I am going to assume that you speak English, as you are able to read this. Now to learn Standard Mandarin you will require at least two things. The first is determination. The second is a Chinese visa. Learning to speak Chinese is a long-term project even for very talented people, and in my seasoned opinion, it is not even possible until you actually live in The Middle Kingdom. This statement does of course depend on how serious you are about studying Mandarin, but if we are talking fluency, we are talking boots on the ground. The reason that being in China is not only a huge help, but a prerequisite, is the fact that Standard Mandarin is very different from the English language. I have never met anyone that has learned fluent-ish mandarin without being able to practice it every day, for at least a year.
For this reason, the three steps to learning Mandarin, is really the three steps to being able to live in China, and communicate on a basic level so you can practice every day. To focus on learning Mandarin for those situations where you can use it, while living in China, is the fastest track to proficiency. However, before you are able to focus on complicated, situation specific, jargon and terminology you need to have command of the glue that controls the rest of the language.
The most basic, and most useful, skill is therefore pronunciation. This might seem like an obvious statement but for Chinese, intelligible pronunciation is not as straightforward as it is in, for example, English. English has syllables, end of story – if you learn to pronounce all syllables and you can pronounce every English word. Mandarin is a completely different story, in Chinese, tones matter in a way that is even hard to describe to a person that is not familiar with other tonal language. If you change the modulation of the pitch as you pronounce the word for buy, for example, you are actually saying sell. If you change the pitch when saying beautiful, you can end up saying the word for every, or the first character of America.
The second skill you need to become familiar with, to live and practice Chinese in China, is how Chinese people write and read. People tend to favor learning to simply speak but this is not enough to reach real fluency. It is not really evident at first when you start learning Chinese, but later, when you have identical 20 syllables in front of you, it is very difficult to remember them all without having a distinguishing aspect to focus on. Furthermore, to learn Mandarin in order to use it like a Chinese person means that you also need to learn how to write.
The third step is syntax. You need the grammar and idioms to succeed in this effort. Now, the best way to actually learn the grammar is not to focus on it. To instead go back to what we were talking about earlier: learning the stuff you need for the way you live your life. As soon as you have access to the basic grammar, the basic pronunciation and the basic writing system, learning more complicated syntax and words becomes a walk in the park, or a day at the office, or weekend diving. When you get over the hurdle of basic communication you have reached critical mass and from that point, further language acquisition is much much more easy, fun and targeted.
Let us speak a little about that last aspect, targeted. I don’t speak Chinese like a Chinese person does, but I do speak Chinese. The difference between me and native people in my office, while in the office, is not that big. I am able to communicate anything I want without ever having to revert back to English. However, as soon as I leave the office and do something I have not done before in China, it is still a matter of learning. In this way, learning Chinese is a life long process, but to learn to speak fluent Chinese in the Chinese setting you will mostly use it in – easy.