What is pinyin?
Pinyin is the system of Romanization for Chinese characters. It is the system for learning the pronunciation of Chinese characters and it is used for typing Chinese as well. Most of the credit for inventing pinyin is given 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 hanyu pinyin from early on and everyone from office workers to grandparents use 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.
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 so much writing on the computer or on our phones, so learning pinyin is essential.
On the rules for writing pinyin: http://www.pinyin.info/tools/index.html
On writing by hand in Chinese: Mechanics of Chinese Writing
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