I previously mentioned taking a language class for fun... well I did sign up for Mandarin, and class began tonight.
We started up... studying pinyin. That is probably the correct thing to do, since we will need to be able to read/write words (in order to learn/remember vocabulary) without the burden of learning many characters. After all, this is a six week class and that would be way too much to cover.
However, pinyin is difficult in that it uses roman letters, and attaches pronunciations that are vastly different than expected. Japanese has two advantages here: 1) there are two non-roman phonetic alphabets that Japanese uses (hiragana and katakana), and 2) even if romanized (romaji), the pronunciations are close to what you would expect. After my experience with Japanese, I think just coming up with an arbitrary phonetic alphabet to use instead of pinyin would be easier than grafting new sounds onto the roman alphabet. But, pinyin is the official romanization system... so we did some practice.
About half of the people in the class travel to China for business. One guy is taking it along with his girlfriend, who is Chinese but only speaks English. Another lady is from Taiwan and speaks Taiwanese but not Mandarin. She was irritating in that she kept stopping the instructor to ask "could you write that in traditional characters? I can't read the new simplified ones!", so I had plenty of dark thoughts about her shutting up instead of complaining about something we (the rest of the class) weren't even there to study. Grrrrr.
Class was OK. The instructor was a bit disorganized, and kept on getting off track about the characters. I find this interesting, from the little bit of Japanese I learned (example: 火 means fire, 山 means mountain, 火山 is volcano) but I think it is just a huge distraction for a six week class. It would be one thing if we were learning some useful characters like the numbers (fortunately I know them, again from Japanese), but we spent too much time covering the radicals in less important words.
Still, having a native speaker teaching does help, since she is able to answer many vocabulary questions and also help with pronunciation. I hope the class gets better.