The way your friends are learning is called pinyin which is kind of like the phonetics or pronunciation, I am a native Chinese speaker, but I recommend that you learn how to write the words first. It makes it easier to learn afterwards. I can comprehend Chinese, but yet I still have to learn how to write it (I can read Chinese) because for each word there is a different order to write the strokes, also there are lots of similar words. TIP** When learning to read and write Chinese.... learn the radicals first! Helps learning the harder words later.
Basics for beginners: Numbers 1-10; Pronouns (you, me, him/her), greetings; body parts; common household objects (book, spoon, shirt)