I often speak about the two initial walls of Chinese studies. The first wall a student has to climb is that of pronunciation. Tones and the limited Romanization of Chinese that Pinyin represents is a major obstacle to learning the language. The second wall is that of mass vocabulary learning. For a western student, the concept of characters is difficult for mainly two reasons, one small and one large.
The smaller of these two reasons is stroke order. In order to write quickly and neatly it is prudent to become familiar with prescribed way of writing a character. However, initially, this process, which does not come naturally to a beginner, detracts from the raw input of the overall introduction of characters. In other words, most people find it very difficult to focus both on the stroke order and the learning of new characters at the same time.
The second, larger barrier, that needs to be overcome, is the fact that where western syntax is made up of two components, Chinese is made up of three. In English, for example, pronunciation and form is combined, and are so both linked to meaning. In Chinese the conceptualization of the language is such that pronunciation, written representation and meaning each stand on their own. Not only does this mean that Chinese words have an additional element to them that Western words do not, which makes the learning process more difficult. It also means Chinese words are conceptualized differently by the brain. As we are creature of habits, conditioned from birth into certain processes westerners are a strong disadvantage when learning Mandarin.
In other words: it is not only the necessary for students to learn a new type of language, with new types of elements, there is also a strong need for students to acquire a new way of conceptualizing syntax on a fundamental level. To form a new pattern of thinking takes time even for the most adaptable and gifted students, this time period is what I have started thinking of as the second barrier. This time period is different from student to student and it is hard to set a time frame for how long the period can be expected to last. At least, however, several hundred hours should be expected until this barrier can be overcome by most.
The most efficient manner of tackling these two barriers are in my mind the following: by approaching each barrier in turn, the student is faced with the least amount of new raw input and so, as in studying other subject, the student is able to negotiate the obstacles in a way that suit their learning profile.
A math curriculum does not impart the multiplication table at the same time as it details the applied uses of multiplication. It is however the case that most Chinese curriculum does not focus on a single new aspect of the language, but instead approaches the language as whole, from the beginning. In my experience this makes for an initial period of deep frustration and slow progress for most students.
Language schools should instead first let student assimilate the difficulties of pinyin and the tonal nature of Chinese. The student should then be introduced to basic grammar, while still using pinyin as the material to be organized by the syntax that is being taught. Only after the student to such a degree has assimilated pinyin that pronunciation does require a great deal of peripheral attention should a student be introduced to Chinese characters. Furthermore, at such a time the characters should not be new words, but those already handled in pinyin. This way, the initial period of study does only involve two new concepts at one time. This does not represent a leap of thinking, nor do the difficulties of Standard Mandarin represent a barrier to nearly the same degree, if handled in this way.
About the Author
Rui Ming works for a Mandarin language school in Beijing that is a great option for those that want to learn Mandarin. If you are interested in more information about the best way to learn Chinese, please see his summary of the key ideas involved.