There is some great debate over the best phonetic system for Chinese. Right now, the most popular and most widespread is Hanyu Pinyin [漢語拼音] (developed in Mainland China, now the international standard for romanization) and Zhuyin Fuhao/Bopomofo [注音符號] (developed originally in mainland China, now used primarily only in Taiwan). Each have their strong and weak points; and there’s plenty of literature online that will explain it in much better detail than I will be doing here. Instead, I will describe my experiences with it and finally offer up my own opinion.
I started, as most foreigners will, with Pinyin. It’s the standard: no need for special keyboards (like Zhuyin, see below), and it’s familiar. It uses the Latin alphabet, so it is immediately familiar, and one can get started right away without having to learn an extra character set.
This, I believe, is the biggest problem with Pinyin (and rōmaji for you Japanese learners out there! I draw a lot of parallels between Japanese phonetic/romanization systems in this entry. Yes, I know rōmaji was built for a romanization and Pinyin is intended as a phonetic system, but they run into the same problems. Attempts and completing romanji-ing and pinyin-ing the languages, I think, are a terrible idea. Anyway!). The problem is, foreigners will tend to read the Pinyin with their innate desire to pronounce them the way they are “used to”. So, things like “shi” become “she” instead of “shr” (I am NO phonetician, so I apologize for any inaccuracies!).
But it definitely makes typing a heck of a lot easier. Zhuyin is harder: in Taiwan, they have keyboards with the symbols on them so you know where to type; it’s harder to get that down in the States.
That is not to say there hasn’t been foreigners that have learned Pinyin and can speak very well, I just believe that unless learned properly Pinyin is more of a detriment than a tool.
As far as Zhuyin is concerned, there is a larger learning curve, but it is akin to learning the kana systems for Japanese. Zhuyin also makes a good “furigana”, or ruby characters, system for pronouncing the characters. You learn the proper pronunciation based on the symbol, not what it looks like to you. I think this is much more valuable to an early learner.
For typing: I’ll be honest. Pinyin is a HECK of a lot easier. You don’t need tones to type them in; just get the sound “(say, “zhong” and get the results for zhong’s of all tones). With Zhuyin, you’re forced to use the tone to find the character. Otherwise, just typing in “zhong/ㄓㄨㄥ” will only return first-tone results. You need to manually add the tone in yourself. This forces you to actually know the tones of the words you’re studying!
This is extremely important in Chinese. It is here that I feel Pinyin fails. Nowadays, people are used to typing to communicate (MSN, emails, etc.). Notice how you regularly communicate in English, at least 70% of it is online, right? Well, if you’re doing it all typing in Pinyin, while, yes, it is initially much quicker, it always makes it easier to ignore the tones. You can build great character recognition, but can you even READ them correctly?
Honestly, learning both would be ideal. But I imagine most people will go with Pinyin since it’s easier. And getting a Zhuyin keyboard isn’t easy. But, if you’re devoted enough, they have keyboard maps that you could use to practice on and pick it up pretty quick! Seriously, you can sit down and learn Zhuyin in an hour, then spend some more time on learning to type with it.