I've always wanted to learn Mandarin. Back when I was going to Beijing more often, I took a 6 week course that met twice a week to learn the very basics. From that class I remember how to say hello, goodbye, thank you, train, apple, I, you, America, China, and a few other words :) But it taught me the tones, which was the most helpful part, so when I see a word in Pin Yin today, I know how to say it even if I don't know what it means.
Now that I'm headed back to Beijing in October, I thought it was a perfect excuse to try to learn some more and maybe actually be able to speak more than a few simple words while I'm there. So I signed up for the online version of Rosetta Stone which lets you access all 3 course levels of Chinese for 6 months. Since it was about the same price as just the first course on CD, this seemed to be the best deal. And if I felt ambitious, I could really get my money's worth!
I have to admit that initially I was really skeptical to their whole approach. There is no English at all, no instructions, no "lessons" in the sense of being taught something and then repeating it. It's all learn by doing and all based on pattern-matching. The idea being that you learn best when you have to actually make the connection in your brain without being told what you're even looking at.
So they have screens with men and women, girls and boys and you learn all four words just by association. Or a man eating and a woman drinking and you have to figure out which phrase applies to each. At first I just couldn't imagine learning a language without the standard dictionary approach of here's the english and here's the word in the foreign language: now memorize and repeat. So it was weird getting started, but after an hour or two I realized that with all this pattern matching I was really learning. And not just learning the words, but the grammar constructions as well. It was starting to get interesting.
Then today at lunch I started thinking in Chinese when looking at objects around the room and seeing people in line waiting to order. And the words just came to me, even though I hadn't studied them in a traditional sense. And that's when I knew I was really learning things the right way.
So I'm only on Course 1, Lesson 3, but I highly recommend this way of learning! I'm looking forward to putting some of these new language skills to use in China in two months!