Mandarin Chinese is an interesting language. Partly because of it's formidable reputation as a "hard" or nigh on "impossible" language to learn for us native Enlish speakers. What I'd like to do in this article is dispel some of the misnomers and mistruths surrounding learning to speak Chinese...
There are two main aspects of the Chinese language that scare most would be students: tones & characters.
Let's take a look at the first. Yes, Chinese has four tones. These tones affect the meaning of words. If you mess up your tones you say something completely different from what you planned. For example, ma, ma & ma, depending on the tone could mean "?", mother or horse.... or a host of other words.
Now you don't want to go calling your mother a horse or a horse your mother, though the Chinese language newbie need not fret. Tones really aren't as hard as you first think. Let me ask you a question:
Can you hum a tune? Do you sing in the shower, or sing along to the radio while driving in your car? If the answer is yes, then you can learn Chinese tones.
The reason people think they are so hard is because no-one knows how to teach them well. Native Chinese speakers learn their tones through mimicry as kids. As such, they've never had to actively "learn" tones, much in the same way as we've never had to actively learn basic English. We "do" English rather than "learn" English.
So, if you're able to hum a simple tune, you are perfectly capable of learning how to speak Chinese, provided you take the right approach.
Remember I said the second thing we native English speakers find hard about learning how to speak Chinese is Chinese characters: the written system? Well you need not fear here either. There are literally thousands of Chinese characters, all with different meanings, though only a relatively small amount are used in daily conversation.
Just as in English, the native Chinese speaker communicates wants, needs and basic thoughts in basic language, and day-to-day Chinese is more direct and basic than our mother tongue. The secret to leaning Characters easily is to take a natural approach.
Namely, don't try to run before you can walk, or walk before you can crawl. This translates into putting your emphasis on listening and speaking ahead of reading and writing. Learn the characters for words you can use in conversation. NEVER the other way around!
Trying to read and write ahead of listening and speaking is the fast way to boredom and frustration.
To wrap up; if you want to learn how to speak Chinese, then don't go about it the wrong way. Do put your emphasis on learning the natural way: listening and speaking ahead of reading and writing.
Finally, don't be scared by tones. If you can hum, you can learn how to speak Chinese.
Thanks for listening. I have lots more to add on these topics, so stay tuned!
Adrian has been frustrated with traditional Mandarin Chinese teaching methods since 1999; vowing to find a way to learn Chinese Better, Faster, while having more Fun!