Revised April 28, 2013
Price $358 for Fluenz Mandarin 1+2+3 (75 lessons); $338 for Fluenz Mandarin 1+2 (45 lessons)
Skill Level Beginner, Intermediate
Fluenz Mandarin is an interactive multimedia product, with audio, writing, reading, and speaking instruction. I am as of this writing on lesson 57 out of 75 lessons.
When I first started using Fluenz Mandarin, I was surprised to discover that my guide through the lessons was a cute young white non-native speaker. She gives the English-based instruction in video clips at the start and end of each lesson. Some lessons into the program, I realized she was no language gun for hire, but rather, Sonia Gil, a co-founder of the company.
I personally am not in a position to judge Chinese accents. I have read complaints about Sonia’s online, but I can tell you that you also get native pronunciations throughout the lessons, and one thing I like about Sonia is that her explanations of the grammar (given in English) are clear and systematic, focusing on issues that often confuse native English speakers.
The first two levels of Fluenz Mandarin contain 45 lessons. The third contains 30. Strangely, as of today the difference in pricing between buying all three levels and buying just the first two levels is only $20. Therefore, if you are buying now, it’s a no-brainer to get the whole package.
When you get to the third level, the instructor changes and is a native Chinese speaker, Yi Wei. I appreciate the native pronunciation, even though she sometimes speaks rather slowly for my taste and pauses a bit long in her explanations (yes, I am an impatient language learner). Nonetheless, she has a pleasant, cheerful demeanor.
Throughout the Fluenz Mandarin lessons, much practice is built into the software. The drills are intense, with reinforcement across exercises and lessons, a feature that is sorely lacking in many teach-yourself language products, both electronic and paper-based.
One of the things I love about this product is the pinyin instruction. I find it incredibly helpful because it forces me to know which tones I am pronouncing when I speak. If you don’t care about pinyin, you will probably find the pinyin emphasis annoying, but before using Fluenz Mandarin, I was flailing about with my tones, and now that I am being forced to write them down daily in pinyin, I am finally learning them.
There is also a built-in glossary, which allows you to easily look up words’ meanings. Very handy!
Fluenz Mandarin does not teach you Chinese characters, which some people might find objectionable, but to that I say, there is only so much one can do at a time. Learning Chinese is a complicated undertaking.
On the negative side, the program doesn’t do much to further oral skills. My least favorite sections of Fluenz Mandarin are in fact the pronunciation and conversation-practice sections. I find them pretty dull and ineffective, so a while back I began skipping those.
A couple of other trivial gripes: first, the Fluenz people were obviously excited about the 2008 Beijing Olympics when they were making this application. Unfortunately, the not inconsiderable content on that event is now dated and therefore annoying. I can think of many words I need more than “stadium” and “gold medal.”
In addition, I sometimes can’t read the diacritical marks in the answers. They are too small and fuzzy.
Despite these drawbacks, Fluenz Mandarin is great for developing an understanding of the language, and I am still enjoying it nearly halfway through the third level. That means it is fun! Fun is important, because if something is not fun, you are way less likely to stick with it.
In comparing my Fluenz experience with experiences I have had with another much better-known multimedia product, Rosetta Stone, I have to say I have spent way, way less time confused about the way the program was supposed to work or what I was supposed to do than I did with Rosetta. (I did not use Rosetta Stone for Chinese, but I have tried it for several other languages.) The Fluenz interface is clear and intuitive, and very non-frustrating.
Plus, unlike with Rosetta Stone, you are given actual grammar explanations—in English, as I said above. You can get a way more sophisticated understanding of language structures, way more quickly, with Fluenz’s method than you can with Rosetta’s.
I think Fluenz Mandarin works especially well in combination with Pimsleur Mandarin Chinese, which does a much better job than Fluenz of developing conversational skills. Unfortunately, buying both will set you back about $700. I apologize for this expensive combination-suggestion, but if your company is paying for your instruction or you are fortunate enough to be in possession of a large personal language-learning budget, perhaps you could consider it.
In any case, you can at no cost try a sample Mandarin lesson on the Fluenz website.