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.
Learning to read in Chinese is not an exercise in memorizing 3,000-5,000 different characters. Surprisingly to some, learning to read in Chinese is not that different from learning to read in English. In both languages, readers are mapping sounds that they already know to the written word (or character).
But wait! Many adult students say, isn’t it far easier for young children to start reading in Chinese than adults? Not really, children and adults tend to learn Chinese characters the same way. Since children often have more time to spend on Chinese learning, they have an advantage there. It is not a cognitive advantage, however.
So what is going on inside of people’s heads when they start to learn Chinese characters? First impressions of a Chinese character follow a global prior to part principle.* Readers notice the contour of a character and its edges. Many people believe that Chinese is a completely opaque language, and that there is not phonological component to written Chinese. This simply is not true. Eighty to ninety percent (linguists disagree in the exact percentage) of Chinese characters have a phonological component. Phonological awareness is implicated in reading Chinese, just as it is for reading English. There is evidence that the orthography of Chinese characters becomes more important in later reading, but at the beginning, readers are forming more holistic impressions of characters. I am glossing over many details for the sake of brevity, but the takeaway is that speech and sound have a great deal to do with learning to read in Chinese. Chinese reading is not just a visual exercise.
A Proven Approach to Reading in Chinese
In teaching students how to read Chinese, I have borrowed a great deal from Terry Waltz’s cold character reading. Her method involves introducing characters after students have learned the word orally and using lots of repetition. I have been laughed at (in a good-natured sort of way) by adult students who think that I am pulling their leg when I say that they will be reading sentences by the end of their first two-hour class. Without fail, they are reading at the end of the class. We are only reading words that we already know, and there is a great deal of repetition, but students read with a very high level of comprehension and there is no tedious memorizing of Chinese characters. There is much more to cold character reading than what I can cover in a paragraph. If you would like more information, please click around Terry Waltz’s blog, linked to above.
There is some evidence that it is easier to learn Chinese characters which have fewer than six strokes. I think it is more important to focus on learning the most frequently used characters first, rather than just introducing characters based on the number of strokes. For example, 我 (I/me) is a fairly complicated character, but it is one of the most frequently used Chinese characters so students can and will learn it quickly.
Using Text with Pinyin in Chinese Reading
There are many different types of reading resources available for students learning how to read in Chinese. I favor resources that provide pinyin to help students look up unfamiliar words and a glossary. I am reviewing this version of the story of the monkey king below for my intermediate students. This version is great because it has the pinyin on the opposite page and a full glossary in the back. Students can easily check the opposite page for pinyin if they are unsure of how to pronounce a character and easily look up unfamiliar words. They can also read just the characters without referring to the pinyin if they do not need it.
The below image is actually of a text meant for Chinese children. I do not prefer texts that have the pinyin above the characters. Yes, it does provide the same function as having the pinyin on the opposite page which is to provide pronunciation help. With language students, there is a tendency to ignore characters in favor of pinyin if it is right there. Students will generally just read pinyin and ignore characters if they are included together like this. I would rather have students fluently reading characters from the start of their journey learning to read in Chinese (i.e. through cold character reading) than to limp along with mostly pinyin reading.
What about Writing in Chinese?
Like reading, writing Chinese characters does not need to include memorization of thousands of characters. Read more about approaches to writing Chinese in another blog post here.
*I am using the research of Hui Li (2015) here, contact me for a full citation.
What are your experiences in learning to read in Chinese or another language? Share in the comments!