I have been studying Mandarin Chinese, somewhat inconsistently for about five years. It all started went to live in China for a study abroad program. The program was supposed to be one semester, but turned into nearly a whole year of living in Chengdu, China, my favorite city in the middle kingdom.
When I first arrived in China, I had not learned any Mandarin, nor did a I plan on learning the language. I estimated I would be in and out. However, after a few weeks of partying non-stop, the exchange students were offered a Chinese class, it was once or twice a week.
To first learn basic Mandarin, we had to learn Pinyin, which is the most recent phonetic based translation of sounds into a Latin based alphabet. After learning all of the combinations of sounds that are used in Mandarin, we began focusing on the four main Mandarin tones: there is a long flat tone, a shorter upward tone, a tone that dips down and comes back up, and a tone that is short and quick.
Finally, after “mastering” our tones, we started to learn basic sentences and phrases. When starting out in Mandarin, and many other languages, you learn the basic introductions, such as “Hi, how are you?”, “where is the library?”.
After learning the Pinyin and tones, I found myself practicing the tones and sounds a few times a week to out compete my peers, and then I started to like it. That’s when I started to dig in to the language more, and tried to interact with students and locals. However, my Mandarin didn’t take off until my second semester.
During my second semester I attended a daily three hour class. I took learning Mandarin seriously, and ever since I have been addicted, but it is an incredibly hard language to maintain without practice. Therefore, I could be fluent by now had I stayed in China or figured out a way to speak it daily with a native speaker.
So If you want to learn Mandarin, it is incredibly rewarding and difficult, but start with Pinyin, tones, and then you can dive right in. However, to get the most out of learning, you need to find a language partner or tutor.