If your main goal is to read or write Chinese, then yes, you definitely have to learn characters. But what if your goal is speaking? Do you really need to learn how to read all of those complicated characters?
Just like children learn to speak before they learn to read, learning to speak Chinese before learning how to read characters will help you quickly reach spoken fluency and also accelerate the pace at which you learn Chinese. Chinese characters can be written using pinyin, a transliteration system that perfectly maps the sounds of Chinese to English letters. If your main goal is speaking fluently, spending the first 6-12 months exclusively using pinyin resources will help you build a foundation in the spoken language. Since there are plenty of resources that teach Chinese using pinyin, it is very possible to reach an intermediate to advanced level in speaking without learning characters.
Why NOT learn characters?
1. Building muscle memory takes time
Let’s do a little exercise. Read the following sentences out loud. Your goal is to sound as fluent as possible—no stuttering, pausing, or hesitating. Take as many attempts as you need.