I don't have access to instruction here. I know one can use playback features if I can get it working on Linux but I really hate the sound of my voice. On the plus side I am pretty good with impressions and accents [I do an awesome Shrek/Fat Bastard]
IIRC there is this Chinesepod.com or something like that seems to be pretty good. If I start with that and work on tones, will I be able to "get it" or will I be one of those people who spend ages learning Chinese only to be utterly not understood when he speaks to Chinese people.
I am thinking Mandarin, not Cantonese.
depends on who you're talking to. In my experience people from the mainland are more understanding than people from Taiwan, but that's anecdotal. Everyone I've met from there says that people can understand you even if you use the wrong tone, but that's obviously subjective. They all stated that they've never met a foreigner who uses them correctly though.
Unfortunately I can't be of that much help there, I don't actually know that much about Chinese. However, regarding the dialects... Chinese is a macrolanguage so it does involve some non-mutually intelligible languages. However (at least in my experience) educated Chinese people all know standard Mandarin, and frankly you will not meet any non-educated ones unless you take make some interesting life decisions. All my friends are from different areas and (aside from the occasional laugh at the odd word) can understand one another. Difficulties with dialects exist in all languages, so no point worrying about that.
If you ask someone from the mainland, Taiwan Chinese is not all that different. If you ask someone from Taiwan, they're completely different*. It's political more than anything. The writing system is the greatest difference, really, but it's not that hard to read traditional once you know simplified (and vice-versa). But I can't be of much help, since I still don't understand any spoken Chinese.
*expect being understood and commented upon that 'haha, that's so mainland'.
Tones are essential. Learn to produce them well right from the beginning. If you 'know' a word, but don't know the tone, you don't know the word. People won't understand you if you are using the wrong tones.
Tones are not that bad.
Get a lot of audio input (I've used Chinesepod, but I think there are a lot of good podcasts out there), and pay attention to trying to hear the tones and trying to reproduce the tones. My rule for the first year I was seriously learning Chinese is that I tried not to read anything unless I had audio to listen to. It takes work, but it's not that bad.
ya dont believe the internet hype. you can learn to speak chinese just fine, just like many people here can speak japanese and be understood no problem.
The pronunciation differences between Taiwanese "Mandarin" and Mandarin can be enough to make words incomprehensible, in my experience, but supposedly, at least, the differences can be learned reasonably quickly. My former Mandarin instructor taught classes to fix "Southern Mandarin" speakers. Tones were hard for me to learn to hear, but it's certainly not impossible. I don't think Mandarin is any harder than Japanese, all in all.
I know tones are important which is why I ask. I also am under the impression that it is important to start off right instead of waiting to fix them later.
I was looking at the Chinesepod thing. On the page about tones where they list the same word together with different tones I can sort of make it out a bit but when I was bouncing around the lessons I really can't make out the tones at all. The tone page it seems they exaggerated things a bit so you can sort of make them out.
I'd hate to make the switch and then hit the wall on tones and have to crawl back to Japanese and start over again.
If I did switch I think I'd start with Chinesepod or Chinesepod101 well and RTH rather than normal texts just to be able to hear the tones. I've read somewhere, I think on their forum that when they [Cpodd not Cpod101] moved to Taiwan they started switching the Mandarin they use to the Taiwan accent. I suppose it isn't an issue if it is just a matter of an occasional word but if there are large differences in the vocab it sounds like the site would cause a lot of problems.
Honestly, if you want to learn Mandarin, the difficulty of the language is much less important than your motivation level. Personally, I would learn mainland Mandarin, since the audience is larger.
I did the opposite and dropped Japanese in favor of Mandarin. Japanese is more difficult in my opinion and the media I'm interested in gets translated to Chinese anyway.
I've done both. Japanese is a more complex language grammatically. But if you can master the grammar, which is possible with enough time and effort, you can sound close to native. Unless you have a gift for sounds, it will be more difficult to sound native in Chinese, though you will be understood (unless you have no ear for tones for all). I was very relieved when I heard people in China yelling at other Chinese -- "Hey, I can't understand a word you're saying -- where are you from anyway?" Even without getting into different dialects, the pronunciation differs from region to region. It's not just us laowai with the pronunciation problem.