I believe that it is best to delay formal learning of Chinese characters until you know enough Chinese to be able to start learning to read words that you have already mastered (through listening and speaking), at some point in the future your reading ability will enable you to start learning new words and phrases from reading alone (just like it did in your mother tongue), but initially you should use the phonetic pinyin system to help you with your learning. If this post has a motto it is simply I don't want to learn to read Chinese characters, I want to learn to read Chinese. I think that informal learning about characters from the start won't do any harm and will probably help, including learning about stroke order, and some background about how they are used etc. Formal structured learning at any early stage is at best a distraction of time and energy with little payback in a language that in its written form can be read by mutually unintelligable dialects, at worst it presents an obstacle to actually learning Mandarin. This is my opinion, based on my experiances and research.
I have been too busy recently and am accumulating a whole bunch of things I want to post about, clearly my intention a while ago to attempt to summarize my Chinese learning experience to-date failed, the more I looked back on it the more I felt there was to say. At the moment I am going to develop small series of posts on themes like the previous on language learning not being a new thing, I am spending a little more time now doing background reading and research, eventually I will revisit the posts and go through another stage of refining and drawing conclusions. I want to write a few posts on learning Chinese characters this first one being an introduction.
A while ago I posted that the worst thing I did when starting to learn Mandarin was to make any attempt to learn the characters. Many formal courses make their students learn characters (hanzi) right from the start, a traditional approach will involve countless repetition and writing to learn characters by rote. The new student is not in a position to challenge this and often has no choice as their progress is partially monitored by their ability to handwrite the characters they have been given.
To state my situation, I am a self-learner and am learning in a non-Mandarin speaking country with no Chinese relatives, a position similar to that of many English learners throughout the world and a situation that needs to be addressed as a baseline when considering the learning of any language imho. There has been a dominance of input and focus on people living in China, in full-time education and on second generation Chinese living in other countries who have had exposure to Chinese at home (material produced by the Chinese government appears to be particularly focused on this group). Insights from these groups are valuable but need to include the experiances of those learning Mandarin succesfully as a realistic hobby.
The first problem that can mislead the new learner is a statement that will go something like this "you need to know around three thousand characters to read a Chinese newspaper" unfortunately the opposite is not true, if you know three thousand characters that is no indication that you will be able to read anything significant. You will need to know many compound words and different readings first, you will need a reasonable level of Chinese. In fact if all you needed to do was learn a few thousand characters, Chinese would be a ridiculously simple language :) I don't think the realities of the Chinese writing system are usually made clear to the beginner. knowing the characters alone will not allow you read anything significant. Knowing lots of words is better, but will only get you so far. You'll need to learn the language like any other language.
Written Chinese is not phonetic, whilst European languages (and others) represent the sound elements of the spoken language in the written system, Chinese generally represents elements of meaning. This is a crucial difference, an adult learner of English coming to German has already mastered a written system and reading skills that with a little adaptation for language variation can be used straight away to hear German inside their head whilst reading it, even if they don't understand. Encountering a German word they know, they can either go straight to meaning or hop via internal translation (less ideal) either way they can "hear" the word internally. 出口 can be found on both Chinese and Japanese roads to represent an exit, the pronounciation is not similar but when I see 出口 on a sign in Japanese anime I know what it means even though I don't speak Japanese "did I read Japanese or did I read Kanji", in my head I heard chu1kou3 (Chinese), what if didn't know the Chinese but instead knew English meanings for the characters, so read "go out mouth" and guessed exit, then I read neither Japanese or Chinese, I simply read a sign. This non-phonetic system is a crucial aspect of Chinese for a Westerner, take the time to think about the implications, whatever you decide.
Are you a fan of natural approaches to language learning? Chinese children don't start formal character learning until the age of 7/8 (information may be slightly out of date) as is the case everywhere they learn to read their mother tongue with language they already know, it is quite unatural to learn a language from the written form. Arguements could be made that this is not a problem in second language aquisition for languages with a phonetic writing system, especially if the the reading skills you have picked via your mother tongue are directly applicable, but does this approach make sense for a language with a written system that is outside of your experiance? It is a recognised problem amongst Asian students coming to study in the UK that many have good to excellent reading and writing ability in English but poor speaking and understanding because they have spent a lot of their learning time on reading and writing. Why should we be any better if we place too much early emphasis on their written system?
Recently there has been quite a lot of buzz surrounding the Heisig method to master writing and remembering the meanings of Hanzi, this method doesn't teach pronouciation and provides keywords to associate with a character that may only represent a single and/or approximate meaning. I dont doubt that is relatively fast and agree that rote learning is a crazy way to solve the hanzi problem so Heisig method wins on that front. Unfortuanatly the method seems to be being picked up as a good thing to do for beginners. Is it sensible to learn via a written system in a language that is so decoupled from the spoken form? How exactly will be being able to sort of read simple Chinese sentances in English help the learner? The real deal breaker for me is that Heisig will teach you to handwrite the characters but without the pronounciations you cannot enter a single hanzi into a computer, almost all my written Chinese interaction is via a computer, I have met Chinese people who have lived in the UK for a few years who freely admit that their handwriting ability has badly degraded because all their Chinese interaction is via a computer, I have met a Japanese person who laments that the younger generation are losing Kanji handwriting ability because their interaction is increasingly via computer, where is the pressing need to handwrite from the early stages?
If you are on a fossilised course that rates handwritten Kanji or Hanzi in the early stages then Heisig may well be a godsend, if not ......? Obviously I don't 'get' Heisig, it is quite possible I have missed something I have no objection to and in-fact welcome having my stupidity pointed out in comments (so long as you remain reasonably polite ;)). My next post will probably be an attempt to deconstruct the Heisig method (bound to be contraversial) followed by a post describing how I am learning to read Chinese. Excuse spelling/grammatical errors, IT fail has left me without spellchecking and time constraints led me to just dump the post I composed in my head whilst decorating (although some prior web research did occur and I did get a chance to discuss some issues with a Chinese friend).