I wanted to kick off things by discussing the first stages of learning. There are many things that get people interested in starting learning a language and I’ve found that your reason for studying will directly impact how quickly you learn. Whatever you reason, however, you will always want to start with the basics and keeping things simple is key to helping your brain retain new information.
This is a formula I have used in picking up new languages when I travel and also when seriously looking at studying a new language. If you are unilingual, in that you speak only 1 language, and you are beginning a new tongue, then your brain needs to get used to recognising new sounds and your mouth needs to get used to creating them.
Lets start with the mouth. Because Mandarin uses a very different sound set to most Indo-European languages, it is extremely difficult for us to create some of the sounds and pronounce them well with obvious differentiation; notably your rī/rè or cí/chī sounds.
When I first began studying Chinese in my own time I struggled with these sounds especially when trying to string words together to make basic sentences. I found that getting these sounds locked down was the most important and would actually help me to better remember new words. I would highly recommend you as a beginner to take time (and I mean a lot of time) getting to grips with Pinyin and making sure you understand the sounds that should be made.
You can use a Pinyin Chart and there are some good interactive ones online that are available that will help you understand Pinyin and say things properly. I would also note that what I did when first learning, was to go through all the initials (the consonant at the beginning of a syllable) and then all the finals (or vowels).You need to really understand how the sounds differ for example:
X as opposed to Sh
Z as opposed to C
uo as opposed to ou
ui as opposed to ei
u as opposed to o
A super important thing to watch out for is the relationship of z,c,s,zh,ch,sh and r, and how they affect the pronunciation of the final, i. This will clear up a lot of mispronunciations and is a really hard thing to get around if you continue learning words without getting this first. There are some good videos on YouTube about this if you want some clarity on how to say them.
Once you have these understood you can then look at how all initials and finals react when put together to create a syllable or Pinyin.
Relentlessly practicing pronunciation of Pinyin may seem like a silly exercise (especially when you are doing it in the mirror!) but while doing this you are actually pronouncing every single sound that there is in Chinese and there are only 416 of them. Already fluency doesn’t seem too far away, and believe me, it really is not.
By far the most talked about thing when learning Chinese is its tones. Yes, Chinese is as you know a tonal language but no, it is not something to be afraid of. Just like Pinyin pronunciation, you can practice your tones the same way and for each Pinyin on you chart, review it in all 4 tones. The tricky part, I remember from experience, is staring to use tones in multi syllable words and sentences. A great technique to get around this is again practicing these tones in pairs that differ.
e.g. yīng gāi zhōng guó pīng shuǐ chī fàn chī le
1 + 1 1 + 2 1 + 3 1 + 4 1 + Neutral
If you have really been working on getting this tones pairs correct and the pronunciation of the Pinyin correct the congratulations, there is nothing in Chinese that you cannot say. All you need to do now is learn the words!
This is where the second part of picking up a language comes in, your brain. Now that you have trained your mouth to work with these new sounds you brain is primed and ready to soak up new information. I found that before this I had real trouble remembering words that had once sounded similar but now my the mouth and brain are trained in differentiation of the sounds, it gets a whole lot easier, trust me. Staring off slowly and learning a few nouns, verbs and pronouns and you will already be starting to piece together some very basic sentences. Do not worry your self with grammar or syntax at this point, it will only distract you from enjoying a new experience learning Chinese and will be detrimental to your spoken language.
Thats all for now but keep up the good work!