David Moser writes about Why Chinese is So Damn Hard.
I'm currently displaying that variety of insanity known as "Hey! Wouldn't it be cool to know Chinese?"; I should have known I was vulnerable after the debacle of "Hey! Wouldn't it be cool to know classical Japanese?"
And I think he just might have a point--something I'm reluctant to admit, considering I'm so ready to defend the peculiarities of the Japanese writing system. But while people faint at two different alphabets plus a couple thousand characters, I think it works quite nicely, in a rhythm of content words and functional words or verbal endings marked by hiragana, katakana, and kanji. In Chinese, you have a wall of text. And that makes it excruciatingly hard to jump in and read materials that are above one's level... if you can't make out at least the large majority of the characters, you can't push forward anyway. Dictionary lookup takes forever. (So too with Japanese, but for a long time I stuck with manga, annotated on the side with furigana to mark the pronunciations of words, so it was easy to look up words phonetically).
So the Chinese writing system is hard. But one thing my linguistics professors drilled into me is that a language--linguistically speaking--is the spoken language, and the written language is just a more-or-less flawed way of transcribing it. Mandarin Chinese, the spoken language, shouldn't be all that hard. And this is part of the rationale in some methods of teaching Japanese, for not teaching even hiragana in the first semester, but doing everything orally (hopefully not with romaji). In my case it's certainly true that I have to learn words as spoken words before I have any hope of retaining them as kanji compounds.
The problem is, unless you live in a country where the language is spoken, it's awfully hard to get enough aural learning materials. (This assumes, of course, that you don't have access to classes. Those are ideal, but at the moment I'm on my own). You can get language tapes, which take you up to maybe a low intermediate level, and you can order CDs, and you can listen to internet radio, but overall your resources are a lot more limited. It's easier to find books, internet texts, and so forth. As of now, I don't even get TV in Spanish--though local cable offers two Spanish channels in basic cable, and I'm getting hooked up soon.
There are other advantages to reading--it's faster, it's much easier to look things up in the dictionary because the words stay put, it's easier to find something that caters to your interests, and the vocabulary can potentially be more varied. (If I learned all my Spanish from Buffy, I'd be able to say very little except "I love you," "I'm sorry," "Let's kill it," and "high school.") But it's much harder with Chinese.
So I'm proceeding with language tapes on my iPod, which I dutifully transcribe with a dictionary, and easy readers from the school library. I'm following the annoying proscribed path of study, with "Where is the restaurant?" and "My name is..."--but it's giving me enough characters so that, by the time I'm finished, maybe I'll have enough basic knowledge to try tackling a real text with a dictionary. Also, I'm going up to Montreal this week, where I can pick up some manga and Mandarin CDs.
I'll update when I have a better idea of how it's going.