Old tongue, beginner’s mind


On March 25 in this space, I provided an updated look at the foreign language audio courses produced by a company called Pimsleur. One thing I mentioned was the March 8 launch of Pimsleur’s newest course in Mandarin Chinese. I promised to pass along some notes after I worked through this newest level, so that’s what’s on the menu today.

This means I’m going to wind up rehashing some stuff that I covered on March 25. After all, it wouldn’t be very convenient for readers to have to refer to that past article. Besides, this is a relevant topic in many lives, especially in the Pacific region, but it gets little, if any, mention in the general media.

Anyway, the newest level of Mandarin, Level 5, is, like all of Pimsleur’s “levels,” a set of 30 audio lessons. Each lesson is about 30 minutes long, and there are some other learning materials in each level as well. I seldom spend much time on the other materials, so I’ll just confine my comments to the core material, the 30 main lessons.

For those already familiar with Pimsleur’s courses, the good news is that Mandarin Level 5 is faithful to the basic approach that has won Pimsleur so many devoted customers, myself included. There’s an easy flow here, and Level 5 struck me as a seamless extension to Level 4.

I will note that, like Level 4 before it, Level 5’s vocabulary sometimes takes on some eclectic contexts, so it moves beyond the scope of your standard business-traveler, tourist, and street-level fare. Whether this is seen as a flaw, or as a beauty mark, probably depends on who is looking at it.

By contrast, the first three levels, as I recall, kept their vocabulary in a tighter band of commonly-used words generally taught to Mandarin students. I base that context on what I’ve been exposed to in various textbooks, trade books, and classes.

Fortunately, no matter which level is at hand, each Pimsleur lesson does a good job keeping the various vocabulary themes confined to their own sandboxes. This allows me to sort the various lessons into folders based on the relevance of their vocabulary.

Sometimes I just review random lessons, even really basic ones that I first heard years ago. For me, nothing is too basic to pay attention to in Mandarin. The only way I’ll be able to cultivate a seasoned tongue is to keep a beginner’s mind.

This outlook has proven to be a good mesh with Pimsleur. Although I didn’t anticipate this factor when I was just starting out, Pimsleur proved to be a good resource not only for breaking new ground, but also for reviewing old territory.

I can’t make linear progress in Mandarin. Instead, I just go around in circles, hoping that the center of gravity will drift, however slowly, in the right direction. For me, reviewing isn’t a small thing, it’s the main thing, especially since I aspire to wear the rough edges off my pronunciation.

One reason that Pimsleur wears well is that it’s easy on the ears. The audio production is of excellent quality. It’s worth noting that the lessons don’t waste time with music and with showboating at the beginning; instead, they serve the material immediately by pulling the listener into a Chinese dialog.

As for the transactional side of things, I have bought both the physical CDs and the MP3 downloads by Pimsleur. I think the MP3s are the better bet since they’re cheaper and don’t have to be shipped. Pimsleur’s pricing and all sorts of product details are available at their website, Pimsleur.com. As for MP3 downloads, a slice of five lessons costs $21.95, a full level of 30 lessons is $119.95, and the entire Level 1 through Level 5 array is $550. Pimsleur also offers a free lesson for each language they teach.

I have found that Pimsleur often offers discount codes on the website’s home page, so it’s worth stalking for a discount before buying anything.

Many people who are interested in Mandarin Level 5 will be people who, like me, have finished Level 4 and want to continue their learning.

Other people interested in Level 5 will be newcomers who are contemplating getting the advantageous pricing that goes with buying all the levels together. For these folks, if they are entirely new to the Pimsleur approach, I’d suggest trying the free lesson first, just to make sure it meshes with your style of learning.

As for my style of thinking, I still regard the Asia-Pacific region as the most lively and exciting part of the world. This is where the action is, so studying a new language isn’t just a chore, it’s an adventure.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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