I've had a few friends asking me about learning Chinese and what I've found works and doesn't work. I was answering a question on a mailing list today and I thought I should post this info where it might be useful to many. The question that was initially asked was whether Rosetta Stone was useful but I've provided much more info on learning the language here.
I’ve used Rosetta Stone with Chinese but it’s really hard to
know whether to recommend it or not. Rosetta Stone works the same way in all
languages. They show you photos and then let you both see and hear the target
language and get you to work out what they’re talking about. The thinking is
that that’s how children learn. However, at first, I found it very frustrating.
I’d be staring at photos trying to work out what they were really trying to get
at. Sometimes it’s far from obvious. I could not have survived without Google
Translate open at the same time. The other weird thing is that the photos are
from a mixture of countries. While that’s good in a way, it also means that
they are endlessly showing pictures of something that would never happen in the
target language and culture.
For any language, constant interaction with a speaker of the
target language is needed. Rosetta Stone has a “Studio” option. That’s the best
part of the program. In my case, it lets me connect around twice a week to a
live online class from Beijing. Classes usually have the teacher plus two to
four students. You get some Studio access with the initial packages but need to
purchase it for ongoing use. I find it very inexpensive. It seems to work out
to about $70 (AUD/USD) for six months. That’s a real bargain.
The other downside to Rosetta Stone is that they tend to teach
very formal language, but as with other languages, that’s not how the locals
speak. It might have been
correct at one point but no-one actually says that. As an example, Rosetta
Stone teach Gōnggòng qìchē (pronounced roughly like “gong gong chee
chure” for bus. Most of my friends from areas like Taiwan would just say Gōngchē. Google Translate says Zǒngxiàn
(pronounced somewhat like “dzong sheean”) instead. Mind you, the Rosetta Stone option isn't really as bad as "omnibus"; it's more like saying "public bus". If you say the option they provide, people would understand you.
I also listen to ChinesePod in the car. They also have
SpanishPod. Each podcast is about five minutes of spoken conversation. It is
very good for providing current language.
Another resource I use is local Meetup groups. Most cities have
these and for a variety of languages. It’s way less structured (just standard
conversation) but good for getting interaction.
The obvious challenge for Asian languages is reading/writing.
The input editors for Chinese that are part of Windows are excellent. Many of
my Chinese friends speak fluently but cannot read or write. I was determined to
learn to do both. For writing, I’m talking about on a computer, not with a pen.
(Mind you, I can barely write English with a pen nowadays). When using Rosetta
Stone, you can choose to have the Chinese words displayed in pinyin (Wǒ xǐhuan xuéxí zhōngguó) or in Chinese characters (我喜欢学习中国) or
both. This year, I’ve been forcing myself to just use the Chinese characters. I
use a pinyin input editor in Windows though, as it’s very fast. (The
character recognition input in the iPad is also amazing). Notice from the
example that I provided above that the pronunciation of the pinyin isn’t that
obvious to us at first either. Since changing to only using characters, I
find I can now read many more Chinese characters fluently. It’s a major
challenge though. I can read about 300 now and yet you need around 2,500 to be
able to read a newspaper fairly well.
Tones are a major issue for some Asian languages. Mandarin has
four tones (plus a neutral tone) and there is a major difference in meaning
between two words that are spelled the same in pinyin but with different tones.
For example, Mǎ (3rd tone马) is
a horse, Mā (1st tone妈) is like “mom”, and ma (neutral tone吗) is a question mark
and so on. Clearly you don’t want to mix these up. As in English, they also
have words that do sound the same but mean different things in different
contexts. What’s interesting is that even though we see two words that differ
only by tone as very similar, to a native speaker, if you say the right words
with the wrong tone, you might as well have said a completely different word.
My wife’s dialect of Chinese has eight tones. It’s much worse.
The reason I’m so keen to learn to read/write Chinese is that
even though the different dialects are pronounced so differently that speakers
of one dialect often cannot understand another dialect, the writing is
generally the same. The only difference is that many years ago, the Chinese
government created a simplified set of characters for some of the most commonly
used ones. Older Chinese and most Cantonese speakers often struggle with the
This is the simplified form of “three apples”: 三个苹果
This is the traditional form of the same words: 三個蘋果
Note that two of the characters are the same but the middle two
are quite different.
For most languages, the best thing is to watch current movies in
the target language but to watch them with the target language as subtitles,
not your native language. You want to know what they actually said, not what it
roughly means (which is what the English subtitle would give you). The
difficulty with Asian languages like Chinese is that you have the added
challenge of understanding the subtitles when they are written in the target
language. I wish there were Mandarin Chinese movies with pinyin subtitles.
For learning to read characters, I also recommend HSKReview on the
iPad. It is targeted at the HSK language proficiency levels. (I’m intending to
take the first HSK exam as soon as I’m ready).
Hope that info helps someone get started.