I am studying Chinese just for fun--I've never been there but hope to take a vacation there this year or next. I've completed 32 of 90 Pimsleur Mandarin lessons (which are entirely audio) and plan to finish those. I've read a lot about Fluenz and its online primary tutor, Sonia Gil (who amazingly also teaches the Spanish, French and Italian courses)--you can find information on Amazon, Myspace and Facebook about Fluenz and her. They have a good philosophy on how to teach a language to English-speaking adults, which includes a teacher (better than any of us probably had in a classroom), and training techniques including video, audio, writing (typing words), recording and listening, phrase by phrase, to your own voice compared to the fluent speakers, and many other exercises. In addition to the DVD, they also provide an Audio CD which you can use in a CD player or download to an iPod or similar player. Here you can listen while driving or exercising to Sonia's associates--they provide a good supplement to the course. The Fluenz team also has recorded podcasts available to its customers, which can be downloaded for additional learning. I have enjoyed all the resources provided--altogether, it is an enjoyable and excellent way to develop a very good working skill for enough Chinese to get by while continuing to learn more. Fluenz expects to have a Mandarin 3 available this spring.
Even though I am well on the way with my Pimsleur courses (which I bought before I ever heard of Fluenz--a relatively new and small company with a great team and product), I thoroughly enjoyed and benefited from the very first of the 45 lessons in the Fluenz course, and I will definitely finish the entire course with enthusiasm and continue into Fluenz Mandarin 3 when it becomes available.
A few reviewers have criticized the fact that Sonia Gil is not a native Chinese speaker--she went to China for an intensive course, apparently in preparation for teaching this course--she is a co-founder of Fluenz. She herself says that her pronunciation, while very good, is not perfect, and that she is still learning. Her pronunciation is perfect for my purposes, and I will be very happy if I can pronounce Chinese nearly as well as she can. Also, other speakers, some native in Chinese, also are used in the DVD exercises, the Audio CD, and the podcasts. Moreover, two native Chinese speakers review and approve all the course materials. A big advantage of having Sonia be the teacher is that she has had to learn this language herself and knows and appreciates the areas where English-speaking learners are likely to have the most difficulty. In balance, I think having Sonia be the primary tutor is a plus, not a minus. We all can hear native Chinese speakers not only in the Fluenz program, but in other programs. What Fluenz does is to get you speaking Mandarin very fast and to provide a base for further learning. With this goal in mind, Fluenz elected to teach pinyin (Chinese sounds using the Western alphabet, rather than Chinese characters). The spelling and the accent marks really teach an English speaker the words and sounds very quickly--and those of us who are interested in the Chinese characters can continue our studies or supplement Fluenz with other materials.
I feel much more confident in my pronunciation and mental understanding of exactly what words I am saying, based on Fluenz, than my confidence that I am correctly hearing what I am supposed to be saying in the all-audio Pimsleur courses. I still like the Pimsleur courses very much--I just find that having listened to a lot of them, I am finding Fluenz very helpful.
If I can learn Chinese, anyone can. I am not good at languages, and I live as the troglodyte in a family of great language learners--one of my four kids is fluent not only in French, Spanish and Portuguese (and proficient in Italian), she speaks different dialects of each well enough to fool local natives into thinking that she is a native of the same region. Chinese is a tonal language (four basic tones can change the same word into four totally different meanings--some of which could be quite embarrassing if the wrong tone is used). Fluenz does a great job in teaching the tones so that even I (who cannot carry a tune or sing even in English) am beginning to feel confident that I can avoid total disaster.
Fluenz's customer service has a reputation (based on the company's own descriptions and on the many reviews in Amazon and Facebook) for prompt, responsive and friendly personal attention and service. In my case, I sent an email with several questions and, on the morning of the first following business day, I received a very nice, personally written response with the answers, helpful suggestions, and a wish for happy holidays.
I have a technical, computer observation that might be of interest to Apple Mac users. I first tried on my Apple laptop the Windows version of the Fluenz DVD, because I can run a Windows XP or Vista virtual machine on my Mac, and figured that I could use the DVD not only that way but also on my desktop, which is a Windows-based PC. Everything worked fine until I tried to record my own voice using the Mac's internal microphone while running Fluenz in the Windows virtual machine. That's when I discovered (and this is not a problem peculiar to Fluenz) that the Mac's internal microphone does not work well (very low, garbled sound, if any) when running a virtual machine via either Fusion or Parallels--I verified this problem with an Apple employee and by online research. So my choice was to buy an external microphone and connect it by a USB cable, or return Fluenz Windows and get Fluenz Mac. I opted for the latter. I now have Fluenz for Mac, and it works perfectly--I've tried all the different types of exercises--on my Mac. (And, of course, when I had earlier run the Fluenz Windows version on a Windows PC, that version worked perfectly there, too.
Lastly, the Fluenz primary program (the one on the DVD--not the Audio CD or the podcasts) must be run on your computer directly from the DVD. I think that Fluenz protects against unauthorized copying in this way. But without being able to make a backup copy or to transfer the DVD onto a computer, it places a premium on being very careful not to lose or damage a DVD costing over $300. I hope that Fluenz would for a nominal charge replace a damaged DVD, but I have not asked them and hope that I never need to ask.
All in all, I highly recommend Fluenz for Mandarin or any language that it offers. (By the way, I have no connection to the company and don't know any of the people there personally, although they seem from the company descriptions and pictures and customer service to be very nice.)