I'm about to start learning mandarin chinese myself, without any teachers but with a help of textbooks and video (audio) lessons. My question is: where do I start, I mean, is it better to start with pinyin or with Han characters? What words do I need to start with? What about grammar? Maybe someone can recommend me a good book to start with?
Regarding starting with pinyin or characters: It's funny, I recently asked this question myself. In your case, I would recommend:
Starting with basics of pinyin... getting the hang of pronunciation. TalkBank provides a pinyin chart that pronounces each for you given the selected tone. It's really cool. Just choose a tone, and click on a vowel/initial.
Learn the 4 tones.
Mā: 妈 = mother
Má: 麻 = hemp
Mǎ: 马 = horse
Mà: 骂 = scold
Start pairing characters with pinyin. Learn the basics/greetings.
Nǐ hǎo: 你好 = hello
Xièxiè：谢谢 = thank you
Bù kèqì: 不客气 = you're welcome
Zài jiàn: 再见 = good bye
Solidify what you've learned by practicing in a chat room. I recommend Zhongwen.com > then go to LiaoTian! (chat). Informal chat rooms were hugely helpful for me to get started.
- Once you have some basics of chatting down, maybe head over to a Chinese restaurant and try ordering in Chinese (most speak Mandarin or at least some Mandarin that I've encountered). Or find a local Chinese market, or anything... Anything for you to go and practice speaking Mandarin. This will get you comfortable speaking. But you need a foundation with the words first. So keep practicing them.
- For a book, Stumpy Joe recommended this one. Also look at the community wiki for Chinese learning resources.
Good luck! If I think of anything else I'll let ya know.