I remember my first college Chinese class.
There were more than 50 of us, eager, optimistic and bright-eyed.
By the second semester, half of us were gone.
And by the time I reached fourth year Chinese, there were only a handful of us left.
In that first semester, I almost gave up myself.
The challenge that got most of the students was the dreaded tingxie quiz (literally “listen and write”), where the teacher pronounces a Mandarin Chinese word and the student must write out the hanyu pinyin along with the tones.
This post can help you avoid that fate that met many of my would-be-sinophile friends.
What Is Mandarin Chinese Pinyin?
Pinyin is basically the alphabet for the Chinese language (han yu).
You’ve probably heard that “Mandarin Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet and instead uses hanzi (Chinese characters).”
Yes, that’s true. Chinese people don’t see hanyu pinyin every day the same way that English speakers see the English alphabet.
But for the purposes of a Chinese student, I think it’s helpful to think of pinyin as the alphabet for Mandarin Chinese, and to think of Chinese characters as basically the actual written form. Pinyin is how Chinese words are pronounced, whereas Chinese characters are how they are seen in textbooks, newspapers, books, etc.
To further illustrate what I mean, both traditional Chinese (the Chinese characters used in Taiwan) and simplified Chinese (the Chinese characters used in mainland China) can be represented use the same hanyu pinyin.
(I would be remiss and probably antagonize a lot of people in Taiwan if I didn’t mention that Taiwan uses zhuyin fuhao (aka bopomofo). I haven’t learned it myself, but I would say that it is similar to pinyin but uses different symbols instead.
Why Learn Pinyin?
Some people have been saying that pinyin isn’t really necessary. They say they have been able to get their point across without knowing the pinyin for what they are saying.
If your goal is to learn how to speak Chinese fluently, please ignore these people. If your goal is to learn half-assed, minimum viable Chinese, then by all means, skip the pinyin.
Here are 8 reasons why you should learn Chinese pinyin:
1. You need pinyin to look up words in the dictionary. If you hear Chinese words and phrases in everyday speech and you would like to look it up, then you need to know the hanyu pinyin equivalent. If you encounter them online, then you can copy and paste the character into a dictionary.
In fact, FluentU’s Chinese audio and interactive transcripts let you look up and see examples for any word by tapping on it.
2. Digital Chinese input is best done through pinyin. Young Chinese people are forgetting how to write Chinese characters because Chinese input is fastest through pinyin.
3. Learning hanyu pinyin gives you a broader framework for learning Chinese. Pinyin encompasses all of the potential sounds that can be made in Mandarin Chinese. This is immensely powerful and empowering. It gives you a sense of the lay of the land. Basically, having a “name” for the different sounds is very useful. Imagine learning to paint without having names for different colors?
4. Learning pinyin builds confidence. When you first start learning Chinese, the sheer information overload can be very discouraging and disorienting. By showing you all of the potential sounds in Chinese, it gives you the sense that Mandarin Chinese is not infinite, and hence manageable. After you learn pinyin, all Chinese words begin to have more context.
5. Learning pinyin improves listening comprehension. When you are able to distinguish the pinyin sounds, that means you’re listening with precision.
6. Learning pinyin improves your pronunciation. Pinyin is intimately linked to pronunciation.People who are unable to identify the pinyin for a word, are usually unable to pronounce it effectively. Which makes a lot of sense if you think about it. How are you going to actively recall something, if you’re unable to passively identify it?
7. Failure to learn pinyin creates a long-term “debt” which taxes your Chinese learning progress. Pinyin is a useful tool that advanced learners can always rely on. Whether it’s looking up a word, or jotting something down quickly to review later, capturing Chinese words in pinyin is an essential shortcut. Why would you deprive yourself of it?
8. Failure to master pinyin puts a ceiling on your potential. No matter how big your vocabulary gets, it won’t matter. Without mastering pinyin, you will confuse similar sounding Chinese words (with drastically different meanings). And even if you know what you want to say, you might still not be able to pronounce it accurately. Fluency means selecting and deploying words with precision.
10 Tips You Need to Hear for Learning Chinese Pinyin
1. Realize that pinyin is not English
Pinyin looks a lot like English. This makes it approachable and comfortable. You will be tempted to think that you can pronounce pinyin the same way that you would in English. Even if you don’t think so, it will be all to easy to fall into that pattern. This is especially true for pinyin sounds like “shi” and “chi.”
2. Realize that pinyin has its own logic and patterns
You would assume that with pinyin sounds like “zhu” and “ju,” the “u” part would sound the same. Actually, they’re different! The “u” in “zhu” sounds more like the “oo” in “moo,” while the “u” in “ju” sounds more like the letter “u.” You just have to listen very carefully and memorize the patterns.
3. Get some great pinyin learning tools
The internet has a ton of great pinyin tools. Here are some essentials for your pinyin learning toolkit:
- A good online Pinyin chart (aka hanyu pinyin table). There are a ton, but this is one of the pinyin charts that I like: http://www.learnhanzi.com/pronunciation/pinyinchart.php. It’s simple and can be a good pinyin pronunciation guide for beginners because it lists the tone number in English (instead of using the tone symbol). Also, it doesn’t have annoying popups like many other chinese pinyin tables. If you review this carefully and play back the sound, it will help you differentiate between the different pinyin sounds and ultimately help you pronounce pinyin.
- Learn Chinese songs in pinyin. Chinese songs are a great way to start learning pinyin because you don’t have to worry about the tones when singing. You can start by learning the pinyin sound apart from the tone first. A great site for learning Chinese through music is FluentU. FluentU has over a hundred of the best modern Chinese songs in pinyin. Not only do all the songs have Chinese pinyin lyrics, but you can see definitions and example usages for words by hovering over them. There are also more sophisticated features for reviewing vocab using the video context.
- Get a great pinyin app. There are various pinyin trainer apps that you can readily find on the Android and iOS App stores. They tend to offer multiple choice questions so that you can improve your listening comprehension.
- Pinyin input. Getting a pinyin Chinese input method editor (IME) is essential part of the Chinese learner toolkit. This doesn’t necessarily help you learn Chinese per se, but if you ever have any reason to type in pinyin you will need it. The one I recommend is Google Pinyin.
4. Practice pinyin alone
Do pinyin practice on your own using the Chinese pinyin table and apps mentioned above. Try to passively identify the correct pinyin, and also try to actively recall the pinyin on your own. This won’t ensure that your pinyin pronunciation is correct, but it will still enable you to make the most of your time with a native.
5. Practice with a native
It’s not enough to practice on your own. You won’t be able to simply by doing multiple choice questions or even mimicking privately. You need to get live action, and more importantly, specific feedback about all the mistakes you’re making. And you have to get this feedback on a regular, consistent basis. That’s what will ensure that you don’t get any bad habits. Here are some more tips on learning Chinese with tutors.
6. Be strict on yourself
When learning with a tutor, make sure that they point out enough mistakes. If you’re a beginner and you don’t have a long list of pinyin sounds to work on after ever tutoring session, then chances are that your tutor is being too lax.
7. Practice consistently
Practicing alone and practicing with a native have to be done on a regular basis. Mastering pinyin is a habit like any other.
8. Targeted pinyin drills (eg. chuqu)
As you learn, it will become clear that there are some pesky issues which refuse to resolve themselves. It would be good to zero in on these issues with pinyin drills. Here are some pinyin drills that I found helpful when learning pinyin:
- nĭ shì bù shì xiăng chī (Do you want to eat?): This is great for the retroflex sounds (eg. shi, chi, zhi), which is a common issue for beginners.
- chū qù (To go out.): This one is probably the toughest pinyin sound—don’t feel bad if it takes weeks to really get it right.
- dà jiā yī qĭ shāng liang yī xià (Everyone, let’s discuss for a bit.): Great for addressing the “a” sound, which beginners are pronounce like “cat.” Instead you have to start opening your mouth very big and pronouncing them like “ahh.”
- wŏ xiăng măi yī liàng zì xíng chē (I would like to buy a bicycle): This is more of a Chinese tone drill rather than just pinyin. It’s awesome because it is a simple phrase which covers all of the tones.
9. Don’t let up
It will be discouraging because it won’t seem like you’re making progress. You might come close to thinking that you just don’ t have a knack for pinyin or tones. But everyone who has learned pinyin well has had to undergo the same thing.
10. Stay humble
After a while, you’ll probably feel very confident about your pinyin and pronunciation. But there will always be more to learn. I recently learned that my pronunciation of “ju” needed some work. Always stay open to feedback so that you can never stop improving.
Is there a difference between Mandarin pinyin vs Cantonese pinyin vs Taiwan pinyin?
Yes, they’re different. Like Mandarin pinyin, Cantonese pinyin uses romanized letters, but they are a different set and sound totally different Taiwan uses zhuyin fuhao (aka bopomofo). Zhuyin fuhao uses a totally different set of symbols.
So, it’s actually pretty straightforward. Get the right tools, teachers and habits, and you can learn Chinese pinyin. :)
And One More Thing...
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