Should I learn Mandarin basics first through pinyin and worry about the characters later, or should I learn them together? Pros and cons?
There is a key difference between learning the language as a native speaker, and learning the language as a second language. Native speakers of all languages invariably learn speaking and listening skills first, and only start to learn reading and writing at school, after the age of about 3 or 4. Learning a language as a second language, reading and writing have more prominence and can expedite some of the learning, but this also depends on a person's 'learning style'. Generally, combining all four communication skills is better.
To clarify what I am trying to say, my own experience of learning Chinese (and other languages) mixes all four modalities (reading, writing, speaking, listening). I find that learning the characters sometimes gives insight into the relationships between words (the semantics), that are not obvious from how they are said. Sometimes the process works the other way, as I see patterns in the written characters that are reflected in the sound.
First, please don't entangle in learning Chinese pinyin and Chinese character at the same time or not.You need to ask yourself what is your purpose of learning Chinese?
If you only want to travel in China or learn some daily Chinese or make some Chinese friends, I recommend you to learn Chinese pinyin first. Many Chinese learners chose learn pinyin first,but notlearn Chinese pinyin and Chinese character together.
Because Chinese pinyin is a very easy part and even easier than English learning, and pinyin can help Chinese learners'pronounce. But Chinese characters is a very hard part in Chinese learning. HSK1 and HSK2 didn't appear characters. If you choose learn Chinese pinyin and Chinese character together, may be you will give up learning Chinese very fast.
And for Chinese beginners, only focus on Chinese listening and speaking is enough. If you are a kid or teenager,I recommend you learn Chinese pinyin and character together.You can spend more time to practice characters and you don't need to work.
Get started the easiest way (romanization, aka "pinyin", only) but once you've learnt a few basic sentences it's not a bad time to start learning characters.
You eventually want to be learning characters and pinyin at the same time anyway, so you might as well start as soon as you can. Much of the reward you will feel whilst learning is in being able to read bits and pieces here and there.
It also depends on whether English is your native language (I am assuming here it is for you).
If it is not, I would not recommend learning pinyin simultaneously as sometimes it just confuses you as to the sounds of the word. For example: while you continue to pronounce Q as queen in English, in Pinyin, you need to keep reminding yourself that "Q" is pronounced as "Ch" (Eg: Qing is pronounced as King)
One of my friends' native language is Hindi and he preferred writing the pronunciations in hindi, as hindi has characters for all those variations of the "chh" sound that cannot be distinctly expressed in English in daily language.
Even if English is your native language, you will have to do a lot of unlearning when you learn Pinyin. For example: Zh is pronounced differently (Eg: Zhong 中 is pronounced not as z-h-ong but rather "chong"). Ri 日 is not pronounced as "I-R" but rather as "R-I' keeping the tip of the tongue behind a palate producing a sound that is not usually used in English (Eg: Rizhao is rounounced as "Ir-zhao")
My personal experience has been that it is more instinctive to listen and imitate rather than go the Pinyin route. This needs a lot of practice (hence just keep saying the same words till you get it right). Keep Pinyin as your fall back reminder of what to say - as a trigger and not as the main mode of learning pronunciation. But others may have a different take based on their experiences.
Of course, I am assumming that you have native Chinese speakers around you who you can practice this with regularly. If not, you still can do so by listening to the sounds of the language through you tube or internet sites.
As for how Chinese students learn, what has been mentioned earlier is true, but do remember that (a) they hence face a similar problem later when they start to speak in English (they pronounce words differently initially) (b) They are not learning purely through Pinyin alone - they learn Pinyin and Chinese along with the teacher simultaneously pronouncing these words (and hence start to associate Pinyin with certain sounds made by their teacher).
Do remember - While Pinyin was the only mode of learning to speak Chinese 20 years ago (cassettes and walkmen were not as easily available and portable as mp3), today it is not so. Mp3 availability makes learning and learning a practical easy possibility. For example, this lesson makes it easier for you to say "I can speak a little Chinese" than this lesson