An often asked question is whether it is possible to learn an Asian language without learning the script. It’s understandable to ask this question, because learning Chinese and Japanese script seems a daunting task, especially if you don’t know a single character.
My answer to this question is that it depends on how you want to use the language after you have learnt it. You don’t need any special intelligence to learn Chinese or Japanese characters, it just requires a lot of patience and persistance before your efforts pay off. For example, I have been learning simplified Chinese script for about 4 years now, and yet not comfortable opening a newspaper. I can read a menu, write a simple text myself, but still miss too many words to be able to read a newspaper article.
If you have little time
So if you are planning to pick up a bit of Chinese or Japanese for interaction during a trip there, don’t bother with learning a lot of characters. Just pick up hanyu pinyin or romanji and learn the phrases you are most likely to use in everyday communication, and go for it. You won’t see much results from learning characters in the first few months, so spend that time on getting to speak.
If you really want to become fluent in Chinese or Japanese
But if you want to move beyond the basics, there is really no avoiding in learning the characters. They form the basics of the language. Romanized forms of Japanese and Mandarin are learning aids and you won’t meet them in daily life. When you move beyond the straightforward words and get to learn more complicated vocabulary, everything will look the same, and the characters will be a welcome way to distinguish between the different words.
Now, if you first ‘had little time’ and skipped over the characters and find yourself banging into a wall, you will have to backtrack a bit and take a reading and writing course to let your writing catch up with your spoken language.
For other Asian languages such as Thai, Korean, Tamil, Bengali
While these languages use non-Latin symbols in written language, they follow a phonetic system with a limited number of characters, just like English and other European languages do. This means that while it may look scary, you can actually learn how to read the language with a couple of weeks of practice, and you should definitely do it when you start learning the language at first.
Learning to read the new language will be much faster then when you first started to read and write, because as a child you were learning both the concept of written text and the symbols. Your brains are already trained to read now. So you just need to substitute the letters. You’ll be surprised how fast this goes when you set your mind to it.