When they first learn Mandarin Chinese, foreigners always confuse their own mother tongue with this "strange" language. The difficulty exists anywhere from pronunciation and grammar, to vocabulary and cultural background. Among these challenges, pronunciation is the most difficult to overcome and the easiest for making people confused. Because it is hard to communicate if your pronunciation is not correct, it is the most important part of learning Mandarin.
However, it is not an easy job to speak words correctly for some pronunciation is quite similar, such as “forty” and “fact”, which in Chinese pronunciation is “sìshí” and “shìshí”. They are quite alike. How to distinguish them? In fact, as long as you master some key skills of pronunciation, you can do it. When you pronounce some phonetics, such as, “zhi, chi, shi, ri”, try to put one of your figures between your teeth, then try to turn up your tongue without touching the finger in your mouth. In this way you will be sure to pronounce these syllables correctly. Also, remember that “i” is the natural continuation and amplification of the relative initials in “zhi, chi, shi, ri” and “zi,ci, si”. Now you can tell they are different from “i” in “ji, qui, xi”.
The next problem is how to distinguish the nasal finals “ang, eng, ing” from “an, en in”. For instance, how to pronounce “kāi fàng” (to be open) and “kāi fàn" (start a meal) in the right way? The key rule is that when you pronounce “ang, eng, ing”, you end their syllables with “g” in position without uttering “g”. In addition, the pronunciation “an, en, in” ends with the pronunciation “n” in position with no sound.
Compared to other languages, Chinese grammar is not very complicated. The difficulty when you learn Mandarin Chinese is that some unique usages only exist in Chinese, so it is hard to master this kind of expression without knowing a couple of rules. Measure words are the most confusing part of these usages. For example, when considering the length of articles, foreigners often wonder why the measure word “tiáo” is used to describe pants or a skirt, while the measure word “zhī” is used for a pen and a cigarette.
When you learn mandarin Chinese, you can overcome pronunciation difficulties with practice. You can also master grammar by knowing the relative rules, however it is not easy to use words in the proper way because it is hard to find words in different languages that have the same meaning. So another challenge when learning Mandarin is to memorize a lot of vocabulary. The reason for this is that it is not enough to know the literal meaning of words if you want to speak well; you need to learn the cultural and historical background of these words as well. So the process of mastering vocabulary is the mastering of Chinese culture itself.
A language is never independent knowledge system – it includes the history and wisdom of a whole nation as well. Therefore, as you learn Mandarin Chinese, you are also steeping yourself directly in Chinese culture. (From Mandarin House)
80/20 guide to learn mandarin Chinese pronunciation