One of the most important tasks in becoming truly fluent in a language is to pronounce its sounds properly.
Such “phoneme fluency” (a phoneme is a basic sound that is a part of a language) is sometimes not necessary for basic communication, as many have discovered when speaking about fairly basic things with nonnative speakers of their own language. But true fluency — including pronouncing the sounds properly —differentiates someone who has mastered a language from someone who “merely” knows enough of its vocabulary and grammar to communicate effectively some of the time.
In any dialect of Chinese, including standard Mandarin, this is of course also true. For starters, like many languages Mandarin has several sounds that do not exist in English. There are some that I didn’t find difficult to get approximately right, right from the get-go— for example, the i sound in 吃 (chī, “to eat”) and 是 (shì, “to be,” although not said as frequently as “to be” is in English). Note that I believe that Pinyin is not ideal; the i in 七 (qī, seven) and 西 (xī, west) is pronounced differently from the one in 是. This is why I personally prefer the GR system, about which more below.
The single character that as a native English speaker I find strangest, and always have doubts about pronouncing correctly, is 日 (rì, “sun” or “day” — 节日, jiérì, “holiday”; 日子, rìzi, “day”; and even, since Japan lies to the east of China, 日本, Rìběn, “Japan” or “sun source”). Having said that, I am pretty confident I am not pronouncing it as a native speaker would, although it’s close enough to communicate effectively.
And there are several sound combinations that in Pinyin look easy enough to say, but in fact in Mandarin are pronounced differently. I refer to words ending in the Pinyin finals “eng” — 灯 (dēng, light), 风 (fēng, wind or spirit or scene), 梦 (mèng, dream). These words are not pronounced with the classic short “e” sound, as in “bed,” and indeed there is no American English equivalent to the vowel sound here — it sort of sounds like the ending in “rung,” but the vowel sound in this word is still not quite the same; you have to listen to native speakers before you know how to say it.
Getting these sounds right is critical to being “phonemically fluent.”
But the most critical thing for beginning students of Chinese is to get the tones right. If you do not, sometimes you will not even be understood.
Chinese teachers, who have heard students get tones wrong many times, can (bless them) usually figure out what the student meant, but non-teachers are often left mystified.
As has been noted by the BOLICC blogger Jay Cave here, Chinese is a tonal language. The same words but with different tones have different meanings. For example, 股市 (gǔshì) means “stock market,” while 故事 (gùshi) means “story” and “古时” (gǔshí) means, usually in writing, “ancient times.”
This cannot be overemphasized: if you are not paying attention to tones, you are speaking bad Chinese.
Getting the tones wrong is, to a native speaker who is not a Chinese teacher, like listening English in which the speaker is randomly substituting words — something like “I went to the tremendous today.” If you want to say “How did the stock market do today,” a perfectly reasonable translation is 今天股市怎么样？(Jīntiān gǔshì zěnmeyàng?) But if instead you say 今天故事怎么样？(Jīntiān gùshi zěnmeyàng?), the listener will hear “What is/was the story like today?”, which of course is nonsense.
And this error supposes that you are using the wrong tones, but at least pronouncing those wrong tones correctly. If you can’t even pronounce the tones correctly, your partner will have a hard time even understanding what you are talking about. I have been in in too many Chinese classrooms where students are speaking Chinese as if they were speaking English, with tones random, bearing little relation to what the Chinese tones would be — often little in the way of tones at all. Don’t do this.
Admittedly, with Pinyin it is a challenge, unless you can simultaneously memorize the Latin-character spelling and the tone marks, to get tones right. I have always been a fairly good speller, but because English (unlike numerous European languages) has few words with accent marks on top or below the letters, I was never good at memorizing tone marks in Pinyin. However, the very first year I took Chinese in graduate school in 1988, I was fortunate to have a teacher who selected a textbook that employed a romanization system that didn’t need tone marks — known as the GR system. GR stands for, in Pinyin, Guóyǔ lómǎzì; in GR, Gwoyeu Luomaatzyh. (See how much easier it is when you know the rules?)
This system distinguishes tones by using different combinations of Roman letters. So whereas Pinyin uses gū, gú, gǔ and gù to indicate the “gu” sound in tones 1, 2, 3 and 4, in GR it is “gu,” “gwu,” “guu” and “guh.” A pretty good table comparing Pinyin, GR and a few other currently less widely used romanization systems is at pinyin.info. GR has romanization that more closely resembles what Mandarin speakers actually say — if you erase from your mind the Pinyin sounds associated with the letter “i” (and again, that there are two of them is a drawback), the GR pinyin of the Pinyin sound “xī” which in GR is “shi,” seems more natural. So too is “chi” more sensible than Pinyin’s “qī.” To render the final in the word 吃 (Pinyin chī), GR uses a different Roman letter, and so spells this first-tone word “chy.” The four tones for words with these sounds are in GR spelled chy, chyr, chyy and chyh, as opposed to Pinyin’s chī, chí, chǐ and chì. The neutral tone, which is only used as a second character in two-character expressions, uses the first-tone spelling, but with a period between the two words, as in “chy. le fann” (吃了饭, “ate”), as opposed to Pinyin’s “chī le fàn.”
Several of the GR spellings for Mandarin “initials” seem more sensible, more like the Mandarin sounds in GR. “grass” (草) is “cǎo” in Pinyin (“c”? What the heck?) but in GR is “tsao.” (Such a word in the first tone would be “tsau.”) Similarly, 早 (“early” or “good morning”) is zǎo in Pinyin but has the proper hint of a z sound in GR, “tzao.” (Again, first tone would be “tzau,” as in “tzaugau” —糟糕, Pinyin zāogāo, literally “messy cake,” which is used more broadly in the same way “a big mess” is in English).
So if you have reached a point where you can at least say tones properly, and you are a decent speller anyway, GR Is a much more effective system for immediately memorizing tones. When I was spending an entire year studying Chinese later in life, I had the time to render the words I was given in Pinyin into GR.
But Pinyin has been the official romanization system in the mainland since shortly after the revolution, and now even in Taiwan is seen from time to time and place to place (along with Chinese characters, naturally). Most annoyingly, street signs in cities are all in Pinyin, but without the tone marks. (Of course they too have characters, but if you don’t know them that is not much help.) So this tactic of “GR-ing” everything may be difficult. (Interestingly, some personal and business names used in Taiwan clearly use GR.)
But regardless, tones are really important. The person who uses them correctly already is much more able to communicate than the person who does not. So take it seriously from the moment you start studying Chinese.