My Learning Method
Although I’m happy with my choice of materials as a self-learner, I wouldn’t consider the learning plan below as the ultimate starter’s kit to learning Mandarin. There are too many ways to learn any language and it would be unreasonable to think in absolute terms.
So, here’s my path so far:
THE FIRST THREE MONTHS
Pimsleur Comprehensive Chinese (Mandarin) I, II and III: the entire series of this audio course comprises of 90 lessons, each lasting 30 minutes. I recommend this at the very beginning of the journey, for it pays particular attention to correct pronunciation, albeit from a Beijinger’s perspective…you’ll be saying “na’r” instead of “nali”, “yi dian’r” instead of “yi dian”. I remember the first 1/2 hour lesson teaching me how to say something along the lines of: “Excuse me, do you speak English? I can speak a little Mandarin.” There is a great deal of emphasis on the tones, and by the end of the 90 lessons, one will be able to say: “My Mandarin will have gotten better next time we meet.” After the Pimsleur audio course, one will definitely acquire a decent feel for pronunciation and simple sentence construction. In three months, this is important progress for this language.
Pimsleur language lessons are available on audio CDs or as downloadable files. A quick google search will provide a large selection of websites offering the program.
THE WEEKS FOLLOWING THE PIMSLEUR AUDIO LESSONS
Although the Pimsleur program only pays attention to the audio component of Chinese Mandarin, it is very useful to familiarize oneself with the Pinyin writing system. Whether one is interested in eventually learning Chinese characters or not, anyone able to correctly interpret Pinyin will know exactly how to pronounce new words. Pinyin is therefore a must, if only for establishing the correct pronunciation of your rapidly growing vocabulary.
THREE MONTHS TO A YEAR…AND BEYOND
When I completed Pimsleur Mandarin Chinese I, II, and III, I realized how this audio program’s guidance had spoiled me. Pimsleur’s organized focus on core vocabulary and “graduated-interval recall” of newly acquired words made learning both fun and easy. Yet, this audio course could only go so far, and in taking my self-study to the next level, I used more than one resource:
1) chinesepod.com: this website offers podcast lessons from a handful of teachers. The difficulty levels include newbie, elementary, intermediate, upper-intermediate, advanced, and media. Although not as concise, and lacking the progressive approach of Pimsleur, this podcast website arguably constitutes the single greatest audio resource of Chinese dialogue of all levels. Lessons are free, but subscribers can pay for access to related pdf files, as well as expansion and review exercises. The grammar isn’t examined in depth, but certain grammatical concepts are mentioned according to the requirements of the dialogue. Chinese Pod can therefore be a useful supplementary tool for a decent grammar textbook.
2) Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar and Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar Workbook (both books by Claudia Ross are available on Amazon): this is an excellent grammar resource for lower-intermediate to more advanced learners. I’m not sure where I stand exactly on the spectrum of Chinese conversational skills, but I know for a fact that this book would not be ideal for someone just beginning to learn the language. A core vocabulary and some basic sentence structural know-how is helpful in working with this reader and its accompanying workbook. The grammar concepts are very well organized and are self-referencing, which allows one to hop from one chapter to another in order to further examine a specific concept. This books starts out as a valuable tool for understanding the basic grammar of Mandarin Chinese, and then as one improves in the language, it becomes a practical reference tool for a quick look-up of previously learned concepts.
3) The First 100 Chinese Characters: Simplified Character Edition (available on Amazon). The traditional character edition is also available, and to be honest, I don’t think it truly matters which edition you choose. The simplified and traditional versions are identical for many of these first hundred characters. This book’s most valuable asset is the way it teaches stroke order, and the practice grids allow you to work on the correct physical proportions of each character’s element. Without a teacher correcting you, using the grids is as accurate as it can get. Many character radicals are covered in this book, and so with enough writing practice, the subsequent addition of new characters should come by easier. It is therefore a solid introduction to Chinese character writing (a task that at first seems impossible).
4) Books from the John DeFrancis series — Beginning Chinese Reader: Second Edition (Parts I and II available on Amazon). I love this book and will champion it to no end. At first, I was a bit dismayed to learn that the majority of the characters covered is in the traditional form, but with no other character learning book even coming close to this bible, I bit the bullet and began learning traditional Chinese characters.
Beginning Chinese Reader does more than just introduce ten characters per lesson: it provides structural compounds, thereby strengthening one’s vocabulary. What separates this book from all the other character books and textbooks is the sheer amount of reading practice it offers. The bulk of this reader is comprised of dialogues and narratives, all in traditional characters. Providing a generous serving of actual character text to go along with new characters is the only way to truly commit these characters to memory. And yes, you will notice that your ability to visually retain characters far exceeds your ability to write them. Fear not, for this is supposedly very normal.
Not only does the large amount of text provide good character recognition practice, it also provides good reading practice. Deriving context from Chinese is very important to furthering your understanding of the language. It is akin to listening to Chinese conservations on a fairly fundamental level.
Here’s the fun part: Beginning Chinese Reader is followed by Intermediate Chinese Reader and Advanced Chinese Reader; each one of these levels comprises two books. Even if I practice reading through these on a daily basis, I’m betting that the entire series of six books will have taken a year of my time, or more.
5) Practice speaking, practice listening. In order to reinforce my progress, it’s always important to engage in conversation with the experts around me (and by experts, I refer to native speakers of Mandarin). Seizing every opportunity to speak Chinese with those who can speak it is the closest thing to living in China, so one needs to make the most of it.