Bernard Seif practices Chinese medicine in Brodheadsville, Penn., and wanted to help Chinese people, especially the poor. He had one major problem, he couldn’t speak Mandarin and they couldn’t speak English.
Now, after a year of learning Mandarin through podcasts and Skype conversations, Seif says he can listen pretty well but still needs to work on his speaking.
Not only can he help more people, but he also learned an important transferable skill: Another language — something that’s has gained importance in the global economy.
Mandarin is one of the top five most spoken languages in the world. The other four languages include English, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic, reports Ethnologue.com, a site hosted by the Summer Institute of Linguistics International.
But to learn another language isn’t easy and study methods range from classes, books, cassette tapes, CDs and podcasts.
Ana Pérez-Leroux, a linguist at the University of Toronto, says the best method of study is one that has both instructed and immersed experience.
“You need some interaction for the language to work,” says Pérez-Leroux. “You can prepare for it, but the actual (back and forth) has to happen.”
She says the best way to learn a language is to take lessons for a year and then travel somewhere to put it into context.
Apart from taking lessons, one popular method to learn languages is with Rosetta Stone, a language-learning software in which users listen to a speaker and match the word to a picture, with no translation. It also offers practice in pronunciation where users speak into a microphone and the program tells them if they’re right or wrong.
Another way is with the Pimsleur method. This is an audio-based system where listeners repeat phrases and sentences from a recording.
Both companies websites’ say their approach follows how people normally first learn a language.
But Pérez-Leroux doesn’t buy it. She says no one has really succeeded with the do-it-yourself methods to learn language.
Benjamin Bullis, a network consultant in Chicago, wanted to learn Mandarin to teach the three girls his family adopted from China.
He tried many other methods for about six months before settling on melnyks.com, a site run by Serge Melnyk in Vancouver which offers podcasts, transcripts and worksheets for lessons, and private Skype lessons.
“Well, to me it’s all about the repetitiveness, always listening to the lessons over and over,” says Bullis. “I drive a lot, sometimes three hours a day, so I’ll usually listen to the podcasts.”
He’s taken lessons with Melnyk since last year and says he’s now in between beginner and intermediate.
“I think it just comes down to how I learn and I’ve always been a self-learner.” says Bullis.
The only advice he can offer others looking to learn another language is to stick with it.
“That’s always a big one,” says Bullis. “You get people who are all excited for only a month.”
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