What are the best first steps to learn Chinese? What's the best way to learn the 4 tones? How many characters should the beginner learn? :)
I think you can try to mimic the tone that nature speaker told and guess the meaning by the body language :) .
"Pleco" is a very good app. It comes with a Chinese-English Dictionary when you install it, but you can download several other dictionaries into the app for free. The dictionaries are all available offline, and you can search for characters using English, Pinyin, handwriting or radicals. You can crossreference any word you search across all the different dictionaries you've downloaded. There are lots of other dictionaries and extra dictionaries available for a price, but I've never used them.
"Anki" is a good app for languages in general. You can create flashcards which you can view on your desktop and all your devices. The flashcards are available offline, so you can use them while waiting on a bus, sitting on the toilet, waiting for your food to good, watching ads etc.
The "Pronunciation and Romanization" module of the Chinese FSI course is very, very good.
Give it a go:
The whole FSI course is very good course for spoken Mandarin. It is a few decades old and doesn't teach characters, but it give you LOTS of listening practice at full speed. If nothing else, I recommend you just to the first six tapes of the Pronunciation and Romanization section to get familiar with the tones and pronunciation of Chinese in general. The FSi courses are all in the public domain and are legally available for free online. I've tried FSI courses for other languages I'm learning, but I haven't found them nearly as good as the Mandarin one.
If you want a textbook, I recommend "New Practical Chinese Reader". The series has six books, each with 10-15 lessons. Each lesson has 20-50 characters, two large pieces of dialogue, a section breaking down the phrases and idioms in the dialogue, a list of key sentences, a list of short phrases and sentence fragments you should memorise, a few more exercises with short pieces of dialogue, a large piece of text for reading comprehension (the text itself is usually cultural) and section teaching the new sentence patterns or grammatical structures of the lesson, with examples. Newer editions also have extra cultural notes in English. The textbook comes with a CD with audio for the various parts of the lesson. You can also buy workbooks to accompany the textbooks. The workbooks have heaps of reading, writing, listening and speaking exercises. They also include CDs for the listening and speaking exercises.
I would recommend you use the New Practical Chinese Reader textbooks and workbooks alongside the FSI course. That would give you a very strong base in reading, writing and listening.
You should also try to practise with native Chinese speakers on Skype.
Here is a video to help with the tones
There are rules about how to read the tones. If you can master the rules, the tones are easy.