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Here’s another informative post that was written by Bethany about a year ago, looking at some of the pros and cons of learning Chinese with Pinyin. Whilst Written Chinese certainly falls down on the ‘pro’ side of the argument, we understand how using pinyin as a base for learning Chinese, before moving onto characters is also a positive.
What’s great, is there are now lots of learning tools and resources out there that are really trying to focus more and more on people learning both characters and pinyin simultaneously. As I have said probably 100 times before, most people that I have met studying Chinese in China have for the majority, shy-ed away from learning Characters, but that’s becoming more difficult to do, as there seems to be more of a ‘pro-character’ movement on the horizon.
I’ve added a few new pros and cons for learning Chinese with Pinyin, if you have any more ideas as to why we should learn using characters, or support the use of pinyin, please leave us a message below!
Written by Bethany from Written Chinese
As any learner of Chinese knows, learning pinyin (拼音, pīnyīn), a Romanized system of writing Chinese words, can be very useful in the learning process. There are many opinions about how it should be used, but most people would argue that for beginners (especially adult beginners), it is essential. Still, it is important to bear in mind some of the cons as you continue your learning journey.
- Pinyin helps you to pronounce a word properly. Even native Mandarin speakers sometimes forget how to pronounce characters, and use sounds to remind themselves. Pinyin also reinforces the standard pronunciation.
- Using pinyin allows beginners to start speaking Chinese quickly. Students are empowered to learn new words outside of the classroom. I still remember by first Chinese teacher showing a video in class to teach us ‘bopomofo’ or the Zhuyin method. Even though we felt ridiculous repeating ‘bopomofo’ over and over to a ridiculously happy tune, I still remember it to this day! It gave me the confidence to speak and more understanding of the Chinese language.
- The tone marks in pinyin are visual reminders. For non-native speakers of Chinese, tones can be very difficult to grasp. Having a visual reminder, such as /, \, or ―, can make mastering tones easier Tip – When you move on from Pinyin to learning characters, you can still use the tone marker above the character to remind yourself of the tone!
- Learning with pinyin is more similar to learning languages with Roman letters. Native speakers of Roman languages often find learning with roman letters very comfortable, which is possibly why many native speakers run away at the sight of a Chinese character…
- Once you learn pinyin, you can begin to type Chinese on a computer. There are other Chinese input methods that rely on stroke order, such as 五笔 (wǔbǐ), but the majority of Chinese people these days use pinyin input.
- You can kind of cheat…These days there are such things as OCR’s or Optical Character Recognition. All you need to do is download an app such as the WCC Dictionary and scan the characters you don’t know. The app then translates the characters and tells you the meaning! It’s all offline too, so you don’t need to worry about needing an internet connection!
- Pinyin as a building block. Pinyin is still important as a foundation for learning Chinese, especially to ensure that your pronunciation is correct from the beginning (that’s another challenge!). I would suggest trying to look at Characters soon after understanding pinyin, reasons for which you can read below…
- When you learn with pinyin, it is very easy to become dependent and slack off on learning characters. For many learners, the roman letters for a word becomes the default choice, instead of the character.This will eventually hurt your Chinese literacy.
- The pinyin for a word changes sometimes, depending on the context. For example, there are times when the third tone changes to second tone or third tone changes to a half tone. The exact pronunciation is dependent on the context, so learning the exact pinyin is not always helpful.
- So many words have the exact same pinyin. It can be easy to get confused about which word somebody has written if you have only learned pinyin. Learning the characters helps you differentiate between words. For example, 堂 (táng) means a large hall or room, but a word with the exact same pronunciation, 糖 (táng), means sugar or candy.
- Pinyin pronunciation is not intuitive. Someone looking at pinyin for the first time may pronounce words improperly. For example, in English we would pronounce the “c” in “cang” like a “k” or an “s,” but in Chinese, it is pronounced “ts”. You have to learn the system to pronounce pinyin correctly.
- Characters help make connections. Once you start to learn Chinese characters you will certainly begin to make more connections between different words. Words you had no idea were in anyway connected will suddenly make learning Chinese so much easier! The reason, is that characters are made up of radicals which in themselves have meaning. Many people create a story or mnemonic to remember the character. If you have your own mnemonics to remember characters you can share them on our Living Dictionary. If you want to learn ways to remember a character, you can also join us there to see what our other users say!
- Characters are practical. Although it’s possible for people who live in China to ‘get away’ with not learning to read and write Chinese characters (I was one of those), but I always felt like I was missing out on something. Although in big cities street signs, shopping malls and metro lines are all in English, once you leave the main street you can often be hit by a mix of oddly named fruit shops and badly translated menus (If they’re translated at all). Just learning a few characters here and there can remove an extra challenge that you really don’t need to have!
- Chinese is a package deal.
Wouldn’t you look at a person who was learning a romanized language a little oddly if they told you they weren’t going to learn to read and write too? So why so many of us think it’s acceptable to only learn to speak Chinese? If you’ve already made the commitment and challenged yourself to learn the Chinese language, you might as well go all in!
- It’s hard to backtrack. If like me, you’ve learned pinyin for a long time it can sometimes be a struggle to learn the character to a word you’ve known for 4 years. On one hand, the enlightenment I feel when learning the meaning of a character is amazing, the time and effort I now have to put in to learn characters is crazy, and I think ‘If only I’d learned characters sooner…’
If you don’t have a smart phone, never fear! You can take a look at our online dictionary!
Pinyin can be a blessing and a curse. If you have comments or suggestions about learning with pinyin, please leave a remark below.