Best way to study Mandarin at home?
February 18, 2009 10:36 AM   Subscribe

Best way to study Mandarin at home, when I can spare 4 hours a day for 2 ½ months?

I’ve got about two and a half months until Baby CruiseSavvy is born, and am keeping a fairly relaxed schedule until then. I’d like to make good use of my time, and have settled on studying Mandarin as something that will be “constructive” and intellectually interesting.

I’m starting from a pretty basic level. I took a semester of Mandarin in college, which was a long time ago. For example, Chinese language television or even super-basic audio is completely lost on me. But I’m at least familiar with tones and how to look up characters in a dictionary.

Ideally, I’d like:
- Something I could do at home (waddle, waddle), and continue (though probably with less time) after the baby is born.
- ONE course/approach that I can focus on and that builds progressively, a one-stop-shop. Sets of disparate vocabulary lists and audio tapes and grammar books tend to frustrate me. Also, especially since I’m starting from a pretty basic level, I think I need something more structured than just a tutor who happens to speak both English and Mandarin. (I’ve had some bad language teachers waste my time in the past. I really want to avoid this.)
- Focus on the spoken language, though I’m open to studying simplified characters.

Money is an object, but not an insurmountable one. I couldn’t afford to hire a (good) tutor to come to my house, for example. But I could spend a few hundred dollars or more, especially if I saw something worked well for me. (I.e., I’d rather spend $100 and see that something’s good, then another $100 and see progress, then another, etc. … rather than $500 up front.)

I’ve looked through past MeFi posts and seen the recommendations for, but it’s not clear to me if it’s good as a one-stop-shop (which I really want) as opposed to just a set of supplements. Rosetta Stone also looks like it could be good. But I’d especially love to hear from people who have tried different options, and what you think of them as a primary resource.

Any suggestions? Xie xie!
posted by CruiseSavvy to Education (15 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
It's not everybody's cup of tea but I am enjoying the Michel Thomas French courses. I've learned far more than I did sitting in classrooms grade 7 to 10 or in the adult evening class I attended. I imagine the Mandarine follows the same format. It focuses almost entirely on spoken language.

They are divided up into different levels and can be found cheaper than they are offered here .
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:52 AM on February 18, 2009

Best answer: I just purchased Fluenz, which I don't think I've ever seen recommended in the past. It's a computer program that runs off a DVD, similar to Rosetta Stone.
I love the interface, the fact that they build vocabulary AND help you build your own sentences. It's available for both mac and PC.

I'm augmenting it with my own independent study of simplified hanzi. They teach pinyin to get you started immediately.

Here's an intro to their Mandarin program. You can even test drive a lesson there. Any questions, feel free to MeFi mail me.

Hope this helps!

- Bill
posted by willmize at 10:57 AM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's probably a long shot to think that you might own a shortwave radio- it's a great way to learn any number of languages. I studied Chinese via shortwave broadcasts from Radio Free China through my teen years (they even had free workbooks). They still broadcast this weekly program, but I could not find an online archive of the program. Maybe you can find a cheap shortwave radio on Craigslist.
posted by Piscean at 11:33 AM on February 18, 2009

I am both a language learner and language teacher, with Rosetta Stone experience, so here's my 2¢.

I am learning Japanese and I'm currently in the sixth of a series of classes at the local communtiy college. As part of my study I have used Rosetta Stone at the library, when it was available in many languages (it has since been withdrawn).

I also teach ESL and we use Rosetta Stone in the classroom. Contrary to what their advertising claims, I don't think it's the most effective way to learn a language, but it's useful as one component in your language learning program. If that's ALL you use, however, you'll encounter insurmountable obstacles, because they throw new concepts at you with no explanation, and you really need a teacher or native speaker handy to explain these new concepts.

My suggestion is, if possible, get back into your college (or its equivalent) and enroll in the next course in your sequence. Even if you're missing the beginning, the classroom structure (and the homework) are the best way for making progress. At least, that's been my experience -- I'm not self-motivated enough to keep at it by myself; getting distracted is too easy. Or maybe, you should hire a tutor.
posted by Rash at 11:43 AM on February 18, 2009

PIMSLEUR!!! I really think that Pimsleur hits all of your requirements.

It's CDs (you can also find audio downloads -- I got them illegally but you might be able to find them legally now) that you listen to for half an hour every day. There are three levels of thirty lessons each (so ninety days). You'll be so surprised at how much you can pick up, and it really helps you to think in the language which is so important for fluency.

I just listened to one of the Michel Thomas samples. From what I understand of the Michel Thomas method, Pimsleur is very similar except that you are the only student and it's organized in a more structured way so that you are building your understanding of how the language works systematically. Michel Thomas seems to me like three people talking about French -- here's how you say this, here's how you say that....
posted by thebazilist at 11:45 AM on February 18, 2009

I'd recommend the Pimsleur audio method. You should be able to find it online. There are 3 levels, each with 30 half-hour units each. (45 hours total) It's a great supplement for book study.

Put it on an mp3 player and go jogging with it. Be sure to vocalize along with the lessons.

I've used it for Russian and Spanish and its the closest thing to immersion I've found.

Even better, if you have some basic knowledge of Chinese already (seems like you do) and feel ready for a conversation partner, try to find one through Skype. is an example of a website that matches tutors with tutees. People either offer trades (English lesson for Chinese lesson) or charge a fee (often quite small, through paypal) for a set amount of conversation time.
posted by mammary16 at 11:52 AM on February 18, 2009

Best answer: I commented elsewhere about my experience with Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur.

For learning Mandarin, I highly recommend this curriculum available for free from MIT. I got to the level of "conversational", I'd say, taking Chinese I-IV at MIT, and I see now that the textbook we used is available for free on MIT's OpenCourseWare site.

The book was written by the head of the Chinese department, Julian Wheatley (now no longer there), an awesome sort-of-British, totally fluent in Mandarin and a million other languages, linguist. What I mean to say by that is that he knows a ton about the language on account of his linguistics training (and peppers the book with interesting little tidbits you can only learn from a linguist), and that as someone who learned the language himself once he was, I think, 21, he knows the particular hardships presented to native English speakers and how best to get over them. It's aimed primarily at making you conversant, rather than literate, and so it teaches primarily through Pinyin (the transcription system that uses our letters), rather than Chinese characters, though characters are taught in a parallel curriculum.

Sadly, the book is fragmented into different files and spread over different OpenCourseWare pages, but it IS all there. So if you go to the link above, and also go to the course sites for Chinese II, III, and IV linked to from the bottom, and click the "Readings" tab on the side for each course, you'll be able to see all the parts. I would recommend poking around the different web pages, gathering the PDFs into a folder, and then spending a couple books printing all several hundred pages at a Kinkos or something. The book is primarily Units 1-12, but there are supplementary units, and character units, and audio supplements, and all sorts of goodies on the OCW pages.

So my recommendation: Print off and use this textbook as a curriculum, and find a very cheap tutor or college student who you can just talk with. The textbook teaches primarily through dialogs, so you can memorize those, and converse with the Chinese person pretty easily on small topics. That is, they don't need to be good teachers or anything, just native speakers.
posted by losvedir at 12:14 PM on February 18, 2009 [8 favorites]

As a new student of Mandarin I like viewing the mandarin (esp. wǔxiá) movies on Netflix, but unfortunately, they don't have DVDs with hanzi subtitles, only English. Watching Mandarin-language shows with the hanzi subtitles is a rockin' way to pick up the language IMO, but of course requires fore-knowledge of the hanzi meanings. Since I know Japanese I have a big leg up here, so I also recommend devoting at least an hour a day to the characters.

Unfortunately, Heisig's book is out of print, and I don't know if there are Mandarin-targeted books that follow his method of ordering the simpler hanzi before the more complex.

At any rate, you should shoot for memorizing the meanings of 30 hanzi (single and within a useful word) a day.

6 days x 10 weeks would give you 1800, a solid basis that covers around 90% of daily usage.

I'm styling in my Mandarin 2 class, thanks to my knowledge of a lot of the hanzi as they are coming up. I ||shudder|| at the prospect of taking on Mandarin without knowing most of the characters already.
posted by troy at 12:22 PM on February 18, 2009

I've had the opposite experience from what losvedir had with Rosetta Stone. I am currently learning German with it and am picking it up quickly and easily. I can't express how amazing this is as I've never been able to learn another language successfully; this includes taking Spanish throughout elementary school, Latin during high school and other attempts at languages since, then including a very quickly abandoned attempt at Mandarin.

losvedir is right about not learning overly useful phrases immediately though. I wouldn't recommend it if you were trying to pick up a few phrases for a trip, but for learning a complete language I have never found anything that works better for me.

That said, German is much closer to English (my native language) than Mandarin and I've never tried Pimsleur, but I did a lot of research before I settled on Rosetta Stone and it works very well for me.
posted by thekiltedwonder at 1:03 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Another suggestion is byki.

I'm using it to learn Swahili - they do have 74 languages.
The basic version is free and downloadable from here
Check out their blog pages for Chinese here
- you can upgrade to more advanced levels for a smallish fee.

Works well for my needs
posted by jan murray at 2:34 PM on February 18, 2009

I saw this in Projects awhile back:
posted by 913 at 2:39 PM on February 18, 2009

Tim Ferris did a series of posts about learning languages. Some of his suggestions require immersion and leaving the house, but many others can suite you needs:
how to learn a language in three months, how to resurrect your high school Spanish, why language classes don't work.
posted by ye#ara at 2:45 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

The link I posted definitely didn't come up. Here it is (thanks IAmBroom!):

Watch to Learn Chinese
posted by 913 at 4:55 PM on February 18, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you! Great information.

Fluenz seems to be the most promising option for me and how I learn: the one-stop-shop, and the combination of visual and auditory cues. OCW looks like a great resource, but I doubt I'd go through it on my own, and I'm not excited about finding someone to come to my home. Maybe I'll check it out more when I'm ready to work on characters.

(I'm also pretty psyched to hear that there's a Michel Thomas Method Mandarin; I really enjoyed listening to his Spanish lessons. I'm sad the old guy passed on; he was a riot. Their course doesn't really progress very far, and doesn't have any visual component, but since it's cheap -- $35 on eBay for the 8 disc course -- I may give it a try as well.)

Any additional suggestions also welcome!
posted by CruiseSavvy at 9:05 PM on February 18, 2009

Congrats on the impending baby and language learning. Have you tried LiveMocha for Mandarin? It's 30 bucks or so for a premium expanded version but it's free for the basic stuff through their site. Check it out. They're other languages available too. Good luck!
posted by handabear at 9:00 AM on February 19, 2009

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