Why learning Mandarin using (only) pinyin will create more hurdles

Learning Mandarin is very hard. One of the many reasons is pinyin. 

Some students may protest, pinyin is easy to learn, and it is so handy. MSL Master teaches pinyin as well.

Yes, pinyin is very handy, and we use pinyin in the first two levels of the Mandarin Express series. We fully recognise the usefulness of pinyin at the beginning of learning Mandarin. But, in the long run, pinyin creates more problems than it solves. The trick is to know when to stop using it as the only means of learning.

For zero beginners, pinyin makes Mandarin accessible and approachable. Students can get a hang of it quickly, and be able to speak some basic Mandarin without any knowledge of Chinese characters. But if anyone wants to successfully go pass the beginner level, they have to resort to learning Chinese characters.

Pinyin has three major problems.

Pinyin is confusing

Pinyin is so confusing because so many Chinese characters have the same or similar pronunciations. So many pinyin syllables look the same or are with minor differences.

I’ve seen Chinese textbooks written with pinyin only, such as the following page.

when pinyin is hurdle

It is time consuming to read these pinyin texts.

Pinyin does not offer concrete meanings

Because there are so many look alike pinyin, it is hard for students to ground meanings into pinyin the same way as they do with Chinese characters.

For example, and , both of the characters’ pinyin is “shì”. Initials, finals and tones are all the same. With one glance at the two characters, one knows their meanings instantly. But putting their pinyin side by side, no one knows which is which.

Pinyin gives a false sense of fixed pronunciation

Chinese characters don't give clues on how to pronounce them. Worse than that would be that pinyin gives a false sense that characters have a fixed way to pronounce them.

Pinyin does not reflect variations of pronunciations of the same Chinese character, because when entering speeches, the same character can sound rather differently at different times. Tones change a lot as well.

Relying solely on Pinyin gives an incorrect impression that there is only one standard of "correct pronunciation and tones", that all Chinese people speak accordingly. 

Naturally, they don't. 

Regional accents are real and fun to spot. A person with a Shandong accent speaks differently from a person with an Anhui accent. Neither of them speaks according to the standard pinyin. If we pick 100 people randomly from China and ask them to say something identical, we’ll probably hear 100 different variations of the same texts. Fortunately, regional accents do not prevent Chinese people from talking to one another.

Recommendation

We highly recommend all students start learning Chinese characters. 

Once they reach a critical amount, such as 300-400 characters, they can shift the focus from learning through pinyin into learning through characters. 

There are many ways to learn Chinese characters. We believe that we have found the most effective way to help students develop their Chinese reading and writing skills.


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April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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