Is learning pinyin learning Chinese?

Many people learn pinyin when they first start learning Chinese. Pinyin looks familiar to anyone who is used to Roman letters. And comparing to Chinese characters, it is a lot easier to learn. If anyone speaks English, they can use this guide to get a basic understanding to what pinyin sounds like. If some one also speaks other languages, such as Spanish, pinyin will become even easier. 

However, technically, learning pinyin is not learning Chinese. To be precise, it is learning a tool which can be used to learn how to speak Chinese. When it comes to learn a tool for the purpose of learning how to speak Chinese, pinyin is not indispensable. Students can replace pinyin with other phonetic tools, such as the Yale romanisation of Mandarin Chinese. If students are willing, they can make up their own phonetic system using their native languages as cues to learn how to speak Chinese.

When we understand that pinyin is a tool for students to learn how to speak Chinese, we also need to understand that pinyin, as a tool, has its shortcomings. The first of all is that pinyin is not self-evident. Without sufficient training, nobody knows how to pronounce pinyin. I have an interesting story here. During 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, there were five mascots, named Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying, Nini. These names were everywhere, and were pronounced in many different ways to the point that they were not recognisable. In 2019, a panda called Bing Dwen Dwen was chosen as the mascot for the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, and the mascot of 2022 Paralympic Winter Games was named Shuey Rhon Rhon. Both Bing Dwen Dwen and Shuey Rhon Rhon can be quite easily pronounced. It seems to me that lessons were learned. Non-pinyin names replaced pinyin names for easier communications. My point is that pinyin itself is not the pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese. Learning pinyin itself is an effort even before learning how to speak Chinese.

Secondly, as a tool, pinyin gives students false hope that they can speak fluent Chinese without the need of learning Chinese characters. Although pinyin helps students get started quickly, it can not get students to a relatively high level. When students learn more words, pinyin becomes so look alike, and so confusing. For example, can you tell what “shì lì” mean in Chinese? 

Thirdly, because tones are so visible in pinyin, they are often unnecessarily over-emphasised. There are many jokes playing around tones of pinyin. One of them goes like this. A foreigner wanted to order dumplings in a restaurant. Unfortunately, he did not say the tones right, and got slapped by the waitress because she mistakenly believed that he wanted to sleep with her. The problem was that this foreigner said “shuì jiào” (to sleep) instead of “shuǐ jiǎo” (dumplings). After teaching Chinese for many years, I find there are many problems with this joke. I suspect that it must have been written by someone who had not learned any Chinese at the time.  

To get back to our original question, learning pinyin is learning a tool, an intermediary, which helps students learn how to speak Chinese. But pinyin itself is not Chinese. It is a representation of what Chinese sounds like. 

Once students are pretty good at reading and writing Chinese, pinyin once again becomes a good tool as a Chinese input method.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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