Three weeks ago I started learning Chinese. I am lucky enough to have a friend in Cremona who was born in Italy but has Chinese parents and speaks fluent Mandarin. She had just returned to Italy after a year in America, and so wanted to keep up her English to pass a TOEFL exam, with high hopes to study abroad in the USA or the UK in September 2014. We met up with for an aperitivo and agreed to meet a few times this summer and exchange languages. Those "a few times" turns into 3 or 4 times a week full on lessons.
I would meet at her flat and study Chinese from Italian for an hour. We would then put down the book and chat in English about everything and anything.
I have with me the Collins book Chinese Language and Culture. It is extremely interesting, informative, and gives a brief idea about the kind of problems one might encounter with Mandarin, namely: Pinyin vs Characters, the counting systems, tones. It also provides motivation, emphasising the "lack" of grammar in Mandarin and the ease of learning the often one or two syllable words. That said, there was definitely an obstacle: the pronunciation. Though the pronunciation guide is rich, and the method for learning tones is about as good as a written guide can get, I still think it is necessary to learn these things from a native speaker.
The tones are the main complaint of every Mandarin learner, be it from a beginner or advanced student. When said clearly and in order, it is pretty easy to notice the different, but being emphatic enough often poses a difficulty. I found copying my friend's pronunciation, reading and being corrected and moving my head at the same time as sounding the tone all useful. While it is quite straightforward picking out the 3rd tone, sometimes the other three can be very subtle and difficult to identify in full sentences.
Things which I have learned in the past few weeks:
1. That Chinese is an SVO language and there is no inversion even for questions. So to make a question of "Nǐ hǎo", which literally means "you are good", you would retain the same order but add the question marker "ma". So "Nǐ hǎo ma?" means how are you?"
2. The numbers from one to ten With these you can count up to 99. 20 would be 2 10, 11 would be 10 1 and so on.
3. The Pinyin system. There are undoubtedly a few vowel combinations I am unsure of, but I have got the jist and feel I would be quite comfortable with reading a text in pinyin, though very slowly to ensure I get those tones right...
4. There are no conjugations like in romance languages. The past is demonstrated by adding an extra past marking after the verb, either le or guò, the former describes action which could still affect the present, the latter describing events which have finished, and/or could have been repeated in the past.
5. The main way of talking about the future is similar to the English way. "I will" previously meant I want: Wǒ yào qù Běijīng. It is loosely equivalent to the English "I am going to", showing intent.
6. The equivalent to the English "I will" is found more in Wǒ huì Zhōngguó", meaning "I will speak Chinese". This is more of a prediction about the future rather than an intent.
7. Many new words are formed through compounds. Many concepts are visualized in terms of the images which could be used to described them. "Zhōngguó rén", for example, translated as "Chinese person", literally means middle-country person. jīntiān, which means "today", is actually a combination of the words current/modern and day. The character for day, 天, also means heaven as has an important place in Taoism. Often by learning a small set of basic everyday characters, it becomes possible to create more complex meanings.
8. The counting system is a little scary. Though the cardinal and ordinal numbers are easy enough to remember (for ordinal numbers you just stick a "dì" before cardinal ones), there is an important classifier which must be put between the number and noun, depending on what type of noun it is. The most common is "gè".