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My Modified, Beginner, Pimsleur Approach to Learning Chinese


James3

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I'm pretty new here, but wanted to share the approach I've gradually worked out for learning Chinese via self-study.

 

First off, I'm using The Pimsleur Method. And originally, I was trying to follow their advice of not writing anything down, and not consulting any outside resources. This meant no textbook, no internet searches, no taking notes, just strictly listening to my 1/2 hour lessons, one at a time, and trying my best to mimic their pronunciation.  After all, they're trying to mimic or replicate the environment a kid grows up in, of hearing language spoken long before being able to read or write, yet picking up langauge anyway.  (I've confirmed with several people from China that most of them didn't begin learning Pinyin or Chinese characters until they went to school.)  Using the strategy Pimsleur recommends, I stay on a particular 30 minute lesson until I can answer 80 to 85% of all the questions correctly.

 

Very early on (i.e., like the first few lessons) I found a language exchange partner from SharedTalk.com. At first, we mainly spoke English. And every now and then I would interject something I remembered from my lessons. She would correct me, and ensure I was using the right tones. By the way, my thinking on getting a language exchange partner before I could really even speak much Chinese at all, was to get to know someone well, and become friends with them, so I could gradually begin to learn about Chinese culture and become comfortable with someone from China, all the while my proficiency was very, very slowly improving. Also, to be honest, I had this fear that if I learned Chinese totally in isolation, using self-study, that I might have a rude awakening when I first tried speaking with a native speaker. Kind of like, discovering that the Chinese I had learned wasn't in fact real life Chinese after all. So, finding a language exchange partner very early on calmed those fears, as well set me up to become really good friends with someone from China!

 

Well, it eventually got old not being able to remember Pimsleur's explanation for a new word (i.e., when they would describe the tone(s)). I could seldom remember the tone(s). Instead, I just memorized the general feel and flow of their speech.  But it got old how often my language exchange partner had to correct me.

 

So, I started yearning for a way to write down or key in the new words I was learning, along with its tone(s), so I could memorize it. But I wasn't learning how to read or write Chinese!  How was I going to pull that off?  And that's when I discovered that simply doing a search like this could often net me the spelling of the word in Pinyin, as well as the tone marks:

 

mandarin how to say grandaughter

 

(I started to use double quotes to signify what I searched for, but didn't - lest it appear that I actually typed double quotes when I did the search.  I know everyone knows how to use Google, but sometimes it's just nice to see a visual aid, so I'm attaching one showing this search and the result I got.)

 

So now, when I listen to my Pimsleur lesson, I do searches for everything they talk about, and I do screen prints of my search results. That way, as I'm listening to my lesson, I eventually have screen prints in front of me...showing how every word is spelled, as well as the tone marks. But just like English, there's obviously several ways to say certain things in Mandarin, so sometimes the search results show a different way to say something, but it's seldom enough that this method seems to work.

 

When I first started listening to Pimsleur lessons, I don't think I had the patience for this approach. But after making so many of the same mistakes on the phone with my langauge exchange partner, it was getting embarrassing that I couldn't remember her coaching on how to pronounce something. One would think between my Pimsleur lesson, and my language exchange partner's coaching, I'd memorize things. And some I did. But some words just seemed to escape memorization.  So, over time I slowly evolved into really wanting the luxury of being able to see the Pinyin (and the tone marks.)

 

Now, when I have a language exchange session, I've already had the luxury of practicing how to say something, knowing full well what the tones are, instead of just trying to remember Pimsleur's modeling of the correct pronunciation. I still believe, by the way, that simply following their approach and not ever seeing the spelling or the tone marks gets you pretty far along, but I'm such a perfectionist...and it just wasn't cutting it for me, not knowing how something was spelled...or what the tone marks were. Also, maybe someone with a better memory than me wouldn't need to have the visual aids I have by now grown dependent upon.

 

Then my language exchange partner had to spend a few weeks in the hospital. She's much better now, but in the mean time, I discovered the importance of not depending on just one person for my practice.  That's when I learned about MyLanguageExchange.com, ConversationExchange.com, and LanguageForExchange.com. By now I've found 3 more language exchange partners (one from each), to help ensure I never am without someone to practice. I'm trying to more fully immerse myself in hearing Chinese. Even though I don't always understand what they're saying, I am hearing more Chinese now. We spend half of the time speaking English, and the rest of the time going over my current lesson. Sometimes I've even taken a stab at writing down all the questions asked by my current Pimsleur lesson, as well as the answers...and then I copy/paste each question/answer pair onto Skype, so my language exchange partner can see what I'm practicing. If I couldn't find the Pinyin via a Google search, then I just try to write the Mandarin phonetically. They laugh, but figure out what I'm trying to signify with my phonetic spelling. For example, if my search for mandarin how to say juice netted another word besides the one I heard Pimsleur use, I would spell juice like "gwa jure" so I knew what I was talking about.

 

You know, it seems like when you have an emotional investment in something, it makes you more committed. I mean, getting to know several of my language exchange partners quite well...has taken Chinese from being something strange and foreign I was trying to learn by listening to audio lessons...to making it come alive, and now via my emotional connection with my new friends, I yearn to speak Mandarin even more, so I can talk with them in their mother tongue.

 

My plan is to continue with this approach, until I complete all my Pimsleur lessons. Then, I'll begin reviewing them, starting over with Mandarin I, Unit 1. At some point, I plan to focus on ensuring I have the Pinyin for every single word in every single lesson.  I also want to begin to put together a spreadsheet of all the words and phrases and questions I'm learning. And then I'll begin memorizing the Pinyin.

 

Eventually, I hope to learn the Chinese Characters in the same fashion - beginning with Mandarin I, Unit 1, all the way up through Mandarin IV Unit 30.  And I'll ensure I'm learning the right thing by again sharing this with my language exchange partner(s), so they can confirm I'm on the right track. Every now and then Google makes a mistake, and it's nice to have native speakers to catch that.

 

At some point, after I've gone through all my Pimsleur lessons several times, I fully expect the Chinese I've learned to become more ingrained in my mind.  I'm in I/T, and I kind of compare my learning curve, and my fluency, with data storage. For example, at this point, my memory of the words, and phrases, and questions, is kind of like stored on tape. When I need to access it...it's hardly spontaneous and quick. (It's like years ago, when you submitted a payroll job, which accessed data on tape. You had to call operations and ask them to mount a tape, so the job could run. Until operations found the tape, walked over to the tape drive and mounted it, the job couldn't proceed.)  The next step...will be to at least get all that vocabulary, and all those questions and answers, and phrases, onto disk. This data access will of course be faster than it being on tape. Using my analogy again, you don't have to wait for operations to mount the stinkin' tape - because your data is on disk.  But eventually, I'll of course want all that data (i.e., words, phrases, questions and answers, and basically just "language") to be resident in memory. Every programmer knows that the fastest code is that which stays resident in memory. Every native speaker takes for granted that their langauge, for the most part, is resident in memory. Sure, there's the occassional search you have to do, to jog your memory on how to spell something. But generally speaking, native langauge is quite handy and available for use. That's all of our challenge...as we're learning Chinese...to get more and more of it to be right there, on the tip of our tongue, when we need to use it.

 

At some point, I want to tackle Rosetta Stone levels 1 thru 5, and finally, I want to take a course at one of my local community colleges.  If I had the money, and the luxury of taking the time off, I'd enroll in one of the many language immersion courses in China. But alas, back to reality, lol, I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon.

 

You know, I have certainly realized there's no single best way to learn Chinese; there's a lot of approaches and methods out there. But if anyone has any comments about the approach I'm using, or suggestions on how I could improve it, I'd be forever grateful. I've shared my approach in such detail, on the chance that there might be even one little thing that a beginner (like me about a year ago) could find helpful.

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If I couldn't find the Pinyin via a Google search, then I just try to write the Mandarin phonetically. They laugh, but figure out what I'm trying to signify with my phonetic spelling. For example, if my search for mandarin how to say juice netted another word besides the one I heard Pimsleur use, I would spell juice like "gwa jure" so I knew what I was talking about.

I'd recommend you take a bit of time to systematically learn the rules of pinyin spelling - there aren't all that many of them, and once you learn them you won't likely forget them, what with all the practice you'll be getting.

 

Learning pinyin will:

a) Help you to understand a little more about Mandarin phonetics (e.g. "sh" is different from "x", "ü" is different from "u" (except for "ju", "qu", "xu", "yu" which are phonetically "jü" "qü" "xü" "yü"), the "e" in "se" is different from the "e" in "ye" etc.)

b) Mean that you can make a reasonable stab at spelling out the pinyin for a word from just hearing it - of course, this also involves listening skill, but simply knowing pinyin is half the battle

c) Most importantly, mean that when you've remembered the pinyin spelling for something, you've also remembered the pronunciation. I don't think it's all that much help to know "Ruìshì" for "Switzerland" if the letter sequence "ruì" means "roo-ey" and "shì" means "shee" to you. If anything, knowing the pinyin here would actually do more harm than help to your pronunciation, if you didn't know what the letters represented.

 

Anyway, here's one potentially helpful source:

http://www.yellowbridge.com/chinese/pinyin-rules.php

For some reason they have "ü" written as "ū", which is incorrect. The English explanations are approximations - whilst they may be helpful, don't use them as a crutch. The sound files are much more useful.

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It's pretty tough to learn how to pronounce things properly when you haven't properly learned all the phonemes in the language. Once you've learned to pronounce and hear each combination in the pinyin chart well, it'll be much easier to recognize and emulate new sounds properly. Also don't think of pinyin as purely phonetic, it's not. Each combination of initials and finals represent a different sound.

 

If you haven't learned the sound individually, your brain probably doesn't know how to hear it (something about pattern matching in our brain that matches a sound to it's closest known equivalent, helps us to understand people speaking with different accents).

 

It's well worth the time spent focusing on pronunciation and pinyin at the beginning of your studies, instead of spending a much larger amount of time later undoing learned mistakes.

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Demonic_Duck and lechuan, thanks for your feedback. Reading your replies convinces me I need to get serious about learning pinyin, and all that it entails. I've got some work to do.  It seems like the pinyin rules on yellowbridge.com would be a good place to start. I bet I could even engage my language exchange partners to help me learn it. And I'll check out the reviews on Amazon for Rosetta Stone as well.

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Don't bother. Rosetta Stone is not worth the money, even if it were free. It's awful.

 

For learning pinyin, I still haven't found anything to be as good as the FSI Pronunciation and Romanization module. I'd recommend starting off with that. Print out the relevant section of the text and download the 6 "tapes," and you're good to go. By the time you finish (a week or two should be plenty), provided you put in the required time and effort, your pinyin will be pretty solid. After that, you just need a way to type it, and your Chinese friends won't laugh at you any more.

 

IMO, you're absolutely right to focus on mastering the sounds of the language first. A solid knowledge of pinyin will give you a system with which to categorize what you're hearing and produce it yourself. A half-baked knowledge of pinyin will probably do more harm than good.

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I agree, learning pinyin would be helpful. It's not difficult and it gives you an immensely useful tool (and your language partners won't laugh at you anymore :-) ). Personally I also recommend drilling the tones for a bit, just go mā má mǎ mà, shī shí shǐ shì for a while. You're right to be a perfectionist about tones, it's important to get them right.

You know, it seems like when you have an emotional investment in something, it makes you more committed. I mean, getting to know several of my language exchange partners quite well...has taken Chinese from being something strange and foreign I was trying to learn by listening to audio lessons...to making it come alive, and now via my emotional connection with my new friends, I yearn to speak Mandarin even more, so I can talk with them in their mother tongue.

I like this statement. I agree that speaking Chinese with people you know makes it less of a 'foreign' language, instead of something exotic it becomes the language you talk to Daisy and Tingting etc with, and it makes you more comfortable speaking it because you associate it with friendly exchanges.

Have you also considered learning some characters? Perhaps it's a bit too much to add that at the moment, but you could consider starting them slowly. If you're serious about learning Chinese, you need to learn them sooner or later.

Lastly, I don't necessarily agree that it's better to 'learn like a child'. We're not children anymore, our brains aren't that good at picking up languages, and even children don't learn from a tape. Might as well use the brain we have to learn with the help of pinyin and grammar and explanations why it's méiyǒu and not *bù yǒu. Also keep in mind that it easily takes children 3-4 years to get somewhat conversational, that's not really very fast.

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For learning pinyin, I still haven't found anything to be as good as the FSI Pronunciation and Romanization module. I'd recommend starting off with that. Print out the relevant section of the text and download the 6 "tapes," and you're good to go. By the time you finish (a week or two should be plenty), provided you put in the required time and effort, your pinyin will be pretty solid.

Looks like a great resource, though a bit dated ("[pinyin] may well represent the wave of the future [for Chinese writing]"...) Either way, it looks better than the yellowbridge one I posted - both in comprehensiveness and accuracy.

 

Personally I actually learnt pinyin/basic Mandarin phonology from "Teach Yourself Complete Mandarin Chinese". I remember my girlfriend at the time taking the piss out of me imitating the sounds on the CD ("wu, wa, wo, wai, wei, wan, wen, wang, yu, yue, yuan, yun...") but it worked out for me - I think my pronunciation was actually pretty decent from then on, despite the fact that I couldn't really say much at that time beyond "你好,我是英国人".

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OneEye, thanks for the link to the FSI Pronunciation and Romanization module. Frankly, there are so many resources out there, that I didn't quite know which one to take a look at.  It helps to get a recommendation. Like you say, this should help give me a solid knowledge of Pinyin.

 

Lu, you're right there - I could certainly benefit from doing some drills with the tones. My language exchange partners have helped me some with this, but more practice never hurt anyone. And I've thought a few times about beginning to learn some characters, but honestly have put it off. Maybe one or two, here and there, could be something I could manage.  And funny you should bring up when to use méiyǒu versus bù, because one of my Chinese friends answered that question just the other day, in response to me getting an answer wrong from my Pimsleur lesson.  So yea, it really helps to have a native speaker to work with. They're also slowly teaching me some grammar as well. Now if I can just learn Pinyin...

 

Demonic_Duck, thanks for comparing the yellowbridge resourse with the FSI one. It's always frustrating when you have to choose between 2 resources, and have no idea which one is better. And thanks for mentioning Teach Yourself Complete Mandarin Chinese. I'm looking at it on Amazon now.  I see there's a version with only the book, versus the book and 2 CDs.  By the way, that's great that you learned pinyin and basic Mandarin phonology from a self-study resource. It gives me hope, lol.

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Chinesepod has a decent flash app with all combinations of pinyin you will ever encounter in all tones: http://chinesepod.com/tools/pronunciation. Check it out for a couple minutes to see if it's something you would find useful.

 

The pinyin will really help you will Pimsleur. Even if you have a good ear, there will be a few words you thought you've learned but haven't. Once you read the pinyin and understand the actual pronounciation, you will give yourself a slap.

 

e: also, I have a transcribed copy of each Pimsleur lesson with pinyin and hanzi. These transcriptions were made by a student of the program, so they are free and legal as far as I know. If I can find them online, I'll post them here for you.

 

e2: a quick google search reveals they aren't legal or, if they are, they aren't available anymore due to legal threats. sorry!

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Lao Che, thanks for the ChinesePod link. This seems promising as well. Yeah, there's been some lessons that, until I get on the phone with my language exchange partner, I totally had the wrong idea about the consonant(s) they were using in some new word(s). Knowing Pinyin would probably lessen the number of times I hear the wrong thing.

 

Thanks for looking for the transcribed copy of each Pimsleur lesson. Too bad some lawyers probably made them take it down.

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I definitely agree with all of the above with the importance of learning pinyin... And I would second Lao Che's ChinesePod pronunciation section recommendation. This is what I started with and I think it made a huge difference in how easily people understand me compared to my fellow foreign friends. There is a downloadable pinyin chart on that page, as well as a guide for each part of the pinyin chart (they split it up into lessons), and the guide is really helpful. What I did when I was starting out was download the pinyin chart and go through guide, recording myself and then playing it back and comparing it with the native pronunciation (you can click anywhere on the chart and the sound will play). I did all of this without really worrying about tones, then I went back, after I got all of the pronunciation down and applied the tones.

 

One thing that helped my brain understand the concept of tones in the first place was this: If you download the pinyin chart, you can go into the audio folder that has all of the pronunciations recorded. What I did was copy all of the files to my ipod, in order, and then hit play. It takes I think 45 min or an hour to get through all of them, and it's terribly boring... However, if your brain has no idea what tones even are, like mine did, this will hammer the concept in pretty well. I listened to all of the files a few times and it really helped me hear and grasp what tones are... Then I practiced them by recording myself and comparing them with the native audio...

This got me both much better at pronunciation and at hearing the tones. Once I spoke with a native speaker I realized that my tones were ridiculously exaggerated, but then it's just a matter of listening really carefully and noticing how native speakers actually use tones... 

Anyways, that's what I did and I've never regretted it since - I'm much better at using tones (and at pronunciation) than my fellow foreign friends, I'm understood by natives noticeably more often, and it's much easier for me to hear a syllable and know both its pronunciation and its tone, and thus be able to look it up in my dictionary via pinyin - all very valuable I would say.
 

As I see it, why go to all the trouble to learn Chinese if, whenever I speak, natives are leaning closer trying to understand what I said, and having to work really hard to decipher my speech? I don't want my Chinese to be a burden to whomever I use it with...

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  • 2 weeks later...

Yadang, thanks for describing what worked well for you. After reading your post, I found the .mp3 files just like you said, and started listening to them. I honestly don't think I had any intention of spending any time to speak of with a Pinyin chart, if I even knew such a thing existed. But after reading your post, and the others, I now see the immense value.

In fact, just the other day one of my language exchange partners typed a new word on Skype - in Pinyin - and told me what it meant. But she didn't pronounce it yet. Instead, she asked me to say the word. And in that moment, while I struggled to come up with the right pronunciation, it dawned on me that this is what spending time with a Pinyin chart would buy me - some pronunciation rules.

I heard someone once say that "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." So, maybe I was finally ready to hear that augmenting what I'm learning with The Pimsleur Method (i.e., by learning Pinyin) will actually make learning Mandarin easier.

I was very resistant to this idea at first, possibly because I was a music major in college and have a pretty good ear...and just figured all I needed was The Pimsleur Method and several language exchange partners. I've gotten really good feedback so far, regarding how I sound, and I think that just served to further convince me that I didn't have to use everybody else's method.

It's been really important to me so far to keep the process of learning Mandarin fun. And the idea of studying Pinyin and the Chinese characters just sounded like so much work. Kind of like, "And where's the fun in that?"

But somehow, starting with the Pinyin chart and these audio files is fun!

So, thanks to all who replied, and nudged me into taking a different approach, where I continue to use The Pimsleur Method, but now begin to incorporate other things - like learning Pinyin - into my learning regimen.

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I love this topic. Guy comes along, says what he's doing. Gets some advice. Goes away and tries advice. Finds advice works. Comes back and says "hey, thanks guys, that was good advice."

 

Should also be required reading for anyone starting out with Pimsleur, I think. 

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My 2 cents on Pimsleur. It's a fine program, but it's quite expensive and there isn't very much instruction per lesson. It's also based upon 40 year old methods that aren't really cutting edge any more. But, it does seem to work. The lessons themselves are a bit long IMHO. It's something that I give a qualified thumbs up to. However, to get the most out of it, you really do need to study vocabularly separately and use the model sentences they provide to try and express other things.

 

I criticize the length of the lessons mainly because it means you have to set aside a half hour or so at a time to use them. Bite Sized Chinese is also an audio series, but it's set up with lessons of about 10 minutes, which makes it much easier to fit a lesson in between activities, when you're waiting for a bus or whatever. Unfortunately, it's a much shorter program and barely covers the basics.

 

As far as the tones go, I'd recommend using praat to analyze the sentences you want to learn and to analyze your attempts to speak them. At least early on, it's a great way to help you develop a sense of what the utterance really sounds like, versus what you think it sounds like. http://www.sinosplice.com/life/archives/2008/01/21/seeing-the-tones-of-mandarin-chinese-with-praat

 

But, ultimately, for those that can afford Pimsleur and can devote a half hour at a time, there are definitely far worse options out there. Unfortunately, Chinese seems to get less attention that other languages from language education companies. Although, now that I think of it, Michel Thomas puts out a Mandarin program as well, and some people like that. I haven't used it as much, so I don't have a a particular opinion on that.

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James, you're very welcome. I hope it goes well! Although studying pinyin charts definitely isn't my idea of fun either, I do get a weird satisfaction from correctly identifying pronunciation and tones of unknown words, which I wouldn't be able to do without focusing so much on pinyin and pronunciation :D ... For me it was (and still is) so cool to train with this pinyin chart for a while, and then go to Taiwan (I don't know if you have that opportunity, like I did, though) and hear tones and pronunciation in their native environment and start to slowly workout on my own the little nuances that the guide does not mention, and start to notice patterns in tones that would perhaps have "rules" just like the Chinese tone changing rules we see today, except that they are more subtle... For me, figuring out these things as I listen to more and more Chinese is very valuable from a speaking and listening standpoint, and also, I just think it's pretty cool, that our brains can go from a total non-tonal (although we do have intonation...) language and then have tones totally make a difference, when I realize that understanding foreigners with bad tones is much harder, precisely because my brain has started to learn words with their tones together, not separately... I think it's pretty cool anyway, and for me, it all started with this pinyin chart and the guide.

Also, (I can't believe I forgot!) there is John Pasden's Sinosplice blog, and on it, here he has a lot of really helpful pronunciation stuff. He is the same guy that wrote the Chinesepod one LaoChe and I linked to, and most of the info is the same, but he provides some tips/different ways of explaining things on his blog that aren't on the Chinesepod guide.

John Pasden also has a mini (free) course on tone pair drills. I've never actually used these, but you might want to check them out. 

 

Let us know how everything goes!

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  • 1 month later...

If you're interested, my Chinese Learn Online lesson series is based on the Pimsleur concept of progressive lessons (each lesson building off the previous one).

 

I actually went through the Pimsleur course myself and wanted to create an expanded version of it, that fixed the following issues (for me):

 

  1. Added the written component, so I had something to follow along, transcript wise. Even though they explicitly ask you not to do so, I found my learning improve substantially when I saw the pinyin of the words they were saying.
  2. Expanded upon the course. At the time, there were only 3 levels and I wanted more. So my course continues from beginner on to intermediate level.
  3. Based it in Taiwan. I found Taiwanese speakers easier to learn from initially as they tend to emphasize tones more so than Northern Chinese speakers.
  4. Added more review tools. Beyond the transcripts, I added more flashcards and review exercises to help each lesson's material sink in.

I figured if I could create the tools that helped me learn, it would hopefully help others in the process.

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