In many cases, Chinese is a totally alien language compared to English. Some of the sounds are similar, but the tongue is in a different position.
The most unfortunate problem is that pinyin wasn't designed to solve pronunciation but was created to provide jobs to linguists. There's only a confusing match between phonetically-written English and pinyin, and a beginner will be easily overwhelmed.
So I'm going to do the work to describe, as best I can, various pinyin pronunciation items. I'm also going to develop a better way to phonetically write Chinese so my pronunciation learning curve isn't so steep. I think I'll look into the International Phonetic Alphabet as well.
Learning by ear is, of course, perfectly reasonable. I would recommend it. However, thinking long-term.. separately memorizing the pronunciation of every individual word is pretty ridiculous. Keep in mind that Chinese people don't have a consistent language, and I wouldn't bet there's a lot of consistency on pronunciation. Learning things "properly" with a universally-applicable skill would be best in the long-run.
Things to understand ∞
The basic alphabet ∞
Note that combinations of letters make things more complex.
|a||As a in father.|
|b||As p in spy.|
|g||As k in sky but with less aspiration.|
|i||As i in machine.|
|j||As j, with the tongue tip forward where the teeth meet. Distinguish from q which has more breath.|
|n||(As n in English)|
|q||As j, with the tongue forward where the teeth meet and more breath. Distinguish from j which has less breath.|
|r||Tongue flat against the roof of the mouth, but back. Almost like j+r together. TODO - are the teeth together?|
|x||As x, with the tongue tip against the lower teeth, like a lisped 's'.|
Combinations of letters ∞
- iu - like "Yo!"
sh - shred, tongue very far back.
Multiple-word words ∞
When a word is formed by more than one character, there are special pronunciation rules.
Stuff I've bumped into. Not reviewed yet..
TODO - write about initials and the other parts of words.