Are you thinking about learning Chinese? If so, then you should read this.
The two biggest things that students complain about when they learn Chinese for the first time are pronunciation and the Chinese characters. The pronunciation mainly because it seems as if you have to sing to get the sound right and even then, you still can't nail the tone. And it doesn't help that very similar sounding tones can have completely different meanings. For instance, the four tones of "ma" can mean to curse, a horse, mom, or a question particle (that is, something that turns the phrase into a question), and other things. The other issue is Chinese characters. I won't talk about Chinese characters here (you can learn more about it here) but will tell you why should make learning tones your first priority and the best way to do it.
Getting the tones right is an essential foundation to speaking and listening in Chinese. The good news about learning to speak Chinese is that once you master the tones, the rest becomes a lot easier. Many Chinese learning systems don't give tones nearly the amount of attention that it deserves unfortunately. Perhaps because the tones come so naturally to Chinese people that they don't realize that there is indeed a need to put emphasis on this. I know that I certainly felt that way initially when I first started teaching Chinese. But I kept getting the same feedback from students: I am having difficulty with the tones. What's the point of learning all of these words if I can't say them properly? The reality is that learning a tonal language is more difficult for speakers of non-tonal languages.
Once you start working on your tones, you will have a big head start. If you are already taking Chinese classes, go on YouTube and search for "Chinese PinYin." Watch these videos, say the words out loud until you sound like the person on the video. A word of caution: there are a lot of speakers of Chinese that have accents depending on which region of China they are from and some variations stray far from the "proper way" of speaking Chinese (this also includes university courses and private language schools). Standard Mandarin is based on the Beijing Dialect so try to make sure that you are learning from someone with the correct accent if possible.
You can also look for "bpmf chinese". This will teach you how certain letters are pronounced and will go a long way in helping you read pinyin. A good technique to try when you watch the videos is to record yourself saying your tones. You can record yourself on a tape recorder, your computer, or your smartphone. After you have recorded yourself, compare how you sound to the video. This will allow you to judge how you sound much better.
About the writer
Rui Zhi Dong is founder and host of LearnMandarin.com.au - an Online Video Course for Beginners of the Chinese Language