Tools for Beginners

Unlike a decade or two ago, learning Chinese is big business in the English-speaking world. That means lots of people are trying to join the game. One can easily be overwhelmed by the myriad of options out there. I know I did!

After wasting many hours wading through everything, I’ve made two discoveries:

  1. Unless you’re an advanced learner, you should stick with just a few good resources. Looking around at tools can be an enormous time-waster. Stay focused.
  2. You get what you pay for. Free materials are rarely user-friendly. You can spend more time and energy wrestling with the resource than learning Chinese. Do it right. Spend the money.

Although there are plenty of alternatives, when I was in school I spent almost all my time using 3 resources on an iPod Touch:

  1. Pimsleur. When it comes to giving a foundation of solid pronunciation skills, nothing compares. Pimsleur purposely excludes written materials, forcing the learner to listen and imitate. Result? I went from being a terrible language-learner to having the most authentic pronunciation in my class. It’s outrageously expensive and won’t take you very far, but most public libraries offer it for free. Of course it only works if you follow the simple 30-minutes-a-day instructions.
  2. ChinesePod. Once Pimsleur has been exhausted, ChinesePod is step 2. With well over 3,000 lessons on a huge variety of topics, ChinesePod will help with speaking and listening from Newbie to Advanced. The real value of the site is how neatly the learning tools are integrated for efficient study—which means paying for a Premium account. Like I said: If you’re going to do it right, you’ve got to pay.
  3. Pleco. This little piece of software is the reason I bought a Palm device in 2007, and replaced it with my first iOS device a year later. If you want to learn how to read and write Chinese, this is an absolute must. When I was in school, I had to carry around an extra external battery with me, since I ran my iPod Touch’s battery all the way down at least twice a day. Pleco continues to offer more and more tools and features, and the support is unparalleled: Every feature I ever asked for was included in the next release. I think I paid around $300 “back in the day,” but you can now get pretty much everything you need for under $100.

There are certainly other options out there, and if you’ve got a free afternoon you may want to explore them. But don’t spend too much time Googling. Pay the money and get to work.