Chinese in its written form is a language full of pictures. When you look at a Chinese character like: ‘我’
There’s no way to sound out how to say it. There aren’t any consonants or vowels sounds contained inside a character which gives you a precise pronunciation. Subsequently, Chinese speakers must memorise the consonant/vowel sounds plus the tone associated with each character. When it takes around 6,000 characters to read a newspaper, it becomes a task to remember how to say all these characters.
But all is not lost. Chinese people know this and have developed a system for Chinese learners (including Westerns) who want to learn Chinese characters.
In 1958, the Communist Chinese Government set out to create a phonetic system using Western letters (ABCs) to indicate how to say Chinese characters. The idea was to adopt a system in ABC form which would be more closely related to Western countries. Hence, the Pinyin alphabet system was born.
No doubt many Chinese language learners see this and breathe a substantial sigh of relief. Western letters attached next to the exceedingly foreign looking characters seem to make Chinese much more accessible. But in my experience, this isn’t always the case.
You see, although ABC lettering will make any Western language learner more at ease, Pinyin (ABC) letters are also deceptively different from English pronunciation.
Pinyin especially has the danger to oversimplify the learning process and deceive the casual Western child learner into thinking Pinyin is somehow close to or equal to English.
X is a ‘sh’ sound / c is a ‘ts’ sound / e is ‘uh’ etc…
If a child is struggling to learn their ABCs in English, it’s easy to see how Pinyin could potentially further confuse them. Imagine a child suddenly being told ‘q’ is not a ‘kwa’ like in English but rather ‘chee’ sound for Mandarin, ‘i’ is now an ‘ee’ sound and so on.
While using Pinyin was intended to make Mandarin more accessible, there is the grave danger of developing exceeding poor pronunciation due to wrong associations with English phonics. When one tone can change the meaning of the word, having a good foundation in Mandarin pronunciation is really important!
So, why persist in teaching Pinyin then, you may ask? Well, it’s a complicated question.
Firstly, Pinyin is what all of China uses to teach Mandarin. Yes, 1.4 billion people. So, that’s a lot of reasons to learn it. Secondly, it’s assumed to be the most ‘standard’ system. Notice I didn’t say ‘helpful’, just ‘standard.’ If you’re outside of Taiwan, the screams to use Pinyin from Chinese teachers is deafening. Lastly, people think if kids were to learn French or Italian, they’d have the same issue of confusing their phonics. So, Pinyin isn’t all that different anyways!
Those points are indeed all valid. However, I think a massive opportunity is being missed to help Westerners better pronounce Mandarin. Here me out.
The answer is Zhuyin.
Zhuyin is the phonetic system which was used before Pinyin. It consists of 37 symbols (much fewer than the 56 different sounds of Pinyin). It covers all the sounds found in Mandarin but in a much more efficient, building-block way.
The only catch is…Zhuyin is not a Western letter system.
It draws on symbols (or elements) taken from the construction of characters to represent phonetic sounds.
Today, Taiwan predominantly uses the Zhuyin system. Although Zhuyin takes a little more time to learn (and can seem more intimidating), it has the long-term benefit of allowing learners to be less influenced by wrong associations with English.
While learners would find using this system less useful in China, I believe doing everything for a more solid foundation in pronunciation would be more beneficial in the long-term. If students later chose to learn Pinyin (as I did), then they would be drawing links from Pinyin to Zhuyin, not the more dangerous Pinyin to English!
But, for now, it seems Pinyin will remain the predominate way children learn Chinese pronunciation. While I don’t feel this is the most effective way, it is the current state of Mandarin learning. Chinse for kids in Western countries is still in its infancy of development. Hopefully, as time passes, educators will be able to have open discussions about the effectiveness of teaching methodologies within the Western context which indeed involves the practical usefulness of Pinyin for children who are already learning to read their native English.