We've dabbled in a variety of Mandarin Chinese learning methods, partly to see which we liked best, partly to see which was cheapest, and partly to find the method that made learning Chinese completely effortless. Here are some notes on the various resources. I don't suspect any of you care, but it's a way for me to keep track of these things.
- Learn in Your Car Chinese: These CDs are designed to be listened to while driving. They seem to focus on things a traveler would need to know, like asking directions to the train station and the hotel. My biggest complaint isn't something wrong with this series, but something wrong with CD-based language learning itself: it's really hard to understand what they're saying without seeing it written. The CDs come with a transcript of what's being said, but of course you can't look things up while you're driving. My recommendation would be to not use a CD-only approach until you have a basic familiarity with the nuances of the spoken language.
- Pimsleur Mandarin: These are also CDs, so the problem is the same as with car CDs. These CDs are geared more towards conversational ability, so there's less traveler-specific material. Also, they are repetitive to help with retention. These are what I use most often because it best fits my schedule: I load a few lessons on my phone and listen on the way to work and back. Our kids use these at home, with varying success. One of our sons absolutely hates these lessons with a furious intensity. He would rather to ANYTHING than listen to a Pimsleur lesson. Another of our sons, though, likes to go through a lesson during his afternoon poop.
- Pleco: This dictionary app is amazing. I heard someone say he bought it for $100, but I just use the free version with an $10 add-on that allows for optical character recognition. Usually my first time through a Pimsleur lesson, I have Pleco open to look up everything I'm hearing.
- Mango: This app is really useful and free if your local library subscribes to their service. It shows characters, but when you tap a character, the pinyin is displayed. In an attempt to be universally helpful, it will teach you to say things you might not care about, such as "I can speak a little Russian." One issue I've had: my school-issued iPad has some Chicom-created Internet-connectivity problems sometimes. Every few uses, Mango makes you re-verify your library credentials, so sometimes I can't use the app when I can't connect to the Internet. But generally this is pretty good, and our son who hates Pimsleur likes to do his Chinese lessons with Mango.
- Memrise: This is much like Mango, but instead of one lesson set, there are several. Mango teaches phrases and work order, but the Memrise lessons I do are more vocabulary. One of my lesson sets is on most-common verbs and another is on the first 500 characters to learn. Memrise is much more character-intensive, which some people dislike because they've decided to only deal with pinyin and speaking.
- ChineseSkill: I just got this app last week and haven't used it very much. It seems like it deals with conversation instead of just travel phrases, it uses pinyin and characters, it's repetitive for retention purposes, and it allows you to test out of lessons to jump ahead. I mainly got it because of the adorable panda character, which I wanted to show to my daughter.
- Train Chinese: This app has some limited functionality in the free version, and the ability to add a lot more items with a subscription. I liked the idea that, with a subscription, I could create my own vocabulary lists I'm working on, and use them in the related app that tests you on character writing (imaginatively called Chinese Writer). I was going to get a subscription for this because Chinese Writer teaches you correct stroke order. However, I'm poor, and lazy, and until I actually need to learn to write characters, I'm not going to spend money on this.
- Discovering Chinese: A friend recently recommended this to us. It seems like an app version of a high school language course. There are four courses. The first lesson of each course is free as a sample, and then the courses are around $35 each, I think. When everything else is free, $35 sounds like a lot, but based on my time looking at the free lesson, it seems pretty impressive. It teaches speaking, reading and writing pinyin, and reading and writing characters. Each lesson involves a large variety of activities. I was surprised how many different things there were to do: dialogs to listen to, vocabulary to learn, questions to answer, cultural notes, et cetera. I don't know if there are textbooks to accompany this, but it seems so much like a school language class that I'd bet there are. I could see us getting this course when our kids were slightly older, maybe. We've got an 8th-grader, a 6th-grader, and a 3rd-grader, and this seems sort of like a high school language course.
- Transparent Language: This is quite expensive, so I have not looked into it at all, but there's a free software called Byki that I've used a little. The inconvenience of installing a program on my computer wasn't overwhelmed by functionality or material or anything, so I have barely used it.
- BBC Languages: With so many other things I've been using, I have not really spent any time with this one at all. But it exists, here, and it's free.
- Write in Chinese: This website teaches simplified character stroke order.
- Various other resources: When we very first accepted this job, we watched some videos on YouTube that did a good job explaining tones, like this one. I've done Coffee Break Spanish in the past and I enjoyed that (although I didn't become a premium member due to poverty issues, I wanted to become one), and Radio Lingua has a One Minute Mandarin course, but I haven't listened to it at all.
So there you have it. I think my ideal learning setup for me would be Pimsleur recordings while looking things up on Pleco, Memrise for vocabulary building, and Train Chinese's Writer app for character stroke order. My ideal learning setup for my kids would be Discovering Chinese with something like Mango or ChineseSkill for them to make a game of reviewing.
EDIT (Sep. 2017): www.chinese-tools.com has a nice dictionary.