What is pinyin?

Pinyin is the system of Romanization for Chinese characters. It is the system for learning the pronunciation of Chinese characters. We also use it to type Chinese characters on computers and smartphones. Most of the credit for inventing the system goes to linguist Zhou Youguang.

Hanyu pinyin is not a “middle ground” for non-Chinese to learn the Chinese language without having to learn the characters. School children in China today learn it from early in elementary school. Everyone from office workers to grandparents uses the system to type into their phones and computers. Conveniently for foreign travelers, street signs in China often have both Chinese characters and pinyin.

Pinyin was developed in the 1950s and officially adopted in China in 1979. Taiwan uses a system called zhuyin (better known as bopomofo) to romanize Chinese characters. Lotus Chinese Learning does not use zhuyin to teach Chinese. More information on zhuyin is available from Mandarin Mama.

Do I need to learn pinyin in order to learn Mandarin Chinese?

Pinyin is important for learning Mandarin Chinese. We use it in order to write Chinese on the computer or on our phones. Some Chinese classes are “pen-less,” meaning that students only write with the assistance of technology and do not do any handwriting of characters. I’ve found that students (especially elementary and middle school aged) love to practice writing Chinese characters. So I generally cover handwriting in class. In the 21st century, however, we do most of writing on computers or on our smartphones. This is why pinyin is important for learning Chinese.

screenshot of pinyin input method for typing Chinese characters
Screenshot of me using pinyin to type Chinese on my phone

Further reading:

On writing by hand in Chinese: Mechanics of Chinese Writing

To learn more about Mandarin Chinese classes: Contact Page

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