1. Listen to Mandarin as Often as Possible
The first month or maybe two, just focus on listening.
Start out by focusing on listening. Just get used to the sounds. You should read whatever you are listening to, but do so using a phonetic writing system, such as Pinyin, in order to get a better sense of what you are hearing. You will have to learn the characters eventually but you can leave the characters out at first, and instead, try to get a little momentum in the language.
It’s too difficult to start learning characters when you don’t have any sense of the words, what they sound like, or how they work together. A new language can sound like undifferentiated noise at the beginning. The first step is to become accustomed to the individual sounds of the language, to learn to differentiate words from each other, and even to have a few words and phrases reverberating in your brain.
begin learning a language with intermediate level texts that include a lot of repetition of vocabulary, rather than overly simple beginner texts. Podcasts and audio books are great for this. The Mandarin Chinese mini- stories at LingQ are an example of the kind of point of view stories, with a great deal of repetition of high frequency verbs, that are available today. These were not available to me 50 years ago.
2. Devote Time to Memorizing Characters
Once you decide to study Chinese characters, work at them every day. Devote half an hour to an hour a day just on learning characters. Use whatever method you want, but set aside dedicated character learning time every day. Why every day? Because you will forget the characters almost as quickly as you learn them, and therefore need to relearn them again and again.
You may want to use Anki or some other modern computer based learning system. Developed your own spaced repetition system. As we progress, learning new characters becomes easier because so many elements repeat in the characters. The characters all have “radicals”, components which give a hint of the meaning of a character. There are also components of the characters which suggest the sound. These radicals are helpful to acquiring the characters, although not at first. As with so much in language learning, too much explanation upfront is a distraction to acquiring the language. The efforts of teachers to explain these radicals and other components at the early stages of my learning were not to great avail. Only after enough exposure do we start to notice the components and that sped up my learning of the characters.
3. Recognize Patterns Rather than Rules
Focus on patterns. Don’t get caught up in complicated grammar explanations, just focus on patterns. Focus on patterns, write them out, say them to yourself, use them when speaking or writing, and watch for them when you listen and read.
4. Read More than You Can Handle
Read a lot. This is much easier to do today. You can find material on the Internet, use online dictionaries and apps like LingQ.
5. Get the Rhythm of the Language to Master the Tones
Focus on listening. Listen to whatever content you are reading. Reading helps you learn vocabulary, but listening helps you connect with the language and get prepared to speak. Listening comprehension is the core skill necessary in order to engage in conversation with people.One of the challenges of Mandarin is the tones. We learn the tone of each character as we acquire vocabulary, but it is difficult to remember these when speaking. It is important to internalize the tones as part of phrases. Listening helps you do this. The intonation and rhythm of Mandarin, or any other language, can only come from listening to the native speaker. You can’t learn it theoretically.
There is a tremendous array of listening material available for download on all possible subjects, or you can buy CDs if you are in China. In our modern world, all the material you find on the Internet, or material you may find in CDs, can be converted into downloadable audio files which you can have with you wherever you go on an MP3 player or a smart phone. Constant listening, even for short periods of five or 10 minutes while you’re waiting somewhere, can dramatically increase the time available for learning any language, including Mandarin Chinese.
6. Speak a lot and Don’t Second Guess Yourself
The individual sounds of Mandarin are not difficult for an English speaker to make. The tones are a different story. You will need to practice a lot, both speaking to yourself and speaking to others. Practice imitating what you are listening to. Find texts for which you have the audio. Listen to a phrase or sentence, then try to imitate the intonation, without worrying too much about individual sounds. You may even want to record yourself to compare. If you can get “infected” with the rhythm of the language, not only will your control of tones improve, but your choice of words will also become more native like.
When you speak, don’t second guess yourself on tones, or any other aspect of the language. Just let the words and phrases you have heard and practiced flow out, mistakes and all. Every time you use the language you are practicing and getting used to it. If you enjoy interacting in Chinese, if you enjoy getting in the flow, singing to the rhythm, then your Mandarin will continue to improve.
Don’t worry about mastering pronunciation at the beginning. We cannot pronounce what we don’t hear, nor imitate sounds and intonation that don’t resonate with us. In order to build up the ability to hear the language and to feel the music of the language, we simply have to listen to hundreds or even thousands of hours and allow the brain to get used to the new language. You can’t rush this process. Instead you should trust the fact that you will gradually and naturally get better. Therefore whatever stage you are at in Mandarin, just speak without fear and trust your instincts. If you continue your reading and listening activities, and if you continue speaking, your speaking skills will naturally improve.