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First off, Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, which means that the tone in which you speak has an impact on the meaning of the words. There are four primary tones and a fifth softer tone. Below is a description of the tones with an audio file attached. In it you will be learning an old exercise that I first learned when I began learning Chinese. So what are you waiting for?
Fifth tone(輕聲)=literally translates as "light tone"
After practicing along with the audio above, you can start to string all of the tones together in order, practicing each In turn. This can be done with any phonetic sounds in the language. So the above exercise could be practiced like this: mā má mǎ mà ma. It may be difficult for you to differentiate between the tones at first, but as with anything, practice makes perfect. So go do it!
As a written language, Chinese is, in my opinion one of the most beautiful, as well as misunderstood in the West. When we first start to learn a new language, it is only natural to work from the foundation we have already formed in our own native tongue; it is comfortable, it's what we know and how we relate to the world…but it's wrong. I encourage you all to learn Mandarin in the context of Mandarin. Because when we try to fit a new language into the framework of our own, it becomes something unnatural. People often want a word-to-word translation for everything, but quite frankly, this is something that doesn't exist. Many people are under the false assumption that Chinese characters are pictographs or symbols and that they each represent one idea or word, but this couldn't be farther from the truth. Most Chinese characters can have many meanings, which are dictated by the manner in which they are used. Not to mention many characters have several alternative pronunciations. I want you to learn to speak and read mandarin, and I'm not trying to make you feel overwhelmed, I just want to introduce the broad idea of the subject as I see it. We will work on refining each stage along the way, so when you get to the more advanced stuff it'll be a piece of cake!
Pinyin: Pinyin is an invaluable tool for the Chinese language learner. It is a romanization of traditional Chinese characters, and it offers Westerners a much more reader-friendly take on written Chinese. I personally feel that Pinyin is a great stepping stone, and I still use it all the time when I am typing Chinese or if I come across an unfamiliar Character in my own studies, though I feel that you should ultimately aim at learning the traditional written Characters (at least well enough to read) if you are really committed to learning Chinese. I have included both pinyin and traditional Chinese characters alongside the English translations in each of my lessons, but in order to encourage you to learn the characters, there are also times when I have intentionally omitted the pinyin as a "test", but of you need it, you can always back-track and double-check. I'm not going to include too much information about how to read pinyin, as others have already written about it much better than I could hope to. I think that by listening to the audio files and reading along, you should be able to pick it up pretty quickly. If enough people want it, i may do a video blog on the topic in the future. For further reading on how to read pinyin, please check out the links below: