Are phonics or pinyin needed to learn Chinese?

This is a topic for much debate – and you can see from the different syllabi used between countries (and schools), that there is no unanimous alignment on this.  However I want to share a few facts and observations, so you can also make a decision on what might be best for your family.  I find this area of linguistics and literacy fascinating. 

What is Hanyu Pinyin?

Hanyu Pinyin (拼音 or often abbreviated to pinyin) is the official romanisation system for Mandarin Chinese, originating from Mainland China.  It’s also officially used in the Singapore education system. The pinyin system was developed in the 1950s by Chinese linguists, and was based on earlier approaches to romanise Chinese words, but which weren’t fully consistent.  In 1958 the Chinese Government published a standard list, which is still used today.

Hanyu (汉语) means “the spoken language of the Han People” and Pinyin (拼音) being “spelling sounds” (essentially, phonics).  It’s a way of using the Roman alphabet to decode Chinese characters.  Every Mandarin syllable can be spelt with one equivalent combination of alphabet letters, with a diacritic above to indicate tone.   The system fits nicely on an A4 page, which is quite an achievement for a language with over 50,000 unique characters. This provides a basis for alphabetic order or words for some modern dictionaries too.

(In a fascinating political backstory, Chairman Mao was actually considering romanising the entire written Chinese system and dropping the characters, but was advised in 1949 by Joseph Stalin that China should maintain their existing writing system.  Still, Mao’s vision kickstarted a committee to reform the Chinese written language, in order to increase literacy rates among adults.  Thus the Standard Chinese Hanyu Pinyin System came about).

Why is Pinyin taught?

Fundamentally, phonics (or letter/symbol–sound relationships) are a key to becoming literate in most languages on Earth. Even languages that are said to be non-phonetic in nature (eg ideographic or logographic scripts), do indeed also use a method of teaching to read and pronounce words by learning the phonic value of characters and groups of characters.   

This is exactly why even for countries like China and Taiwan, where Chinese is the primary language of instruction, they also rely heavily on teaching phonics (or syllabary symbols) in their curriculums.  Phonics are essential to give structure and order to the character set.   

Whilst pinyin has the value of enabling non-Chinese speakers to “read” or pronounce the Chinese language, its main use is actually within China itself, enabling learners there to have a good framework themselves to learn new characters and pronunciation. Other benefits include giving alignment on geographic places and names which need to be translated into English, and the fact pinyin is MUCH easier to type into a computer too. 

Why is there debate about teaching Pinyin?

Firstly, the debate over phonics and Pinyin doesn’t seem to be within China or Taiwan.  These countries use the phonetics as part of their teaching. Moreover, it is the foundation of much of the learning system.  However, ultimately the focus is on a child being able to read/write using only characters, with phonic tools as an aid only.

The debate over pinyin occurs in countries where Chinese is being learnt as a second (or subsequent) language, typically AFTER a child has already learnt to read in English, and is well aware of English phonics. 

There are two fundamental points in the argument against pinyin:

  1. The Chinese pinyin phonics are not a direct translation of English phonics.  Yes, pinyin assigns some letter sounds that are quite different from those of most English speakers.    For example, in English  “c” is pronounced as a “k”, but in pinyin it’s more of a “ts”.  So in the very common Lunar New Year greeting,  “Gong Xi Fa Cai”, the final character is a “tsai” rather than a “chai” or “kai”.  This explains why non-native speakers get it wrong ALL the time. However, I see this in the same way as a child who can read English cannot then go and read a paragraph written in French and expect to get all the pronunciation correct, simply because the alphabet is the same.  One needs to learn the language first. So this issue is not limited to pinyin, but it gets more airtime because obviously there is a credible alternative to not using pinyin, which is to only teach the Chinese characters themselves. 

  2. It can hinder a child from ever learning Chinese characters.  This to me is the MUCH bigger issue.  Children may become reliant on the pinyin and never learn the characters. Indeed, pinyin has became a key tool for many foreigners to learn Mandarin pronunciations, and this may be where it becomes a hindrance or crutch, depending on how and when it is taught. Put simply, you just cannot learn to read Chinese characters in the same way as English is learnt. If pinyin if it’s introduced too early or in a wrong way, it could be replacing this brain connection required for properly learning a logographic language, and also the aural connection to listen out for correct pronunciation. .

In summary, learning to speak Chinese accurately relies on listening, not overlaying a western pronunciation; whilst acquiring literacy requires following symbols and deconstructing a character to derive its meaning, rather than short-circuiting it with pinyin.

A great read on this topic the blog post Pinyin over Characters: The Crippling Crutch, which is written by the authors of some of our favorite Chinese novels called Mandarin Companion which is aimed at removing that crutch and helping a learner to walk by themselves.

Mandarin Companion has a nice approach of placing pinyin in reference notes at the bottom of a page, rather the distract the readers attention using it in the main text.

When should Chinese phonics be taught?

In China and Taiwan, phonics are introduced AFTER a child has started learning to read in Chinese characters, and obviously this is well after they have started speaking and understanding the language. On average in China, a student knows >600 characters before starting to learn pinyin, according to this article.

Outside of these primary Mandarin speaking regions, phonic systems like pinyin are often used at the start of the Chinese language learning process, where a child or adult learner may neither understand the spoken language nor yet be able to read any characters in it.  Ultimately,  non-native Chinese learners will be more familiar with the English alphabet, so pinyin helps makes the learning easier. Perhaps for an adult this is right approach (I’m still not sure) as they’ll already be struggling to learn new words and terms. However, in doing so, many will continue to rely on the pinyin and turn a blind eye to the Chinese characters, especially when pinyin is put in tandem in most textbooks.

In Singapore, Hanyu Pinyin is officially introduced only at Primary 1 – this is deliberate in order for children to learn some spoken Chinese (and ideally character exposure) prior to introducing phonics, much like the systems in China and Taiwan. From my understanding of the Singapore MOE Chinese curriculum (revised in 2015), local kindergartens are not actually allowed to teach pinyin.

This approach aligns with credible research showing that children who don’t start pinyin until their literacy already exceeds 1000 characters are less likely to rely on pinyin as a crutch (see great post here on the topic).

But, who would that stop pinyin being taught early in a kiasu country like Singapore? Many private schools will still teach this in the K1/K2 classes. In many cases, specific pinyin classes are also encouraged by private tuition centres, pandering to parents’ insecurity about wanting their child to have prior knowledge before starting formal primary schooling years.  A pinyin course is a relatively easy thing for a tuition centre to offer because it is only a fixed 35 vowels, 23 consonants, and four tones plus a neutral tone, and ….vrooooom, your child has crammed in the entire knowledge of pinyin. I’m sure some kids really do lap it up and it works.

Whilst debate remains, there is now an emerging body of research showing that if pinyin is introduced simultaneously with a child learning English phonics, this may even create a double confusion – because a child who is still only grasping basic phonics in English, is also using the same letters to do phonics in Chinese, which is every so slightly differently pronounced and used.  Let’s wait and see where jury lands on this.

In concluding, let me reverse this question and ask why don’t more parents in Singapore actually focus to teach their children to read characters prior to starting school? I really don’t have a good answer. But I have a good reason why you should try….. in many respects its EASIER for a young child to pick up characters than phonics, as memorising a character doesn’t require any use of decoding. Case in point: my two year old could recognise about 30 Chinese characters and read simple books much earlier than she could read an English book (because knowing 26 alphabet characters still doesn’t let you read a sentence, unlike Chinese characters.). She got great enjoyment out of the reading, and this positively reinforced her to want to keep reading and learning. She’s now five and and still doesn’t know any pinyin.

Learning characters can be daunting without any omanisation, bur that’s where clever audio tools like Luka and reading pens can help

What alternatives are there to Hanyu Pinyin?

In Taiwan, there is also a phonetic system, called Zhuyin (or BoPoMoFo), which uses a system of symbols rather than the Roman alphabet.  In fact, the system of phonics used is almost the same structure as Hanyu Pinyin, although takes longer to learn as it’s not as simple as using the alphabet, and instead uses symbols which look like pieces of traditional characters.    The use of zhuyin in Taiwan is analogous to the use of Hiragana and Katakana in Japan…. using symbols to turn a logographic written language into a phonetic one.

Many mothers from Taiwan say Zhuyin is essential (see a great recent blog post here from Motherly notes and an older one from Guavarama singing its praises). I personally think the fact that the zhuyin symbols look nothing like the English alphabet is a big plus versus pinyin, as it removes the brain’s association with the Roman alphabet and perceived pronunciation from that perspective.

As within Pinyin in Mainland China, Zhuyin in Taiwan usually isn’t taught first either. I’ve read in a few places there is a rule of thumb to know ~500 Chinese characters before starting zhuyin, which is not overly different from the official Singapore Government approach to learning pinyin either. One key argument for learning zhuyin earlier is it enables a child to start writing earlier, as the symbols are easier than Traditional Chinese characters (this isn’t so much of an issue in Singapore with Simplified Chinese characters however).   

In a Singapore context, I know many families where children have successfully learnt Zhuyin AFTER they’ve nailed Simplified Chinese characters, and it’s been a wonderful benefit to them too. This benefit has mainly been so that a child can read many more of the Taiwanese published novels, and is a good start to learning Traditional Chinese. 

Should we just ignore pinyin?

No, whilst it’s not essential for beginners, it has a good purpose.  Just as phonics are key building blocks to most languages, pinyin is helpful in the process of learning Chinese – but I personally feel that it needs to come later.  If you’re worried about your 4 year old not being taught pinyin in school and looking to pay $$ for a private enrichment class, please do rethink this.

If your child already reads English, they’ll very naturally pick up pinyin down the track by themselves with no effort.  Pinyin certainly is a helpful aid to how to pronounce new words, and enables a child to learn the language by themselves from a textbook or dictionary.  The tone marks too are great visual reminders, since mastering the tones can be tricky for non-native speakers.  Ultimately it also helps greatly in writing on a computer/phone, as majority of Chinese systems and apps use pinyin as input. 

The clear advantages are nicely articulated in this Hands-On Chinese post about how and when to introduce pinyin. What you want to avoid when learning pinyin is using it as a default and becoming dependent on it, and not properly allowing a child to fall in love with Chinese characters themselves. 

How we approached it?

Ultimately, there is still a LOT of debate on this topic, so I wouldn’t stress over what’s right or wrong, provided that learning real Chinese characters (or English literacy) is not being delayed due to introduction of pinyin.

After reading up much on theories on second-language learning, I became convinced that the first step to learning Chinese for my children would be listening and speaking, not reading or writing.  Then, learning real characters would be the next step, rather than learning pinyin (since it’s really only ever supposed to be an intermediate tool or aid).

Therefore, my children did not learn any pinyin prior to learning to read characters in Chinese.  When we started our literacy journey,  I deliberately used a home learning system (in our case, Le Le Chinese Character learning system) which enables a child to effectively self learn first ~1200 characters without any pinyin.  The system also works for parents who cannot read Chinese either, as it comes with a reading pen.  This was our main start to literacy, combined with apps like iHuman, which don’t have pinyin (unless you add-on that module).  I only ever bought or borrowed books without pinyin, and I even designed a little reading ruler to cover up pinyin on books where we really couldn’t avoid it.

Le Le Chinese emphasis is on literacy through stories, WITHOUT pinyin
In books where we couldn’t avoid pinyin, I made a plastic reading ruler to cover it up, using plastic sheet and washi tape.

In P1, the first half of the year (eg Term 1 & 2) in Singapore syllabus is spent learning pinyin.  The laoshi tends to go through this VERY fast, as most children already were taught it in advance.  What this meant is my daughter didn’t score at all well on P1 & P2 spelling tests where pinyin was involved, as she didn’t know it well enough (whereas just about all her classmates already knew it before starting school).  It was actually painful to see her struggle on something so meaningless, and I felt like the teachers were reinforcing learning than teaching at this point, which is an irony in itself.

But, by P3 the tables turned.  At P3 level, the Singapore MOE has a policy to essentially drop pinyin and leave only characters.  For most children, this was a big hurdle, but for us it was time to shine!  Finally my daughter started scoring 100% on weekly tingxie tests.   By that time she was already reading novels in Chinese with no pinyin, although she of course now understands pinyin and can use it to self-learn new vocabulary. 

I think our learning strategy has been vindicated, and certainly, nothing lost (note least the $ potentially spent on classes) from not starting pinyin any earlier.  Another perk is that books without pinyin tend to be cheaper, as the publishers know those with pinyin are focused typically for overseas learners with deeper pockets and less options.

As for Zhuyin …. it still is on our list to consider in future, but then so are many other things!

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