Thinking Without Words
I'm not a person who thinks in words. I'm conscious of the translation between how I think and language. I can hear a word in English and it sounds wrong, despite being correct, because my brain has decided it's not doing language anymore today. In short, language is not one of my natural talents.
This isn't always obvious on the outside. I speak well and I've had stories published. But it doesn't change the struggle that goes on under the surface. Nor does it change the fact that language courses aren't usually designed for me. They're designed by and for people who think in words. Products are reviewed and recommended on that assumption, by people who can speak ten languages and would learn whatever course you threw at them.
The result is I've failed to learn a second language. I took French lessons for years and left unable to speak French. I attempted Welsh and Swedish using tape courses and had a phase of collecting bilingual dictionaries. I wanted to learn, but the way courses were set up put it out of reach.
I realised the only way I'd learn was immersion, because it'd let me make the connections without having to use English. At the time, the only way to do an immersion course was either to spend large amounts of money or to move to another country. Neither was possible. So I was interested when I heard about the idea of computer courses using immersion methods. Someone else in my family was already using Rosetta Stone to learn Mandarin Chinese and I figured I'd give it a go. It was a lot cheaper than moving to another country.
This post, and any followups, are about learning Mandarin from my perspective: that of a non-verbal thinker who is also dyslexic. Hopefully it might help others in my position, and perhaps be interesting to those who do think in words.
Rosetta Stone (Mandarin Chinese Version 3: Level 1)
Simplified Versus Traditional
By default, the software displays pinyin - a way of writing out Chinese using roman characters. It can also display either simplified or traditional characters. I chose simplified, as this is used in China and a lot of books for learners. The eventual answer is to become familiar with both, but simplified seemed like a good place to start.
Whichever way, I think it's important to get the actual Chinese characters on the screen as soon as possible. Not only does this help in learning to read Chinese, but I found the Chinese characters easier to follow than pinyin. I have difficulty telling apart the tone markers on pinyin, which makes it hard for me to read.
Overview of the Course
The course is broken down into a series of short lessons. The early lessons introduce a few nouns by showing a picture and saying the word. Then it moves on to a few basic verbs, again shown through pictures. This carries on with increasingly complex sentences and concepts.
It was obvious after the first lesson that it was going to work. I started remembering words immediately. After a few days, I've learnt some basic grammar rules, have a basic vocabulary and can read some of the Chinese characters. I can tell the tones apart, though still have difficulty speaking them. In French at this stage, I was able to repeat a few sentences parrot-fashion, with a vague idea what the whole sentence meant. I had no actual understanding (and never gained it... I had traditional grammar lessons in French, but the only thing I can tell you is the colour comes after the noun. This wasn't a triumph of traditional language teaching).
Rosetta is optimised for people who deal in the abstract. I can see someone who thinks in words struggling and feeling frustrated because they don't have a direct translation. Some of the negative product reviews suggest this is the case. The temptation to reply with "now you know how I feel on your language courses" was strong, but I resisted.
Rosetta Stone isn't really designed to teach Chinese writing. I'm already learning to read it, but the writing lessons are typing in pinyin. Once I get past the baby stage, I'm going to need some handwriting lessons from elsewhere.
It's culturally specific to America. This means it's missing some words that'd be useful in China (such as Chinese food items) and concepts useful for a British person (how to ask for tea with milk in it).
Neither of these things is a dealbreaker, as relying on one piece of software would be silly anyway. They are handy to know when planning lessons for the future.
I went searching for preschool stuff in Mandarin. There are a lot of YouTube videos of Western programmes dubbed into Mandarin, from Disney to Dora the Explorer. Actual Chinese programmes were thinner on the ground. Even so, this'll be useful. The children's videos use simple words, but at a faster pace than the language lessons.
I also tried to find wallcharts - the sort of thing you put in a nursery, with a picture and the word underneath. There are plenty of language flashcards, but I'm not looking for pictures with translations. I'll probably have to make my own wallcharts.
I found a number of Chinese pop songs online, which I've added to my playlist. I was hoping to find some dance music for my exercise playlists, but so far they've all been slower. These are a little advanced for a baby vocabulary, but handy for the future. If anyone knows of any Chinese music with a faster beat, recommendations would be great (it doesn't have to be pop... fast folk music would also be fine, but it does need Mandarin words).
I wanted to get a Chinese dictionary, so I could work on my vocabulary away from the computer. Adult dictionaries were a bit word based and mostly in English. The children's dictionaries looked perfect, as they had pictures with the words in Chinese. Children get all the best visual learning stuff. I narrowed it down to two, which were cheap, so I've ordered both:
- First Thousand Words in Chinese - Heather Amery (Amazon UK)
- Chinese Berlitz Kids Picture Dictionary (Berlitz Picture Dictionary) (Amazon UK)
Each one has about 1000 words (which is the average vocabulary of a 3 to 5-year old in English, depending on the child). They use simplified Chinese characters and pinyin. Once I've had time to work with both of them, I'll post a comparative review of their strengths and weaknesses.
Thoughts and Plans
So far, I'm finding Mandarin easier than English. I obviously have many more years of experience with English and can speak it daily, so I'm unlikely to ever be as fluent in Mandarin... but it's more logical and the written characters are easier to memorise.
My current plan for the baby stage is to keep using Rosetta Stone daily. I'm also going to work in some basic vocabulary building using the dictionaries. Once we both get a bit further along, I do have another learner in the family to talk to. Our current conversations have mainly consisted of the word for tea, because we see lots of tea and it's an easy word. This is not far off a baby's first conversations, so we're on track!
I'll consider myself at toddler level when I can understand preschool entertainment.