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textbook, tapes, dictionary, tutor and EFFORT
When I first started learning Chinese I employed a tutor (payment was one hour of English for one hour of Chinese) to help correct my pronunciation and tones. I also bought a good textbook and worked through it at a rate of about 1 chapter per week. In addition, I had my tutor record each chapter on tape so that I would get more comfortable with listening to Chinese. My tutor and I met two days a week for one hour each day. I always prepared for my first lesson with my tutor by first reading the passage in that week's chapter at least a dozen times and by attempting the exercises in that chapter. When my tutor came I was already familiar with the new vocabulary and grammar points. If there was any word or sentence pattern, etc., I didn't understand I would ask her. Usually, she cleared things up for me by giving me numerous examples of the usage of the particular item in question. My tutor and I spoke mostly Chinese together - which is essential for good study-time with a tutor, though she used some English when I first started learning Chinese. I spent between one and two hours a day studying in this way. In order to see marked progress, I think language learners should spend a minimum of 30 minutes a day in study. I highly recommend this as a core method for study.|
There are many good textbooks for Chinese study in China now. For beginners, I highly recommend "Survival Chinese", Don Snow, The Commercial Press, 2002. I personally used "Survival Chinese" and then when I finished it "Chinese for Today" books 1 and 2, Huang Zhengcheng, et al., and highly recommend that series too (though it is both expensive and difficult to find). In addition, Peking University (PKU) and Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU) both publish a variety of excellent textbooks, eg., "Conversational Chinese 301" (BLCU), "ractical Chinese Reader" books 1 to 6 (BLCU), "Elementary Spoken Chinese" (PKU). There are also tapes to accompany some of these books, I know for certain that "Conversational Chinese 301" and "Chinese for Today" have tapes. You can always have your tutor make tapes to accompany your text if you don't have any.
I also recommend getting a special quide to Chinese characters, specifically "Reading and Writing Chinese", William McNaughton and Li Ying, Tuttle, 1999, and of course a good dictionary. Many foreign students from English speaking countries use The "Concise English-Chinese Chinese English Dictionary", published jointly by The Commercial Press and Oxford University Press, Martin H. Manser, et al. This dictionary is reasonably small and portable, though you're not going to fit it in your pocket. It is now in its third edition. It is ubiquitous at Xinhua Bookstores all over China. The cover is red.
If you obtain a copy of "Survival Chinese", found mainly at the biggest bookstores in the big cities, like Hangzhou, Qingdao and Beijing (or perhaps you can order it), you can use the audio companion that I had made for some of my friends back in the States who are using it to prepare for a short trip to China. It is a free download from my personal website
In the end, it takes a LOT of effort. I have heard many people say they are going to learn Chinese just by being in China and "picking it up", but I have never actually seen someone with this attitude make much progress, even people who've been in China a few years. In my experience, it takes traditional textbook study, at least 30 minutes a day, and then a lot of practice speaking Chinese with (even foreign) friends who speak Chinese, trying to read signs, etc.