I've been studying Mandarin at University for about two years and 3 months. The mistakes I made, might not be mine particularly, but perhaps the way our course is structured. However, these mistakes can be applied to anyone starting to learn Mandarin. These "mistakes" are not necessarily bad, but it's part of my current shortcomings in Mandarin that I still struggle with. Perhaps you can learn from me and try to fill those gaps earlier on.
1) Tones are part of the word
I grasped the tones really easy. I could pronounce separate words when I read pinyin. However, down the line, I started learning new words mainly on pinyin (general pronunciation) and it's relationship with the character. I could read the character and get the pinyin, but at that time, I couldn't speak yet, so I bypassed the tone, for I thought I'd learn that later. Now, when I can actually string sentences together, I realized I didn't focus on the tones. This is probably my biggest mistake thus far. From the START when learning new words, the TONE is PART of the WORD. Unless you speak it with the relating tone, you're effectively learning a different word. It might be a bit more effort, but words in Mandarin have an extra feature, learn the tones, 'cause it's part of the word. I wonder how this relates to linguistics? Is the tone part of the lexeme? Any sinolinguists wanna comment?
2) Too much focus on vocabulary
This mistake might be a little paradoxical, but at first I focused way too much on getting a substantial vocab, that I neglected producing sentences. I was bent on recognizing more characters and more words, that by the time I had a substantial vocabulary, I was at a loss of how to string a simple sentence together. The best way to circumvent this is to learn the vocabulary within given examples. ChaCha is great for this. Also try to make a sentences using your newly learned vocabulary. Not only does this make remembering it easier, it also places emphasis on getting those sentences out. When I was in Beijing last year for a summer school this exact problem arose. I was stuck with crude one word sentences, trying my best to explain. Coupled with mistake number one, those words we're horribly pronounced, and therefore I failed horrible at communicating. Words in context can sometimes convey the correct meaning even if the tone is wrong.
3) Importance of Pinyin
At University there is a strong focus on characters. I also tried my best to avoid reading Pinyin, for it felt second-hand to the characters. I wanted to read this "strange" language how it's meant to be read. Little did I know, that reading pinyin, without characters, can also immensely help you're comprehension/listening. If you can read pinyin all strung together for without trying to look at characters, you're effectively "listening" to the language. This way, due to the homophonic nature of the language, you have to focus on the tones to get correct meaning.
4) Diversifying my input
Due to the lack of motivation in the beginning, I merely did what was provided by our University. I still did very well academically, but comparing myself to other Mandarin learners, without formal education, I wondered how are they doing better than me? Time of course is an issue, but a lot of the instances diversifying your input can help a lot. At first I focused heavily on characters, now I'm watching Chinese series, reading more, listening to Chinese songs, doing translating and more. I can definitely feel my Mandarin improving substantially. If you're looking for some cool Chinese tunes, even with chords, check out this LaoWai's own music!
5) Producing Mandarin
At the start I was focused on getting input. Yes, this might not be particularly bad, but in the end with the knowledge comes the production. Make the effort. Write some things, poems, lyrics, what happened in your day, talk to yourself in Chinese even. Just produce it. I remember making the effort in first year to ask my 老师 in Chinese, how to pronounce a character. I never made the effort again, of course until 3rd year where my speaking is a lot better. Get over the stumbling block. Make peace with the fact that you will get things wrong. Just let 'err rip!
Do you have any tips for beginners? Did you make some mistakes? Leave me a comment.