“To those who wait, time opens every door.” - Chinese Proverb.
This Chinese proverb is useful for explaining the long linguistic journey foreigners have to take when it comes to taking Mandarin lessons.
The tones are complicated and the alphabet and grammar can sometimes be even more confusing for those trying to learn it. Speaking, understanding, and writing Chinese requires a lot of determination. Don't even get me started on Chinese pronunciation!
While it can be difficult, learning has changed in recent years with the standardisation of Chinese and the introduction of Pinyin, a writing system used to phonetically transcribe Chinese characters using the Latin Alphabet as a way to learn Chinese vocabulary and phrases more quickly.
According to the BBC, 85% of China was illiterate before Pinyin but now, according to Unicef, the rate of literacy is 95%.
This system was revolutionary and also served to help Chinese characters be represented digitally with the advent of computers, smartphones, and tablets.
“Hanyu Pinyin”, as it’s formally known, is also to thank for the creation of a Chinese version of Braille, which didn’t exist in a useful form beforehand.
Pinyin is generally considered simple by most but elegant by Mandarin Chinese university professors. Let’s have a look at the writing system that you’ll definitely come across if you learn Mandarin.
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Why Did the People’s Republic of China Create Pinyin?
The linguist Zhou Youguang, who died aged 111, is considered to be the father of the Pinyin writing system that helped modernise Chinese and make it more accessible to the West.
Despite talking about him here as a famous linguist, Youguang actually majored in economics at St. John's University in Shanghai and only studied linguistics as a minor. The May Thirtieth Movement, an anti-imperialist movement which led to unrest around the country, caused Youguang to transfer from St. John's University to Guanghua University where he would eventually complete his studies.
Youguang was predominantly an economist whose work experience included working for the Sin Hua Bank, the National Government's Ministry of Economic Affairs, and as an economics professor at Fudan University where he taught for a number of years.
It was only after he was made head of a committee to increase literacy that he started working on the system that would later become Pinyin. Other systems were also being developed at the time in order to spread Mandarin Chinese as the official language and to simplify the Chinese characters themselves but these had nothing to do with the work being undertaken by Youguang and his team.
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His project for transcribing Chinese was approved on 11 February 1958 during the fifth session of the National People’s Congress ahead of older writing systems such as:
The Wade-Giles System that was created in 1859 and subsequently modified in 1912. This British system was popular at the start of the 20th century.
Bopomofo, which is still used in certain parts of China.
The system would take Youguang three years to complete and when he was finished, he'd created Pinyin, a system for romanising Mandarin Chinese and making the pronunciation of Chinese words simpler to understand. This system helped further bridge the gap between the East and the West after being made the official one by the Standardization Administration of the People's Republic of China in 1979.
It was later adopted by the Taiwanese (the Republic of China) government authorities in 2009. However, it wasn’t widely established within Taiwanese institutions.
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Written as 拼音; Pinyin: Pīnyīn; Wade: P’in¹-yin¹; EFEO and even P’in-yin, the system is now one of the most widely used transcription systems for Chinese.
Of course, other systems have been created in order to facilitate the standardisation of other Chinese dialects but they’ve never really been adopted at the national level in the same way that Pinyin has been.
When it became the ISO 70981 standard, the system for “putting sounds together” (as its name is sometimes translated) cemented its position as the phonetic transcription method for Mandarin Chinese.
Additionally, the system was a way to legislatively respond to the growing demand from Westerners for an easier way to learn and understand Chinese. The alternative phonetic alphabet of Bopomofo also includes characters, which further complicated matters and made it rather undesirable in the West.
Pinyin was also useful at a national level as it helped China improve literacy rates around the country which also worked for the ministry of education.
Today, Pinyin and its simplified characters have been applied progressively around the country. The final version was approved in 1986 and allowed almost everyone in the country to learn to write.
This is why nobody learning Chinese can really complain about the writing system given that in the past, things were significantly more difficult.
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Letters and Tones in Pinyin
“Without an alphabet you had to learn mouth to mouth, ear to ear” - Zhou Youguang
It was this kind of great thinking that led to the standardisation of the Chinese language and the construction of a system that he called “a bridge” between speakers of Chinese.
The Pinyin system includes 25 of the 26 letters of the Latin Alphabet and has changed the way foreigners learn Chinese forever.
The letter “v” is the only one that wasn’t included. Thanks to Pinyin, Mandarin Chinese is much simpler although the pronunciation isn’t exactly like it would be in English.
English speakers beware! You still have to put some effort in!
Familiarising yourself with Pinyin is just a jumping-off point for those taking Chinese lessons, which tend to have no relation to the Latin Alphabet.
The Tones of Pinyin
Let’s start with what most learners of Chinese find the most difficult according to the Confucius Institute: tones.
When it comes to speaking Mandarin Chinese, each syllable can be pronounced in 4 different ways as well as neutrally:
- 1st tone: The diacritic ( ¯ ) mark as used in “mā” or 妈 which means “mother”. This is the high tone.
- 2nd tone: The ( ´ ) diacritic indicates the second tone and is used for the word “má” or 麻 which means “hemp”. This is the rising tone.
- 3rd tone: This tone uses the ( ˇ ) accent like in the word “mǎ” or 马 which means “horse”. This is a low tone that dips before rising.
- 4th tone: This tone is shown with a ( ˋ ) like in “mà” or 骂 which means “to scold”. This is a short descending tone.
- 5th tone: ma 吗 (an interrogative particle) is in the neutral tone.
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Consonants in Pinyin
The consonants are quite easy in Pinyin as they’re pronounced similarly to the way they are in the English language!
The consonants F, L, M, S, and Y.
The letter “A” which is pronounced very similarly to how it’s pronounced in English.
The “O” which is pronounced in a similar way to English but with a slight “u” sound before it: MO: “MuO” or even PO: “PuO”.
Should I Focus on Learning Pinyin?
As a tool for learning Chinese, Pinyin is hugely useful. However, it can be harmful for students learning Chinese.
Let me explain... Once you’ve learnt the tones and pronunciation and can understand some spoken Chinese thanks to transcribing Chinese characters into the Latin Alphabet, you have to move on to learning how to read the Chinese characters themselves.
While spending several hours using Pinyin is useful for learning Chinese in the beginning, you’ll reach a certain point where you’ll have to leave it behind if you want to better understand the structures used in Chinese. There’s a limit to how much a student can do with Pinyin!
Once you leave the classroom, there’s no more Pinyin. If you travel to China, you’ll only be met with the traditional and simplified Chinese characters.
While Pinyin is easier to read and write and can make communication simpler, it’s simply a stepping stone towards learning “hanzi” and Chinese characters.
It’s not the best solution! Just like watching a Chinese film with English subtitles, studying for the HSK, or reheating leftovers after a takeaway! The best method is to gradually remove Pinyin from your learning as you move towards learning Chinese characters.
When I say remove, I mean start ignoring the Pinyin and start learning Chinese characters just as the Chinese do. You have to do it if you want to improve your Mandarin. You need to get used to understanding and recognising Chinese characters.
Relying too heavily on Pinyin runs the risk of making errors such as approximating Chinese vowels too closely to vowels as they’re written using the Latin Alphabet.
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