Something I don't get
The course seems focussed on teaching me sounds and symbols but in most cases there's not explanation of their meaning. What's the point of just parroting the sounds if I don't know what I'm saying?
Then the final exercise is a translation but since I never learned any meanings all I can do is copy the explanation. This doesn't seem to make much sense. Or am I missing something?
I am native Chinese. This is the way Duolingo uses. It is pretty much the same in learning other languages. e.g. The Italian from English course which I just started. After a few picture-to-vocabulary matching exercises (man, women, boy, girl, apple), you are asked to pick up meanings from the English translation. If you do not have any idea about what Italian is like, you also need to guess your way through. So be prepared for this situation.
I understand. Talking about learning Chinese I think the first thing that comes to the mind of many people is the difficulty of learning Chinese characters and learning so many of them. What Duo is trying to do is to reduce the number of elements to learn. Personally I don't think it is too bad because for plain beginners it would be very boring to go through so many such lessons before they can say something basic.
As other users suggests, make good use of the hover tips. Get yourself a good dictionary or use an online one with Pinyin (perhaps someone can suggest which) to learn Chinese characters and use Duo as a practice tool.
Many characters have different meanings in different contexts. While learning the general meanings of the characters can be useful, it does not always help you figure out the actual meaning of the sentence.
Like others have said, hovering over or tapping the characters will give you the definition. Words that are composed of multiple characters will even be broken down to give you an idea of the literal meaning. If the definition given is confusing or doesn't sound right, it's pretty easy to look up the word if you know the pronunciation.
Doulingo definitely needs to find a better way to teach meanings in the lessons. Until then, don't let it get in the way of your learning; the practices are a great way to reinforce your vocabulary and learn to use words in sentences. Also, ask any questions you may have in the sentence discussions! Plenty of people will try to answer your question. :)
There are relatively few sentences in each lesson. It would probably be a good idea if you got an English translation in addition to the Hànzì and pīnyīn, when you are learning the characters.
For now, you are going to have to review the lessons in order to understand the grammar and meaning or use an additional resource for them. (You could use an online dictionary at the same time)
I agree, I'm not sure what the strategy is for doing this. It doesn't work for me.
What I do is I use Google Translate liberally. When DL throws me a new sound and character, I immediately look it up in GT and then enter the sound, character and meaning into my notebook.
I have a bit of a head start, since I was exposed to the sounds and symbols (but not always together!) so it doesn't seem as alien to me as it might to you.
(BTW, the title of your post could be more explicit. It's would be help for people sorting through discussion topics.)