An independent language course review by Lisa Zealey
Being used to studying Latin languages which all have a similar structure, learning Chinese Mandarin was something completely new to me. I had often been keen on trying Chinese, Japanese or something totally different but always thought it would be really difficult to pick up for a total beginner and never even tried.
The Pimsleur method is very well structured and it gave me a real buzz to say simple phrases in Mandarin which would be of use to me if I was in China. Pimsleur is a totally audio method of language teaching, which means no books, pens or paper, similar to the way Michel Thomas teaches. This method seems to be getting increasingly popular as a modern and more ‘to the point’ way of language learning. Having tried a couple of Michel Thomas courses for other languages I was familiar with this kind of technique. The main difference between the Pimsleur and the Michel Thomas way of teaching is that Pimsleur uses real native speakers on the cassettes (I presume for all languages in the series – not just Mandarin). With Michel Thomas it is always him who does the speaking in the language.
So Pimsleur has real Chinese speakers, which I think works well, especially with a language like Mandarin where intonation is so important to meaning. He uses a Chinese man and woman throughout to illustrate examples and it is nice to hear each gender speak rather than just one.
There are 4 cassettes in the first pack that I used, so 8 cassette sides to work through. The key to absorbing it is being totally focussed and not thinking about anything else at all. While listening to it (in a relaxing bath!) for the first time I thought the whole thing was going to be too fast and that I would just have to keep rewinding it again and again. I realised though that the cassettes are made without this intention – you should just press play and let it run. By doing this I also realised that he is always going back to things you have learned before, introducing something new, and then going back again to what was learned at the beginning so slowly, it all starts to fall into place and you start to create sentences of your own which shows you are really getting somewhere.
I liked the way that there was a fluent conversation between two Chinese people at the beginning of each cassette. When you first listen to it you think ‘Oh my God – that’s impossible’, but by the end of the cassette you can do it! Listen to it again and you realise it was not impossible at all! It is really confidence boosting!
The listener has to make his own ‘word associations’ in order to recall vocabulary although some help is given by Pimsleur by translating things literally into English. It may be a little difficult for someone who has never learned even a European language before, but still, with perseverance, it is worth a try. It is a case of relating a totally new sound to an English meaning and once you can create that link in your mind, with practise, you shouldn’t forget it.
I found a few negative points to this course, one being that it is written for Americans. I now know perfectly well how to tell a Chinese person that I am American but don’t have a clue how to tell them that I am English! This, of course, will have to be adapted if these products are to be marketed in the UK. I found the second cassette a little harder to absorb and listened to it two or three times before moving on. Maybe an American might be able to tell me why it is important, but I could not understand the reason for Pimsleur revising how to say ‘College Road’ and ‘Long Piece Street’. This is another thing I can now say pretty well but cannot see it ever being useful.
Besides that though, once I had got past this stage I started to regain interest and was learning how to ask where things are, say I want to go to the restaurant, drink tea/beer, eat, ask when, what, with whom and lots of other interesting and useful expressions.
I think the most difficult part is probably the totally new vocabulary and sounds and the fact that intonation makes such a difference to a Chinese ear. The underlying grammar is not too confusing and I can think of European languages I have studied, such as German, when I have found word order more difficult.
In some ways Mandarin can be easier – really! I was delighted to find only one word for ‘to be’ in every person, singular and plural. However, expressing positive and negative can be more complicated to get your head around -with no obvious words for yes and no. But once you understand that you have to repeat the verb to do this, it becomes logical.
Each topic is only loosely touched on because it is a fairly difficult language to master and Pimsleur just tries to teach the get by basics in this first Quick and Simple series.
Once you have finished the course you will still feel like your Mandarin is fairly limited – it will be – but you have also come a very long way since the beginning, from not knowing anything to ‘getting by’ (just about!) Four cassettes is only the start and there are follow-on courses for beginners, intermediate and advanced learners, if you are still feeling really keen when you reach the end!
I definitely enjoyed this course as a whole and will certainly consider following it up. I will stick to audio for now though – learning to write it could be an even bigger challenge!