Chinese is a tonal language, meaning that any character can have many different meanings according to its tone and the character it is connected to. There are four principal tones (1- high flat, 2 – low rising, 3 – like a Chinese hat upside down, and 4 – abrupt falling) and a fifth “toneless” tone. This means that any one character can have many different meanings depending upon its tone and the character it is linked with. Thus: (1 – mother), (2 – hemp), (3 – horse), (4 – scold).
Unless you are a natural linguist the tones take some mastering, but don’t be shy to try – if you have context (you’re in a bar and you ask for a beer for example) you’re likely to be understood even if your tone is a little off. However, be prepared for a few blank faces too! Even if you have good Mandarin many people just won’t expect you to speak Chinese and are convinced they won’t be able to understand you – repeating yourself should do the trick.
Amusingly if you manage to get into a conversation but then hit a linguistic stumbling block some people will write the Chinese character in the belief that this will be easier to understand. This offers some insight into the diversity of the language – people from far flung parts of the country may not understand each other’s dialects, but if they can read they’ll be able to communicate. Practicing the tones for some basic phrases and then trying them out in context makes a good way to start teaching yourself Chinese, although understanding the responses can be more problematic!
If you’re really keen to learn the language then there are plenty of great places to do just that all over the country, from short lessons to entire courses. For me though the best way to learn a language is to absorb yourself in a country – gradually the strings of unintelligible sentences start to break down into words and once you’ve heard the word enough times to repeat it, ask what it is and that’s your word for the day.