), and I enjoyed seeing their classrooms and browsing their well curated Chinese learning products and books being sold. This is actually where our super awesome Youdao dictionary pen came from, which I reviewed earlier.
Free class trials are possible to sign up for through the Koala Know website – however if you are in Singapore, I caution you against doing this directly through the website. In Singapore, I would recommend directly contacting their Singapore Centre to understand the options and ensure you get a sales consultant who speaks good English!. Details here are Koala Know Singapore 考拉华文乐学园: Business number/ WhatsApp is 92963558 and Facebook .
What about you?
Which online classes have your family tried and enjoyed? I’d love to hear your view on Koala Know or other options which you have tried. We’ve also heard great things about Instant Mandarin and Wukong Chinese, although we never got around to trying them. I guess when you’re onto a good thing, why change, right?
All feedback and comments are welcome! Let’s continue the conversation and the learning.
Necessary Little Disclosure: I only share products and services we have personally used and love. We were lucky enough to get a free trial class with Koala Know (as we also did with Lingo Ace, Lingo Bus, and Vivaling). I would advocate that you also make the most of the variety of free trials available, to choose what works best for your family. The free trials are available to anyone, not just bloggers!
Please know that I only recommend learning resources on this blog which our family has, and believes are genuinely helpful….. there’s no affiliation, commissions, or money being made here at all! It’s simply the passion of sharing!