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[Learn Chinese in Just 15 Minutes a Day]DK's Eyewitness Travel: 15-Minute Chinese promises a quick and cheap approach to learning Mandarin Chinese

“I know what you're saying, but you're saying it wrong,” a friend who studied Chinese for years at an exclusive school in Greenhills and for another year in China tells me after I stumble through a heavily-accented introduction in Mandarin.

Not exactly a glowing endorsement for Eyewitness Travel: 15-Minute Chinese (899 pesos), a daily 12-week self-teaching program published by London-based publishing house Dorling Kindersley. To be fair, though, I had only just leafed through the first few pages and given the accompanying audio CDs a cursory listen.

“You have to take not of the tones or you'll end up saying something else entirely,” she tells me and my equally and decidedly non-Chinese girlfriend. We had committed ourselves to staying the course, as it were, and had just failed our first pop quiz.

But the program does emphasize proper tones and punctuation, pointing out, for example, that the pinyin 'zh' is pronounced like the 'j' in 'just.' It even very curtly tells us that “you need to listen to and mimic native speakers to master the tones.”

Luckily, the lessons come in bite-sized modules to help learners do just that. The first lesson, for example, focuses on basic introductions. With just seven phrases to repeat and memorize, we were soon nihao-ing each other with a little more confidence.

The program is structured in much the same way that a foreign-language class in Philippine colleges is done: listening, reading,, and speaking in linguistic baby steps. The book even features a clever book flap that covers the Mandarin phrases so I can test myself on how adeptly—or ineptly—I've been doing.

After mastering the introductions and basic greetings, the program moves on to other basic concepts like naming relatives, the Chinese words for numbers, and the Mandarin verbs for 'to have' and 'to be.' Within the first week, I ought to be able to refer to my mother as mama (but in proper Chinese tones), count to ten, and hold philosophical debates on being and nothingness all in Chinese.

The following weeks are structured in much the same way, building on words and phrases encountered in previous lessons  to form longer and more complex conversations. Towards the end of the program, I am expected to know enough Chinese to ask for recommendations for a good handyman, extend and accept social invitations, and hold short telephone conversations.

Granted, actual classroom instruction would be the best way to go about learning a foreign language. But not too many people have the time, energy, or inclination to sign up for and attend classes every other day, and 15-Minute Chinese promises that “there is no easier way to learn Mandarin Chinese—fast.”

What the program lacks, like having an actual tutor who can coach through difficult phrases, it makes up for with the extras. Aside from the basic phrases, the book includes a menu guide of common Chinese dishes like chashaobao or barbecued pork in steamed dumplings. There is also a short English-Chinese dictionary with more words than I'll probably be able to use on a typical business trip. (Ying'er caxijin [baby wipes], anyone?)

The program also includes a basic introduction to the simplified Chinese writing system used in the People's Republic of China. While learning to read Chinese is a task that takes years, learning the characters for 'exit,''beware of dog,' and 'toilet' is relatively easy.

DK also included 'cultural tips' on how hotel guests are expected to take of their shoes and use the slippers provided as one would when entering a Chinese home, and the different corporate titles that some Chinese businessmen use on their business cards.

While there is no better way to learn a language than to live in a foreign country for some time, 15-Minute Chinese at least offers a chance to not feel like such an outsider when in China. And while 12 weeks may seem like a long time to learn enough of a language to get by, consider how interminably long having to sit in awkward silence while everyone else chats in Mandarin will feel.

Print ed: 05/10


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