Rosetta Stone Language Software

Making a Start in Mandarin

Chinese can be an incredibly difficult language to make a solid start in. To start with, there's the question of characters: Are you going to learn them or not? If you just want to speak the language, reading pinyin - although tricky - is probably good enough. At the same time, knowing a little bit about the characters can open up "word families" of an unlikely sort that may offer enough interest to make the learning go more quickly.

My own efforts at Mandarin Chinese include Pimsleur Level 1 and one on one instruction. Below are a few of the resources I've used and why they were or weren't helpful. While this list won't actually get you started learning Chinese, it's a place to start.
The headline says, "Speak Chinese Rapidly..." Maybe not. But there is a fairly good introduction to what you're in for and the lessons expose a lot of information. For around $30/month, it's not a bad deal if you make consistent use of it. And you can take demonstration lessons at several levels to see what it's about.

Rosetta Stone
Rosetta Stone teaches only in the target language, using pictures, sound and text - in the language you're learning - to help you associate first short and simple, then longer and more complex thoughts with images. The probelm is that Chinese doesn't necessarily relate human experience precisely the same way English, for example, does. Thus picture sequences ideal for illustrating structures in English don't always work so well in Mandarin.

Were Rosetta Stone to use a different sequencing depending on the language, it could be great for Mandarin, highlighting deeper into the lessons the subtler distinctions Mandarin makes here and there. Instead, they start popping up early on. If you're learning with something else, Rosetta Stone isn't bad for drilling. But it falls short as a primary resource.

When you finish Pimsleur Mandarin Level 1, you are amazed at all the things you can say as you work through the lessons. Then you start trying to think of how to say the things that are on your mind in Mandarin and are flabbergasted by how much you have to learn. Bottom line, this will not make you fluent in a month. But it will give you confidence and familiarity with using Mandarin, and a hint as to what's going on with tones. Better learn (a whole lot) less with the conversation set, in order to get your stride, then move on to another resource with the pennies you've saved.

After you've done a little Pimsleur Mandarin, you might look for some more vocabulary to plug into the structures you've learned. The Talk Now game show vocabulary learning format isn't bad for learning isolated vocabulary, though you need to play early and often if you want to retain what you've learned. High scores in the game indicate that you have learned enough to quickly catch on to material you've seen before. Continued high scores are needed if you want assurance that the words will be there when you want them though.

This is one of the most thorough grammar and workbooks out there. But serious work is involved. And while you can learn alot about Chinese grammar from it, it won't teach you to speak. What it will do is give you many ahas about things you've learned elsewhere but couldn't get your head around. A good reference once you've been at it awhile.

This is actually a pretty good guide to basic phrases and basic grammar. Many other works tell you way more than you want to know - or realistically will have the patience to learn - and are thus useless, despite their deceptive thoroughness. With a language like Mandarin, the fundamentals are simple. It's the details that get you. This is light on detail and thus worthwhile for learning enough to speak understandably, as opposed to having the perfect phrases for three occasions and little to contribute otherwise because you gave up before finishing the book.

My memories of Teach Yourself Chinese are of confusion, boredom and irritation. What was easy was obvious. What wasn't was lost. Other experiences may vary, but I found it the opposite of the Chinese for Dummies phrasebook - there was too much to learn. By contrast, the Teach Yourself Mandarin Conversation CD set isn't half bad. You learn to work through elementary conversations, then on disc three learn a little about what to listen for. After Pimsleur Conversation, it's worth a listen to firm up what you've learned and put some meat on the worthy but skeletal understanding of Chinese conversation that the preliminary Pimsleur lessons provide.

Ordinarily, I'm appalled by the Learn in Your Car listen and repeat cycle. For the Romance and Germanic languages, I've found it painfully tedious and often boring, such that when I put on a CD, rather than learning I go to sleep. But that's me. With Chinese, however, I'm sufficiently out of my element that the set has kept me listening. However, I like to follow along with the transcript, not listen in the car. In the transcript, words are put in different colors if you're learning a new structure or unusual word, and this makes it easy to see what's going on in the Chinese. It's not the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it works pretty well. Again, it helps to have a little Chinese before making use of this set.

For figuring out, well, what character you're looking up, this is a darn good book. The organization by English named radicals makes it easy to start deciphering short bits of Chinese to get an idea what characters and concepts are involved. Not much help with the many two-syllable words in Chinese, though.

This is my favorite Chinese-English dictionary. The entries are thorough, offering good coverage of two and three syllable words. And you can look up words by pinyin, radical, stroke number and Zhuyin fuhao (what Chinese schoolkids use to look up words phonetically). If you're serious about putting together written and spoken Chinese in your studies, this is highly recommended.

The list above doesn't, alas, feature any silver bullets for learning Chinese in four hours with no work. If you know of such a series or have any recommendations for getting started, please e-mail. And if you're just getting started yourself, I hope these suggestions will get you off to a better start.

Geoffrey Barto Creator