VirginiaLynne is an educator with two adopted Chinese daughters. She has studied Mandarin and how to teach children about China.
This Article Includes:
My review of 6 excellent Chinese learning programs we've used over the past 10 years:
Lesson with Serge
Pimsleur Mandarin is the Best Place to Start, but you will want other materials to use alongside of it so you don't get bored.
These audio courses have been the backbone of my study and I think they are a great way to learn how to speak and get the tones intuitively.
Format: The Pimsleur method uses a unique immersion in conversation, repetition and a quiz format to teach. Paul Pimsleur devised a language learning method which is all auditory. Especially with a tonal language, a beginner needs to listen and practice trying to imitate the sounds over and over. The tapes are designed to focus on developing the ability to hear the sounds and to repeat the tones without having to think about them.
How the lessons work: Each lesson is 30 minutes long and consists of an English speaker saying words and phrases which are then spoken by a native speaker. There are pauses along the way for you to try to repeat the words and phrases. After a word or phrase has been repeated a few times there is a pause after the English speaker so that you can try to remember and repeat it.
Why this method works: One of the greatest aspects of Pimsleur over some of the other methods is that you are not expected to gain 100% mastery. Instead, you are advised to move on to the next lesson when you are answering around 80% of the phases correctly. The lessons are designed to come back and repeat previous material periodically so that your mastery gradually builds up more and more. I found that generally, this works. Sometimes I just could not remember certain phrases or had a hard time pronouncing certain words. When these words or phrases came back in later lessons, I generally was able to pick them up more easily.
Pros and Cons
- Limited vocabulary: There are about 500 vocabulary words in each level. However, I found that I was able to master those vocabulary words well and was not frustrated.
- Dull and repetitive: Which leads me to the biggest drawback of this program: it can be very dull to listen to over and over. Unfortunately, the quiz method means that no dialogue is very well developed and although they do have dialogues at the beginning of each lesson, these are for some reason never translated for you, although some of the material in them does relate to the lesson.
- Effective format: The question and answer format is very effective because it requires active listening. The whole course is basically in a quiz format, so it helps you to judge whether or not you do know the material.
- Learn at your own pace: Since there is no timeline for how fast you complete the lessons, you are free to spend as long as you need to master each one. Generally, the lessons seem to be paired in themes, and to make it more interesting, I tended to do two lessons a week, listening through both lessons before I went back to repeat the first one.
Unlike some of the Podcasts, Pimsleur is not free, but if you buy it used and then resell it when you are done, you can this course for under $50, which is a great bargain for about 15 hours of lessons. Recently, they added the possibility of downloading lessons also. For free you can try out the first lesson.
Conclusion: A Good Foundation
Pimsleur is a good foundation course but you will want other materials for variety to keep you interested and motivated in learning. It took me about a year to go through Mandarin I lessons 1-15. After going to China and realizing that I was learning how to speak, I came back much more motivated to learn and went through lessons 16-30 in just three months. Then I took another five months to finish Pimsleur 2 (while also doing ChinesePod and the podcasts by Serge Melnyk). I finished Pimsleur 3 in about 6 months. Finally, in preparation for a longer trip to China, I went back over the whole series and making sure I've mastered it 100% as well as working on my tones.
Fun listening format and lessons which go from newbie to advanced but too much English in early lessons.
Chinesepod Sample Lesson
ChinesePod offers hundreds of downloadable podcasts on iTunes for newbie, intermediate, and advanced learners. When we originally started listening, these were free but they are now charging a fee for some products as well as for optional online learning guides and support.
Fun and easy to listen to! Listening to the cultural facts and banter of hosts in the Newbie lesson, Ken (Irish linguist) and Jenny (native speaker), makes these podcasts a great break from the monotone style of Pimsleur.
Too much English and not as much Mandarin: However, you do have to listen to a lot of English before you get to the Chinese and this makes this program harder to recommend as the main tool for language learning. Like Pimsleur, ChinesePod tries to introduce Chinese by giving short phrases and dialogues which are repeated several times. However, there doesn't seem to be any progression as each lesson is mostly self-contained. Also, there is not the repetition which you need to build up vocabulary skills. They may do that in the advanced lessons, but not in the beginning ones.
Learn language and culture. Unlike the Pimsleur tapes which only give phrases in and translation, Ken and Jenny talk extensively about each of the words and phrases in the dialogues and explain what they mean. They also give many cultural facts and hints, like the fact that you should present your business card with two hands and receive one the same way. That fact would have helped me more in China if I had remembered to bring business cards with me in the first place; however, I did remember to take the cards that were given to me with both hands and to look at them carefully before putting them away (another Ken and Jenny cultural tidbit!).
Chinesepod vs. Pimsleur
Along with having a bit too much banter at times, ChinesePod lacks a systematic teaching curriculum and the lessons are rather short about ten minutes. Generally, the dialogues are thematic and sometimes there are several dialogues on the same theme, which is helpful, but there is less instruction on how to take the words in the dialogue and use them in other sentences.
ChinesePod and Pimsleur. However, learning with both of these programs at the same time is very useful. Many of the topics and vocabularies are similar but they do not completely overlap. So using both together helps you to expand and deepen your vocabulary. Moreover, since there are hundreds of ChinesePod dialogues to choose from, you can skip around to ones that are interesting to you. For a small fee, you can download transcripts of the dialogues. My husband paid the fee and downloaded all of the ones available in one month. He called and they said that was fine.
Conclusion: Takes Learning Further
ChinesePod offers a social network, transcripts, and advanced lessons. While Pimsleur does offer a better beginner curriculum, ChinesePod takes your language learning much further. I've mostly used just the newbie and beginner lessons, but they also offer intermediate and advanced Chinese podcasts that have much less English discussion. So eventually, when I'm ready, I will be able to learn Mandarin in an immersion environment. Even better, this program seeks to create a community of Chinese learners by offering a discussion board and other activities to get involved with as you learn. Using their transcripts also allows you to broaden your learning by studying the pinyin and characters. In conclusion, I think that this program is something you will want in your mix of lessons.
Lessons with Serge Melnyk
Serge Melnyk takes a great topical approach. Like ChinesePod, Mandarin Chinese Lessons are podcasts that can be found on iTunes for free. You can also download them from Serge's website.
Two great things are that the lessons contain a lot of vocabulary which is thematically organized, and Serge does a good job of enunciating the words clearly and explaining the meaning of each vocabulary word. If you want to learn a lot of vocabulary, then Serge is very helpful.
Transcripts: Like ChinesePod, Serge also offers transcripts of each lesson for a small fee. After I have listened to a lesson several times, I find that I can just take the transcript copies with me while I'm waiting somewhere and read them to help me study the words.
Not for beginners but great for learning topic-specific vocabulary. However, I don't think that Serge's program works well on its own because there is no systematic development of vocabulary and not enough repetition. I tried listening to Serge after I had done about 15 lessons in Pimsleur and I gave up after about lesson 3. There were just too many vocabulary words to remember and I got frustrated. This course is much more like a regular textbook course in Chinese and made me feel discouraged in the same way a course did. However, after I'd gotten through two courses in Pimsleur, I was able to come back and read the Serge lessons more easily.
Conclusion: Good Addition
Like ChinesePod, this course can help you expand your vocabulary in specific areas that you want to know more words. For example, I was very frustrated when we were ordering food in restaurants on our last trip because I kept on getting foods that were too spicy. Serge has a great lesson about describing the taste of food, and I especially appreciated learning how to say "bu la!" (not hot and spicy!). I definitely go to Serge to learn vocabulary about directions, riding in a taxi, using an internet cafe, and other specific topics.
Online gaming approach of Powerspeak lessons is fun for kids and a really easy introduction to the language.
There are a variety of apps or online lessons for language that usually use a similar format of stories to teach the language with pictures, video, audio, and text. Often these programs also teach cultural lessons. We used one that we found in our local library called Powerspeak. I enjoyed this type of learning but often didn't have time to sit down to do it; however, my kids thrived with this sort of instruction. Even though I'm not sure they learned a great deal of language instruction, it sparked their interest in learning Mandarin and made them feel they could learn.
Offers High School credit: I discovered that it can be purchased with a tutor for credit in some school districts. Two of my children took the Powerspeak program for their high school language credit. While neither of my children really became fluent while going through this program, they did learn enough to help us when we traveled through China as a family for seven weeks without a guide. Furthermore, this program gave my oldest daughter enough confidence and interest that she continued taking Mandarin in college and is now in a graduate program for International Studies with a Chinese emphasis.
How the program works: This program was similar to Rosetta Stone but incorporates English and Mandarin within the lessons rather than relying only on full immersion. The advantage of using both English and Mandarin is that Powerspeak eases you into the language learning situation and can explain both cultural and grammar clues clearly, similarly to ChinesePod.
Story-line format for teaching Chinese. Each unit starts with a story where a person who is learning Chinese encounters a situation where they can use the language. The story format is very effective in helping you imagine how you would use these words and also in helping you remember them.
English and Mandarin approach. What I like about the stories is that they include the people speaking in Mandarin, but they also have them speaking in English. That is a realistic situation for English speakers who are beginning Mandarin lessons. For the most part, beginners will be talking to Mandarin speakers who also speak English and we will be using our Chinese vocabulary as only part of our communication tools in any situation, more as a "practice" than really as a way of communicating information.
Familiar words Like most of these Chinese learning programs, Powerspeak starts by teaching how to greet people in the first lesson and how to talk about your family in the second lesson. After the user listens to the introductory story, they are taught the vocabulary by using simple computer games like matching, fill in the blanks, and sorting words into sentences.
Short lessons and audio recording feature. Each lesson is divided into very small units which makes it easy to use in small chunks. You can also listen to audio recordings of native speakers saying words and phrases and record yourself saying the phrases to see how closely you match the tones. There are virtual "flashcards" too. Powerspeak doesn't have the highly touted voice recognition software that is included in Rosetta Stone, but most reviews don't seem to suggest that works well anyway.
Use to supplement. What I do like about this system is that I can move through the lessons at my own pace and can listen to the audio of the speaker as many times as I want. Some words are harder to hear than others and it can get frustrating on Pimsleur or ChinesePod to have to go back and either listen to a whole lesson again for just a few words or else try to find those words and repeat them over and over. Powerspeak lets me pass by words I know I can say and focus on words I need to practice on.
A variety of common expressions. I've also enjoyed that this program teaches a lot of different ways to say the same thing. For example, all of the programs teach "Ni hao" (hello) in one of the first lessons, but Powerspeak also teaches you how to say good morning, good afternoon, good evening, good night, and goodbye. In Chinese these words are more different than in English, so they do not naturally go together as a group, but it is very useful to hear them together so that you can recognize that someone is greeting you with these different words.
Maybe too much for a beginner. As a person who has studied the language for a while, I appreciate expanding my vocabulary. However, I don't think that introducing all of these words in the first lesson of a program is very helpful. There is an overload of words that are used in the same way rather than words that help you continue in a conversation. In the first lesson of Pimsleur, you learn to say hello and then ask people if they can speak English. Surely that is the most useful thing a beginner language learner can know!
It helps teach pinyin. Although I think that online or app learning tends to go a bit too fast at times and might be tough to use as a starting tool for Chinese learning, I do believe it is a powerful way to reinforce and expand a person's language skills. Because it is a computer program and visual, it helps in learning the pinyin (characters are also included but not emphasized). I do find that after I know how to say the words, it helps me to remember them if I see them written down. The game format also adds some variety which can help motivate me to want to spend more time learning each day.
Conclusion: Closest to a Class
Powerspeak is more like taking a real class than the other programs. The program advertised as a way to learn Mandarin, and I think that it is more beginner-friendly than Serge but not the best place to start learning this language. This program has a systematic way of teaching language and plenty of opportunities for practice, but I don't think that it works as well as Pimsleur at teaching you how to speak. Probably that is because Powerspeak does work much more like a regular language class than the other programs and therefore has all of the disadvantages of classroom language learning: too many vocabulary words, not enough dialogue practice and more of a focus on learning visually (it is a computer program and not an audio one). However, if you want to earn credit for learning this language, you might find this course useful.
Phrase and Grammar Books
One final help for me has just been going through phrasebooks and grammar books. The ones I have used are:
- Essential Mandarin Chinese
- Streetwise Guide Emergency Chinese
- Schaum's Grammar Outline
Helpful supplements: These are not too helpful as starting tools but are very helpful as you deepen and broaden your understanding of Chinese. After you have done some basic language learning orally, these can help you put what you've learned together with what you already know about how English works. Unfortunately, I had a terrible time learning some of the very basic things, like how to count from 1-10, when I was listening to Pimsleur because they never do teach you how to count. They introduce one number, like san (3), and then use it throughout a couple of dialogues before introducing another random number like qi (7). Eventually, I knew all the numbers but had a hard time remembering them in order, or counting quickly.
Going through the grammar book helped me to put that together. Also, going through the section on prepositions helped me to understand what was going on with some of the phrases I was learning since Pimsleur doesn't explain how this works very well. For people who have a good background in their native language (I teach college English) grammar books can help you take what you already know and apply it to the language you are learning.
Phrase books helpful for travel. What I love about looking at the phrase books is that I can look for words and phrases I know I will need, circle them and learn them if I haven't been introduced to them in one of my lessons. When we go back to China next year, I'm planning to take notecards of some of the phrases I know I am going to want like: "Do you have any decaffeinated drinks?"
My favorite Grammar Guide
Can you teach yourself Mandarin? Yes! In fact, our experience is that we have learned more from studying Mandarin on our own than we ever did in taking language classes in college. Really remembering a language requires a lot of repetition. In a class, you are always needing to move on to the next list of vocabulary, whether you really learned the words or not.
- Study to learn, not just to pass a test: When you study on your own you can work at your own pace and make learning the goal, not just passing a test. In a class, you are generally relying on hearing just the teacher speak the words correctly, and you only hear the teacher in class.
- Take time to listen to native speakers: When you use audio study methods, you spend most of your time listening to native speakers talking, so you have much more of an immersion experience. Many tapes use several different speakers also, so you can hear different accents. However, studying on your own does take effort and can get boring.
- A variety of methods helps keep you motivated: I've found that it really helps to use a variety of materials to keep myself motivated. Whether you have a specific goal in mind for learning Mandarin, like a business trip or a vacation, or whether you want to make Chinese fluency your long-term goal, all of the products reviewed here will be helpful for you.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on February 18, 2016:
Hi Livetch! So glad to hear your story. Learning a language is always a challenge and a never-ending process!
Paul Levy from United Kingdom on February 18, 2016:
Thanks for your input on the challenge of learning Mandarin! I spent a lot of time formally learning and practising with real chinese people, meeting a few times a week. In my own time, pimsleur and chinese pod aided me for casual listening. It was amazing to listen back at some of the earlier lessons after some time to really see how far I'd developed my Mandarin
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on August 29, 2015:
timbo--thank you so much for adding your experienced review. I agree with all of your points. Pimsleur was also what ended up helping me learn the most, even though I found the tapes frustratingly boring at times (which is often why I would switch to something else for a while). Yet, what I did learn, I learned very well and people could understand me and my sentences flowed with a good "accent." I would recommend Pimsleur as the best way to start learning Chinese.
timbo on August 29, 2015:
Thanks for a review of quite a range of options!
Pimsleur is the only thing that has helped me progress because of its very clever spaced repetition. I've done all 4 levels and can say, after two trips to Beijing that it really works! Main drawback is the problem of looking up that forgotten word or phrase from some 20 classes ago: there is no (official) written text, so you can't!
Chinese Pod is fun, but I hardly remember anything; at best, it provided a 'soft start' with Mandarin and made it fun with plenty of cultural context. I tried using Pleco dictionary with flash cards to help memorise, and this did help a bit.
Melnyks is so old school with heaps of vocab, one word after another with no repetition: for me, this is utterly pointless as I recall ABSOLUTELY ZERO. Also, his pronunciation is not accurate: just as one example (of several I can quote), I can't always distinguish his pronunciation of 3rd tones (they are relatively flat), but have no problems when the native speaker talks, which is far too infrequently. The audio quality and professionalism of structure and production of Melnyks also is lower than Pimsleur or ChinesePod, so the audio presents extra hurdles. Further, his dialogues can be confusing as one person often plays all the roles, especially in the earlier lessons, so you lose track of 'person A' speaking vs. 'person B' or 'C' - why does he do this? I use Pleco dictionary with flash cards to help memorise, else I'd really recall zip, nada, ling2. Melnyks has so much potential and the topics with their dialogues are so valuable, just MUCH MUCH harder work than necessary, especially vs. Pimsleur. I have so little time for study, that this is so frustrating. If I had time, to progress after finishing Pimsleur Level 4, I'd want to create a Pimsleur like approach with Melnyks topics, but with a bit more emphasis on HSK vocab.
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on March 05, 2013:
Simonxie--You are absolutely correct that living in the Mandarin speaking environment is the best way, although I've met many people who have lived in a country for a long time and not really become very fluent in that language. You definitely need to want to learn and to practice regularly.
simonxie100 from Vancouver, Canada on March 05, 2013:
I am of Chinese descent. However our family were speaking a local Chinese dialect in S.E. Asia. It took me several years to learn to speak Mandarin. I think the best way to learn any language is living in the environment of the language, which is what I did past 10 years; lived in China. Along with improving my Mandarin speaking ability, it also helped me to better understand Chinese cultures in Mainland China.
My recommendation to learn any language well is to live in that language environment.
cindyak from Beijing on December 10, 2012:
That's a very informative hub! I myself learnt Chinese, but in China itself :P I studied Chinese back home for at least 3 years, but couldn't speak anything useful. And it took me only 1-3 months here to be able to maintain a conversation. I am still learning though!
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on August 21, 2012:
ChristinaAna--I have to admit that I have not tried the full version of Rosetta Stone in Mandarin or another language. I base my comments on the extensive reviews I've read about it online, especially the ones on Amazon. Apparently, the Rosetta Stone Mandarin is basically a translation of the European language programs, rather than one written specifically to teach Mandarin. The basic fault that people have with it comes from the fact that the vocabulary is not useful and it does not teach Mandarin as well as other systems. Plus, it is rather expensive and there are many free or lower cost items available. If you do use Rosetta Stone, I hope you will let me know how it works for you!
ChristinaAna on August 20, 2012:
Overall this article was very informative; however I would have to disagree with you on the fact that Rosetta stone isn’t the best way to learn languages. At least for languages like Spanish and French I would highly suggest it. The way it fully immerses you in the language allows for a full grasp of both the structure and sound. For mandarin what exactly is the difference between Rosetta stone and the other programs? I am thinking of buying one for both mandarin and Japanese however I can’t decide which learning software would be the best. What do you suggest for Mandarin and Japanese?
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on July 28, 2012:
Thanks for looking into this Michael.
MIchael on July 28, 2012:
Pimsleur Mandarin I has about 175 words, NOT 500.
Possibly 500 for the entire three part series, I haven't counted II and III
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on July 27, 2012:
Michael--I don't remember where I got the specific information about 500 words per Pimsleur level. I tried to see if it was on the Pimsleur website, but I couldn't find it there now. Wikipedia does say 500 words per level but I doubt I checked it there. I believe I got that from the person who did transcripts of the Pimsleur program. Pimsleur had him take those down. However, I should say that I recently found a transcript of level one elsewhere on the Internet. Having a transcript of each lesson is fabulous for helping you retain information and I don't know why Pimsleur doesn't provide this.
Michael on July 27, 2012:
500 words per level? Really? Do you have a word list? Honestly, I am doing the program and I find it very hard to believe there are 500 words per level. Can you verify, please?
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on January 27, 2012:
Hi Mike--that Mandarin 1 transcript is one I found only after I'd finished I, II and III. Wish I'd had it sooner. Apparently Pimsleur makes him pull it off periodically. I really don't understand why they don't make the transcripts available. I have had to relearn some words which were pictured in my head phonetically--and I had to learn them in pinyin. However, I still think Pimsleur gives you the best head start on this difficult language. Pinyin is actually not that hard. You can find a phonetic list in any of the small guidebooks. I believe I have a few on this hub. I really have found the small guidebooks (phrasebooks) are very helpful in practicing my phrases. You will be surprised at how much you actually know! The other good tool is Schaums's Outlines of Chinese Grammar by Claudia Ross. It would be terrible to START Chinese with this but after you know some things, Chinese Grammar helps you understand the rules of some of the grammar you already know. Also, the podcasts of Chinese Pod and Serge have pinyin and characters if you buy the worksheets. Good Luck!
Mike H on January 27, 2012:
I have been working through the Pimsleur Coarse and think it is great - although I keep having to go back as I seem to forget words pretty quickly. I have found a transcript for Mandarin I on the net (Eric Nishio on www.self-learner.com) but would love the equivalent for parts II and III. I need to get my head around the pinyin phonetics and also start to learn some characters. Do you know where I can find these? Regards Mike
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on December 07, 2011:
Hi Adam--sorry for the confusion. Rosetta stone is the most highly publicized program for languages but I don't think it is the best, especially for Chinese. So basically, I'd say use these instead.
Adam on December 07, 2011:
Hello - I am a little confused. You say vs rosetta stone. Does this mean you suggest doing this instead of rosetta stone, or alongside, or something else?
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on June 28, 2011:
You again have a great question. I've looked and can't find a small guide that for sure has traditional characters, but we have a larger book McGraw-Hills Chinese Dictionary and Guide to 20,000 essential words which does have both traditional and simplified characters. This is more like a dictionary though. I think I'll add it to my list.
visionandfocus from North York, Canada on June 28, 2011:
Hi again! I watched another podcast and realised they use 'simplified' characters exclusively, and wonder if the Essential and Rough Guides also use the 'simplified' characters as opposed to 'traditional' characters? That would be a problem for me, as I learned the 'traditional' characters as a child and can't read the 'simplified' ones. I guess I'm really looking to learn Taiwanese Mandarin as opposed to Mandarin from Mainland China. Sorry to be a nuisance! I know you already said you're learning it to be able to communicate in China, but I just haven't had any luck finding useful/instructive books with the traditional characters.
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on June 28, 2011:
Hi! Thanks for reading the hub and I'm glad you like the podcast--as you know, studying Mandarin can be tedious and I sure have found humor helps me keep motivated. I'm hoping I can list myself as "Intermediate" in a year or so! I can't find my copy of the Rough Guide--my husband may have it at the office. But Essential Mandarin by Periplus and Streetwise Guide Emergency Chinse by Foreign Language4s Press both have characters. Essential has pinyin and I just noticed that Streetwise doesn't use pinyin but sort of an English sound-alike text--which wouldn't be for a language learner but might be better for a newbie traveling. Great question!
visionandfocus from North York, Canada on June 27, 2011:
Awesome hub! Very useful for someone hoping to learn Mandarin. I'm more an intermediate than a beginner, and would like to know if the phrasebooks you recommend above (the Essential and the Rough Guide ones) have the Chinese characters or only the English pinyin? Also, is it necessary to get all the Rough Guide ones (I see that you've put no. 3 up) or is there a lot of overlap with the Essential one?
Btw, the podcast on your You Can Learn Mandarin! hub is absolutely hilarious!