Saturday, June 01, 2013

Rosetta Stone Version 4: Mandarin Review

Mandarin is the second most spoken language in the world followed by Spanish and English. Unfortunately, a large number of speakers may be isolated in one geographic area of the world. Flipping sides again: it is the premiere language of one of the richest and most influential/powerful countries on the planet. One may find it hard to go a day without hearing about China in the news. Oh, and the population of the country is over a billion while the world population is six -- do the math.

English vs. French vs. Mandarin

The important takeaway, despite none of those facts and figures above being cited, is that Mandarin is a very well used language that may come in handy in the future. One way to learn it is using Rosetta Stone, which I reviewed in detail for the French version last week.

Let me first assume that you speak English because you're here. Unlike French, Mandarin doesn't share an alphabet and, more importantly, a common root language in Latin. The hundreds of years of England and France living next to (and killing) each other led to additional shared words and culture. China developed a world away with, shall we say, less frequent contact. No shared words, no shared root language, no alphabet, period, in the case of Mandarin. These issues present other problems.

I am typing this on a good'ole American style keyboard, which was more than likely made in China. However, it is for use with an English alphabet, but easily compatible with French and probably other alphabet using languages. Mandarin does not have an alphabet, there is no sounding out words, and there are special keyboards and programs to type Asian language characters.

How well does Rosetta Stone deal with this?

To be honest, part of the reason I "had to" get Rosetta Stone for Mandarin was because I wanted this question answered.

Rosetta Stone: Mandarin - Overview

Because I went into so much detail last time about the way Rosetta Stone works, I'm going to just refer you to that review. To sum it up though, the base interface and program is very similar due to both programs being the same version (v4). The only difference that I noticed is the language used and some exercises being reorganized.

So you understand what I'm talking about, let me first define a few terms that I use:

  • Level - The major divisions that learning units are divided into. There are usually five levels each for "more popular" language. 
  • Unit - Levels are divided into four units per level.
  • Lesson - From my experience, each unit contains five lessons with four core lessons supported by exercises and the fifth being a milestone review lesson. A core lesson may contain around 30-40 activities, whereas exercises contain 10-20 activities each.
  • Exercises - The shorter lessons supporting core lessons. They focus on vocabulary, grammar, reading, writing, speaking, listening, and pronunciation.
  • Activity - My term for the individual pages of activities that you actually work on inside lessons and exercises. They include multiple choice, fill in the blank, speaking, and typing activities.
Handling of Asian Characters
The software allows me to change the type of Chinese characters used between simplified and traditional. One's more complicated than the other. It is also possible to turn on and off something called "pinyin", which is using the English alphabet to sound words out. However, due to the differences in pronunciation and the use of tones, a lot of accents and symbols above letters are used to differentiate tones. I still haven't really figured out most of them.

Writing exercises are done by using those English alphabet letters with accents. Typing is done by using an onscreen keyboard, which corresponds to your physical keyboard sitting on your desk. Matching up special keys takes a bit of work, so I usually type with my left hand and click with my right hand on the mouse. Having never used popular Chinese typing programs, I can't say how well what you learn here matches with those programs.

My Experience with the Mandarin version

I bought this in November 2012 and threw the French version to the wayside for months due to the novelty of a completely new language. Remember that I took French throughout elementary school and did some self-studying; hence, not as new and fun. At the time of writing this review, I was still two major lessons from completing the first unit of level one.

The software has worked to a degree. Go back to my French review for a long essay about how you need to use multiple tools to learn a language -- there is no single, instant solution. As one out of many tools, I think that Rosetta Stone works great.

Most of my comments are the same as with the French review: you can redo exercises, replay spoken words an infinite number of times without annoying anyone, the interface is easy to use and intuitive, English translations would help, etc. However, I noticed that the ability to replay individual spoken words and phrases came in extremely handy.

Languages like English, French, and Spanish don't sound the same, but the use of the shared alphabet makes them more similar than not. Mandarin, by comparison, uses completely new and foreign sounds and tones. Most of my time is spent just trying to split the sounds of individual words up and trying to mimic the tone. The limited amount of time one is given in a classroom or from a tutor works against that. However, a person can find, point out, and help correct your errors better than a computer program. Rosetta Stone has a built in voice analyzer that I have found to be hit and miss -- mumbling and grunting have produced passing grades.

Writing exercises, I've found, are a chore to do because the program only prompts me to type English letters with accents. This may or may not help me with typing Chinese words into a software program that writes the character. Also, it may or may not help me to sound out words. However, I get the feeling that if I go to China, I won't really be able to get anywhere knowing how to type out the sounds of words using the alphabet.

It is possible to read and memorize Chinese characters used on screen, which is great. However, not being forced to write the characters out does not help. Blaming Rosetta Stone would be completely unfair though because one would need a writing pad or use a mouse to draw out characters MS Paint style to do so -- and software that recognizes the writing. That would be a very comprehensive and, more than likely, expensive addition. I feel the writing exercises get in the way and aren't that useful, especially to a newcomer to the language.

Nonetheless, I would still recommend Rosetta Stone for Mandarin. The reading and speaking features alone are worth the price of admission. Studying any language requires a lot of work, and when trying to learn one that is from another part of the world with virtually no connections to your own, everything helps. I have built a basic vocabulary in Mandarin, have learned a few characters, and can put basic sentences together after about one of five levels. If I really bothered to study the language, memorize characters, and make some Mandarin speaking friends, I would really be underway. Looking forward to the next four levels!

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