With Mandarin, a real trick may be learning to pronounce
words effectively. Or that has been my experience. If you get a tutor, conversation partner or really any source of audio examples, look carefully at whether your learning source and the person you work with are from the same region. If they are not, this is a big issue with Chinese. Much worse than some other major languages -- the "internal" differences can be really vast. Going halfway across mainland China felt to me a little like crossing some national boundaries, linguistically. Technically at least, there is even a slight difference between Beijing dialect and "standard" Mandarin.
I have worked on Japanese for a good few years, and Mandarin for just a couple. I'm sorry I don't know a wonderful Mandarin-English technical dictionary for hard sciences offhand. Your Google may be as good as mine. If I can offer you something on the matter of conversation skills... I would recommend focusing seriously on grammatical structures. From my point of view, the issue -- at least when starting out -- is not so much that you need to "know" technical terminology. It sounds like you do need to find
references for at least some. It may be helpful to learn some specialized verbs particular to your field (for example, whatever version of "mixing" solutions is involved today). Now that being said... I doubt that you need to be able to reel of a dozen terms like that sequentially in speech. (Even if that would be ideal, I suspect you need this other kind of preparation.) If having only a few big terms will smoothen the operation on a given day, then with a basic knowledge of the sound system and a super technical dictionary, you may be able to learn raw terminology a few hours or minutes beforehand. However, I'm more concerned that we don't have the "have you tried to use" phrase established. I also figure that there may be multiple, nuanced sub-functions of "have you tried" in a given language. Moreover, there are so many
situations where you want to rattle off the appropriate one (pretty fast and smoothly) to get any of those things done.
So my approach is, start building yourself a solid repertoire of those structures early on. Don't wait until you can say "high-level technical conference agenda" to learn to say generally useful like structures like "IF" and "...has been completed" and "... then the situation would be better." This may not work for everyone, but I am inclined to say think of the language more as a big set of functions. There are a few that you can use over and over to get lots of things done in a rudimentary way. You need to be able to choose the correct one for each situation, and spit them out fast. As you go along, you can learn new sets of vocabulary to plug into the basic functions to cover more ground or suit new situations. Or you can learn still more functions to provide more precision, more formality, nuance, etc.
To begin with, you may want to spend some time poking at basic rules of the language to get a decent idea of the sound system and some very simple rules of general grammar (where do verbs often go, what do past versus present tense look like, etc.). It's also a nice confidence builder to know simple things like time-telling, days of the week, basic adjectives like good -- interesting -- cute -- sick -- tired -- long -- difficult -- boring -- delicious etc. Again, though, you're not setting out to pass a comprehensive course. You probably know much more precisely than any syllabus what you would really like to accomplish for your laboratory setting. As soon as you feel ready, or maybe sooner to warm yourself up, I would at start peeking through a wider range of grammar structures. Examples out of a hat: Things like scope "from ... to..." something, benchmarks for task accomplishment like "have you done..." something. There are plenty of phrase structures that are not all long or abstract, but you may want them to get things done with whatever is in the lab etc. Don't worry about exactly what goes inside them. For practice that does not really matter. On any given day in the world, that could be a protein isoform or it could be blueberry muffins. Learn the structure in the abstract: Plug in whatever filler makes it amusing in the meantime. You can worry about the real "something" later, when you no longer need to work on getting that structure smoothly off your tongue.
Formal language programs will often teach structures one at a time in lessons jammed with long vocabulary lists. Many language learning books do much the same thing. My suggestion is to seriously focus on the grammar as a project separate from learning vocabulary. Make grammar key and vocabulary secondary. Get the clearest possible information on the grammar, check any confusion about how it works in practice as much as you can, and start absorbing various structures you can use to get things done as quickly as you feel comfortable. Do try your best to be sure you have a fairly good understanding of the structures in the first place, because you will recall them the way you initially conceived them. However, unless the structure is super abstract and philosophical, don't fret too much. Have faith that you'll be corrected through practice once you start trying to use it. If that happens, at worst you have to retrain yourself to think of it the correct way. Honestly, sometimes a little embarrassment does that better than all our learning strategies
What I've done... I test whether I remember a structure written on a flashcard, look at it again, if I messed up then say it to myself or write it a few times in shorthand while staring at it, come back to it later. Once you have a good few, you can shuffle the flashcards and flip through a few more structures after you have reinforced the ones you missed, and let the mistakes come back for another run or few in the process. Keep doing it, day in and day out and believe it will eventually sink in. Don't kick yourself because it doesn't seem to stick early on. Just keep on practicing. Do it until you can spit a few out, or mix them up and recognize them when you hear them without thinking.
Whatever you do to absorb the information... Drill, drill, drill those structures to yourself over and over. This doesn't have to be an hour at a time. You may want to look at examples of each structure for a few minutes (easy ones) or a lot more minutes (up toward harder intermediate ones) to gather what it's seems to be about and what cases people actually apply it to. But once you have done that you can summarize what the structure means and when to use it in a few of your own words, and then take a few minutes at different times throughout the day to test yourself on remembering that -- and remembering that structure so you can say the Chinese yourself instantly. Anywhere you are willing to fill in spare time to help this along. Again, put whatever
you want inside the structure when you practice it. It can be "from the proteins experiment to the loading dock" (and you don't need to know those locations in Mandarin yet to learn the structure) or "from Timbuktu to Hobbitville". Whatever keeps the process interesting!
Don't worry at all about actually being able to recall it the first or fifth or tenth time. In fact, don't assume that because you remembered it the third or fourth time you will get it right on attempt twenty. If you actually mean to remember it, then what you need to do is practice in a way that allows you to get a sense for yourself of about when you have probably "got" it. At that point, you probably could
keep it in memory if you actually are using it for practical purposes now and then. Until you are ready to use a few things in the workplace, you can start to review the ones you feel you "have down" less often, and spend more time on practicing newer structures.
worry much about memorizing every single vocabulary item you might want to talk about someday. That is something that formal programs tend to emphasize. It impresses the natives; it gives teachers something to quiz as often as they wish. It is also a big temptation when you do have a worksite full of stuff
and people with fancy titles (supervisor, professor, client, whatever) to refer to. But don't let vocabulary block you from learning the structures you need to manipulate the situation. There is always more vocabulary. It can be fascinating to learn terminology, but an obsessive focus on vocabulary can also become endlessly time consuming and has limited rewards. You may want to pick up a few basic adjectives and maybe some general stuff like days of the week, types of stores you order from, whatever is a big deal in your environment. I suppose sooner or later, those few critical materials you use day in and day out, if you can narrow them down to a few lists of ten or twenty and plug them into memory. Anything that the meaning is very clear to you, the usage seems straightforward, or central to the minor confusion in your workplace.
So spread out the vocabulary and learn a little at a time. Focus on grammar regardless, so you can actually do something with all those nouns. Memorize a few nouns you will use constantly
, and for the rest keep a big list or "cheat" sheet. You can have separate sheets that you carry or post in each room full of equipment or whatever. You'll probably find that even if you never actively memorize all of these words for the site, you will pick up some over time by using them for work as well. Some ideas about learning pronunciation: If you can get a native or a recording of the word actually said a few times in Chinese, that may help (not always available, but it's a thought). On any cheat sheets, write words down in a way that you
have a clear idea about how to pronounce them! This is important generally. Don't feel that you need to always write like textbooks if their Romanized forms of Chinese are confusing you (and they will use various forms btw). You will need to learn the sound system and be able to read some of them to learn your words originally, but you definitely need to understand how to say
stuff you want to work with. Even when I have a list of Chinese characters for new words, I often also scrawl in a pidgin pronunciation of my own -- hinting to myself how syllables and tones sound to me as people say them.
As for guides... I haven't studied Chinese super extensively, but I was always impressed by the Routledge grammar books. They are written by linguists so you have to understand they may seem slightly technical at first. (There are also much
more dense Mandarin reference books out there, trust me! It's pretty scary.) This series packs a lot of information into a small book, but it's not terribly cluttered to my eyes. I think they are quite good at giving you multiple, clear enough examples of each structure. That can be very useful when you're trying to gain ground quickly. It also allows you to flip back and forth in a small text and compare some of the options the language provides. I've only used a couple, but last I saw they had covered at least well into Intermediate. So if you find their organization convenient then you can use more from the same series to build a good reference foundation.
There are some previews of books in the series
at Amazon. I used a Basic and Intermediate Guide as I recall, but I also see some new and various versions here... Maybe flip through a few and see if something feels right?
I'm sorry I don't have help on dictionaries. Good luck!