Eleven days ago, I decided to take a short break from Italian and learn a little Mandarin from the sample lessons sent to me by a representative at The Pimsleur Method. Yesterday, I completed those lessons and today I will share my thoughts.
UPDATE: Read my recent review of Rocket Chinese too.
First, I think it's important to cover some basic information about Mandarin, because I think it's important to understand how the subject relates to the methods used to teach it. So here are some details about Mandarin. Some of you may already know this stuff, and others may find it new and interesting.
The Mandarin language is not phonetic. There is no alphabet and no way to "sound out" a word. The writing system consists of characters which equate one-to-one with spoken words. For this reason, there is nothing to be gained or lost by learning Mandarin from CDs, without printed materials, and that was a large part of my reason for choosing Mandarin for this experiment.
After four hours of audio lessons (many of which I listened to twice), I had an interesting realization about the lack of phonetic markers: there seems to be no line between vowels and consonants! Instead of vowels and consonants, there are merely sounds. And once I realized that, everything became a bit more clear.
Mandarin is a tonal language, meaning that the same exact sound can mean completely different things depending on whether you say it with a high tone, a low tone, a rising tone, or a falling tone. For example, the sound "ch" means "to eat" with a low tone, but with a high, falling tone it means "to go". (In actuality, there seems to be a little more subtlety to it, like a fuller mouth in "to eat" and a more palatalized sound in "to go", but I only hear those things as a result of my experience with Russian.)
In summary, it's new, it's interesting, and it's challenging for a person whose language experience is mostly Indo-European. Which leads me to the next important point...
I had absolutely no knowledge of Mandarin prior to this experiment. I knew "nee how" means hello, and I knew there were some tones associated with saying it, but that was the absolute extent of my knowledge before this. This was a very important part of my choice, because I wanted to judge Pimsleur as fairly as possible. It wouldn't be accurate if I already knew the basics.
With that mindset, it became very clear that the Pimsleur materials are intended for exactly that type of person: an absolute beginner. If I had tried this experiment with a Germanic or Vulgar Latin language, I fear I would have been utterly bored and would have wasted 8 otherwise productive hours.
And speaking of 8 hours, I was a bit confused by the fact that there are only 8 half-hour lessons, on four CDs, when the web site says "learn to speak in 10 days". I suppose they're assuming everyone will have to play back at least two lessons a second time.
The lessons are made up of an English-speaking host, who gives the instructions and explanations, a female Mandarin-speaker who is presumably a native, and a male Mandarin-speaker who is presumed to be the language learner visiting China.
To be perfectly honest, I expected to completely hate this product, so I was surprised to find there were a few things I liked about it. However I do suspect they are specific to learning Mandarin, and not likely to apply to other languages.
The lessons included a few words that sound very similar, but which are definitely different. Nothing illustrates the importance of tones better than useful examples of same words with different tones. The "ch" example above is a good one. They also used several examples with the sound "narr", which asks "where?" with a rising tone, but answers "there" with a falling tone.
There is a lot of repetition. With a language as new and strange (and seemingly difficult) as Mandarin, that repetition is good. And it's spaced, and changed, which really does help to get you thinking of each word's meaning, rather than memorizing and repeating phrases like some kind of robot. I expect, however, that this same amount of repetition would have been frustratingly tedious with an Indo-European language.
The speakers actually speak somewhat fast. I was pleased to notice that they're not speaking at a deliberately slow pace to be easily understood. Hearing the conversations spoken at a more natural pace forces you to a better level of comprehension.
The host is irritating. Not only does he talk too much, but he's also very patronizing. I feel like a five year old being spoken to by my mother, rather than feeling like an adult who is taking on the challenge of learning a new language.
And about all that talking, I understand that this is intended for beginners, but there is still far too much English in my opinion. I would have been much happier with less English narration, and more examples of Mandarin speech.
In fact, why are there only two, clear-spoken Mandarin speakers? Give me some examples from different regions. If I go to China, I'm not likely to meet a professional voice-over actor in a quiet room... I'm much more likely to meet a mush-mouthed drunk, mumbling on a crowded street while holding a cigarette between his lips. Why don't language programs ever include that guy?
I can ask where something is, or what a person wants to eat, but I'm not likely to understand the answer. Clearly this is not an advanced course, but the phrase "learn to speak in 10 days" implies a certain conversational ability that isn't realistic unless you hand people a script in advance, before initiating a conversation.
And that leads me to one really huge irritation: Why do I need to know how to say "long pee street"? Do people in China all just stand around on a long street, peeing all day? Pimsleur teaches you how to say "long pee street" in lesson three, but you don't even learn how to ask for a tea or a beer until lesson 7!
In fairness, perhaps the host is saying "pea", and not "pee", but that's the problem with audio-only lessons, now, isn't it? You really need to be more clear. And even if it's "pea", it's still a piece of information that isn't helpful at all to an absolute beginner. I don't want to know "long pea street" or "college road" until long after I've learned more basic things like "restroom" or "taxi" or how to count to 10... all of which were missing from these lessons.
In total, I can admit that I actually appreciate the easy start that I got with Mandarin from this program. In spite of my language-every-year confidence, I was fairly intimidated by Mandarin, and after eight half-hour lessons I fear nothing. The grammar is quite easy, and the tones aren't nearly as difficult as I feared they might be.
With that said, after completing the entire 4-CD course over 8 days, I have a vocabulary of only approximately 50 words, and that's far too inefficient for me. I know from experience that I can learn upwards of 25+ words per day when I first get started in a new language.
Going into an intimidating new language with no previous knowledge, I can actually see a benefit to this program. However, if I were not an absolute, complete, total beginner with a language, I would never be tempted to waste a minute on Pimsleur. I think I could learn infinitely more by spending 4 hours on Google.