Hmm, I found your site and gave it a gander. What I see is, in my opinion, much superior to “the other guys”. I especially like that your sound bites get right down to business without useless chatter. Instead of justifying your layout lesson after lesson you simply follow a plan that needs no explanation. I love the sectional layout (dialogue, vocabulary and grammar), and the PDF’s seem pretty good too. Actually, everything you have (save for a few technical glitches) is useful and quite well done. I do have some suggestions though and am curious to see what your team and other users think.
1) The English sentence, “I wish I knew which witch was which” must be one of hundreds that an adult learner would struggle with as he tried to even hear the subtle differences between “wish”, “which” and “witch”, let alone pronounce the words with proper distinction. A better example might be “I walk to work” which very few Chinese students of English ever come close to mastering. We native English speakers generally have absolutely no problem, but I recall well my first lessons in the Pimsleur series when they used what sounded to me to be the identical word for “go” (去) and “eat” (吃). While tone is critical, so too is the intrinsic sound. For example, there is a vast difference to a native Chinese speaker between the pinyin “x” and “sh”, though to us they both sound like the English “sh” which in reality is somewhere in between. Our ears are simply not trained to distinguish these particular verbal nuances. All of the retroflex sounds and their non-retroflex counterparts are similarly difficult for us, or at least for me, and yet getting such sounds down pact is so important if we are to master mandarin, or for that matter even be understood on many occasions. Alas, it is tedious work trying to master merely the sounds, but it need not be. A site such as yours could make this task interesting if not fun, and certainly much easier. Something like the following would be ever so helpful:
a. a detailed explanation of how to form each sound, complete with diagrams for tongue placement and the like, equivalent sounds where possible from English, and of course numerous examples. Still tedious, but very helpful. I found that when I followed the instructions for difficult consonants even though I could still barely distinguish the difference in my own voice a native Chinese listener could! With practice I too have begun to hear the subtle differences.
b. Some fun sentences…sort of along the lines of elementary tongue twisters, comparing and contrasting similar sounds. For example, a lesson devoted to learning to hear and sound the difference between “zh” words and “j” words. Make an entire elementary dialogue using these sounds and replace the grammar section with hints on tongue placement or the like. All the vocabulary words should begin with either of those consonants. This is similar to what you do now to stress a grammar lesson, except that instead of stressing grammar you would stress pronunciation.
c. All dialogue should be spoken by multiple native speakers (see next main suggestion).
d. These should collectively form a group of “must master” lessons in your resource area. In the context of being understood in verbal communication, a person who can correctly pronounce 300 words is way ahead of a person who knows 2,000 words but cannot pronounce them well. Unlike English, spoken mandarin is not a forgiving language. In English we see new immigrants from different countries and heavy accents understanding each other. But in speaking mandarin the sound and tone must both be spot on or you will leave the listener bewildered. In my opinion, proper pronunciation of all the pinyin sounds should come before learning the vocabulary, for otherwise you will need to unlearn your poor pronunciation in order to eventually learn how to say the words correctly. If you start with the pinyin sounds, then when you later learn the vocabulary it will thus be learned with accurate pronunciation. Close just isn’t good enough.
e. These lessons combined should cover all of the most common words.
f. They should cover vowel sounds also.
2) I notice that your speakers have a northern accent. For example, I notice that 公园 becomes 公园儿 and that 是 is pronounced more like “shir” (or English “sure”) than “shi”. That is not a criticism – you are clearly giving us mandarin exactly as spoken by native speakers. But it is spoken with a distinctive accent nonetheless and different areas of China use different accents. I know that every time I go south and ask the price of something I get thrown when they pronounce 十 like 四 (they have great difficulty with the “sh” sound and it always comes out sounding like “s”). They of course use the correct tone and thus do not confuse themselves, but it takes more than head knowledge for me to instinctively place tonal importance above sound importance. Now, I have often been told that the Guangdong accent is considered especially poor mandarin and not what we should be learning, but I do not think the same can be said of mandarin as spoken in, say, Shanghai. I am hardly an expert on accents and I do not know what would be considered as the officially correct accent, but I do think it might be useful to hear your dialogue spoken with more than one accent. Another possible way to handle this is with a series of lessons devoted to accent anomalies, like for example the northern tendency to add 儿 at the end of certain words or the southern difficulty with those sounds which do not exist in Cantonese. These lessons would again be an excellent addition to your resource section.
3) You observe that everyone learns in different ways and I wholly agree. I happen to have a very logical mind, but am decidedly poor at memorization. The way I learn a language is to attach logic to it, even if the logic is, of necessity, merely contrived. Perhaps an example will illustrate. Most English speakers have heard of fengshui (风水), and when it is explained that this means wind and water we can perceive logic to it and we suddenly know two Chinese words. When later learning the word “insane” (疯) there is nothing intrinsically logical to knowing that it is pronounced the same as wind, but logic can be contrived by imagining the wind blowing in one ear and out the other of a person devoid of sufficient gray matter to impede its passage…ie someone who is clearly insane. Suddenly we have a cognate, false though it may be, but the existence of cognates no matter how contrived make learning a language far easier. This picture in our mind gives us a temporary language hook by which to remember the word, and that hook serves us well until such time as we have used the word often enough that it simply becomes a natural part of our repertoire.
Alas, this does lead to a suggestion. I will call it “cognate cards”. Picture a flash card with pictures on one side. At the left there is a sewing kit floating in the water. A needle points up and to the right (to represent the second tone). This tells us that 缝 and渢are both pronounced the same. On the top in the middle we see the wind blowing through the ears of an insane man (first tone orientation, for 风and 疯). To the right we perhaps see a male phoenix (鳯) diving (fourth tone), and at the bottom a monk chanting (唪) his prayers. On the other side we see the words these pictures represent. Another example would be a spear poking a cat whose hat drops off his head, again the orientation of each representing the tone for these three “mao” words. If the cards are done cleverly enough they will be remembered, and once you remember one word you will easily remember all the words represented on that card complete with their correct tones.
We all know that leaning chunks of language is easier than learning individual words, and this idea builds on the reason that this is so. Hearing someone yell “help, that man just stole my purse” gives us a mental picture. We can imagine ourselves at the scene and either reacting to the lady in distress or perhaps being that distraught lady. Either way, the sentence gets tied to the image and soon we learn what each individual word means. The cognate cards would similarly be remembered as a group, and soon we know the words represented therein.
OK, I have a ton of other suggestions, but let me see first if anyone agrees with anything I have thus far written.