With the right approach, you can do it easily in a single day.
When I first started taking Chinese classes at the Mandarin Training Center in Taipei, I already knew pinyin… or at least I thought I did. I had a basic idea of how to spell Chinese words I heard. They had a phonics training course that used zhuyin and I figured it would be a waste of time.
I found a chart at the back of my Chinese-English dictionary that mapped every syllable initial and every final to its zhuyin equivalent. I knew from my Japanese classes in college that learning a new alphabet (or syllabary if you insist) isn’t that hard. Our teacher told us to learn the curly alphabet—hiragana—before our first day of class. She just gave us some worksheets and sent us off!
How I learned hiragana and katakana
It actually only took a day to pretty much get it down. I went row by row through the worksheet. After writing each character of the first row with あいうえお I closed my workbook and wrote each of them down. Then I checked and saw I’d made a mistake with あ and also with お. So I wrote them again and got them all right. Then I got a glass of water and wrote them again when I got back. Next, I practiced each character in the second row—かきくけこ. Then I closed the workbook and wrote them all from memory. After the fourth row or so, I tested myself on the whole thing and took a break for lunch. Upon getting home, I retested myself and then went on to the next row and continued like that.
I won’t say that my ability to write or even read hiragana was perfect at the end of the day, but it was about 95% there and I’d only spent about three or four hours, broken up into four sessions. When I woke up the next day, I tested myself on the full set of hiragana and got them all!
Next, I shifted focus to the more angular mean-looking Japanese alphabet called katakana. It was a bit harder because some of the symbols look almost the same. シ vs ツ and ソ vs ン. I was fine in class on Monday. I misread a few things, but it wasn’t a big deal and with constant exposure there was very little danger of forgetting any of them, unlike kanji which were my bane.
Learning bopomofo in one evening
Back to the original story… I was absolutely brimming with confidence when I discovered there was a Chinese alphabet, 注音符號, to learn. Equivalency table in hand, I just marched through the alphabet column by column, starting with ㄅㄆㄇㄈ and continuing until I reached ㄢㄣㄤㄥ and ㄦ.
Half a day and done! That’s all it took to learn to read and write the mandarin phonetic alphabet and if you’re already a Chinese speaker, you can probably power through it even more quickly using the method I described. If you’re someplace such as Taiwan or a school for overseas Chinese where it’s used, keeping it is pretty trivial and it opens up a lot of learning resources.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t already a Chinese speaker and I’d just made a horrible mistake.
Learning the symbols is easy, learning the sounds is hard
I actually should have taken that bopomofo phonics class. Learning to recognize and write the characters wasn’t the main thing to have worried about (or taken pride in). Learning the sounds of a foreign language is much harder task, especially if you’re over the age of about 5. The problem is that I learned Chinese first through Pinyin and I basically went through English phonics where possible. I quickly realized that something special was going on with x and q. A while later I realized the pinyin r and u also caught my attention fairly quickly and I got them mostly sorted. But I spoke Chinese every day for years developing some messed up pronunciation habits related to thinking that the b and d were basically the same sound in Chinese pinyin as in English. They’re not. In retrospect it seems blindingly obvious. I wouldn’t try to speak French as if every letter were pronounced exactly like in English. Why would I do that with Chinese?
But that’s a different story for another day. You can learn to read, write and recognize just about any alphabet in a day. Thai might be pushing it, but for Japanese, Korean, Chinese or Russian, it’s mostly about having a decent resource, preferably with some sort of mnemonic like those liked above, diving in and testing yourself. If you’re studying the language, you’ve really got no excuse not to go for it!
On a side note, I’ve recently made some improvements to the Pinyin – Zhuyin converter. It now converts zhuyin to pinyin and handles tonemarks, too.