Mandarin is an easier language to learn than you might think. Once you have mastered some basics, you will be able to converse with native speakers and learn from them almost from the start of your training.
Your first lessons in Mandarin will cover PRONUNCIATION, including the alphabet based system representing Chinese called Pinyin, INTONATION, and GRAMMAR.
Check out more info and links to resources below.
Pinyin Chart from Chinese.Yabla.Com. Click to enlarge. Visit their website for interactive pronunciation.
In order to understand and use Chinese pronunciation, start with Pinyin, the romanized version of Chinese, i.e. alphabetic letters that are used to stand for sounds in Mandarin. Note, Pinyin means (literally) “Spell Sound”. The system allows beginners to learn Chinese pronunciation without knowing characters, which are called “Hanzi”.
Pinyin, the standard form of language taught to children before they learn characters, is one of the most important aspects of Chinese for one to master. It’s also needed in order to type Chinese on computer and phone apps.
“Pinyin is a system for writing standard Mandarin Chinese using the Roman alphabet. Pinyin was developed by the People’s Republic of China in 1958, and implemented in 1979. It is used exclusively in mainland China to this day. Over the years pinyin has become widely accepted by the international community, replacing older systems of Romanization such as the Wade-Giles system.
It is important to remember that although pinyin uses the same letters as European languages, the sounds those letters represent are the sounds of Mandarin Chinese. Thus some letters may not make the sounds you expect. It is important that you pay close attention to how each letter of pinyin is pronounced, as you cannot read pinyin as if it were English.”
Also in reference to Pinyin, Wiktionary reminds:
“Although pinyin helps with pronouncing Chinese characters, one should be aware of the limits of its use as a pronunciation system. It mostly uses letters of the basic Roman alphabet, but some of these do not represent the sound that might normally be expected by an English reader. Other than to express tonality, the only letter with diacritics that is used is “ü”. It uses four different diacritics on vowels to represent tones: ā, á, ǎ, à, but these are often replaced with the superscripts 1 2 3 4 respectively when the diacritics cannot easily be represented.”
Harvard’s Chinese Pronunciation Guide is a good place to start for recordings that can be downloaded.
Mandarin is a tonal language. What does that mean? Non-native speakers struggle with this vital aspect of Chinese language. We just read that “statistically, tones are as important as vowels in Standard Chinese” (via U Chicago).
Foreigners learning Chinese may consider tones difficult and fixate (some say needlessly) on getting the exact tones right. Usually it is enough in conversation to come close enough, and context can help people figure it out. Don’t worry too much about tones, you’ll pick it up as you go along. Rhythm of speech and word order, using the right phrase at the right time, meeting the listener’s expectations of communication content, all of these can help overcome tonal irregularities in speech.
Here’s more on Chinese tones in Chinese Phonology from Wikipedia:
“Standard Chinese, like all Chinese dialects, is a tonal language. This means that tones, just like consonants and vowels, are used to distinguish words from each other. Many non-native Chinese speakers have difficulties mastering the tones of each character, but correct tonal pronunciation is essential for intelligibility because of the vast number of words in the language that only differ by tone (i.e. are minimal pairs with respect to tone). Statistically, tones are as important as vowels in Standard Chinese.
The following are the 4 tones of Standard Chinese:
First tone, or high-level tone (陰平/阴平 yīnpíng, literal meaning: dark level): a steady high sound, as if it were being sung instead of spoken.
Second tone, or rising tone (陽平/阳平 yángpíng, literal meaning: light level), or more specifically, high-rising: a sound that rises from mid-level tone to high (e.g., What?!)
Third tone, low or dipping tone (上 shǎng, literal meaning: “rising”): a mid-low to low descent; if at the end of a sentence or before a pause, it is then followed by a rising pitch. Between other tones it may simply be low.
Fourth tone, falling tone, or high-falling (去 qù, literal meaning: “departing”): features a sharp fall from high to low, and is a shorter tone, similar to curt commands. (e.g., Stop!)
NOTE ON THE UNOFFICIAL 5TH TONE:
Neutral tone: Also called fifth tone or zeroth tone (in Chinese: 輕聲/轻声 qīng shēng, literal meaning: “light tone”), neutral tone is sometimes thought of as a lack of tone. It usually comes at the end of a word or phrase, and is pronounced in a light and short manner. It is considered analogous to an unstressed syllable.”
AllSet Learning keeps an excellent Chinese Grammar Wiki. Chinese grammar is mercifully regular compared to European languages.