Saturday, May 15, 2010

Pinyin revisited


I haven't posted about Pinyin (the romanisation of Chinese characters) for some time. Thought I would raise a few observations for comment.

Remember the tones with 5 new letters

Here is the weird bit, tones in pinyin are represented with those fiddly little marks over letters that we don't use in English, we find them hard to remember. There are plenty of learners who learn a lot of vocabulary but don't know the tones, they can remember "hen" remember the sound but not the little tick mark that goes over the 'e'. Of course you get those that can but there are plenty of people that don't. Actually a lot of Chinese people that use use pinyin on a daily basis for texting or as in a hanzi computer input method never bother with the tone marks and don't know the rules for where to put them and probably don't know how to input the tone marks on a computer, they don't need them.

Now for the weird bit, all you need to do is add five more letters to your alphabet and you can remember the tone if you remember the pinyin spelling. ying1guo3 tells me how to say England and the tones to use. After all we use letters for numbers in number bases above 10 so FF in base 16 is 255 in base 10, so why not use numbers to help writing and memory? I never bothered setting up a computer so I could type those little tone marks. If I write pinyin with a pen or computer I use numbers and that really really really helps you remember the tones.

It is not a Crutch

It seems a popular misconception amongst some people who haven't learned Chinese or only been learning for some time, that pinyin is a crutch for learners. In reality it is a tool and a tool that Chinese people use themselves, it is used to enter Chinese characters into mobile devices, used as an input method for typing Chinese on computers by most Chinese people, used in Chinese character dictionaries etc. etc.

Older Chinese who don't know pinyin are at a disadvantage, they may have to use a writing tablet to write Chinese etc. etc. so investing time in learning pinyin and learning it well is not going to be a waste.

If someone doesn't progress to learning characters don't blame pinyin.

The Chinese advantage

In Chinese every syllable counts, has a meaning, is a building block. If you master pinyin quickly you can hear words and have a very efficient way to look up the words you have heard in a dictionary


Niel de la Rouviere said...

Yes man totally. People should not shrug Pinyin off. And also, wow, I know about the number annotation for learning pinyin, but I never though of learning it that way. Much easier in fact. I usually learned the tones by making a mental representation of the word.

Interesting, very interesting, I'll have try this number method out! Thanks.
P.S. - Also put this up on Social Mandarin

Chris said...

I would be interested to hear if it helps. To be fair successfully remembering the sound is probably best but especially early on this seems easier said than done. Maybe seeing the numbers as extra letters works better for people who are used to base 16 though.

Megan said...

Great post...I still go back and forth on this. I spent about 2 weeks learning pinyin when I first started then swore off it as a "crutch" since it seemed to be having a negative effect on my pronunciation (keeping my accent very american). I began to dislike it even more as I saw other learners that spent years...years studying pinyin alone.

Recently though, as I've begun to focus more on vocabulary, I've found that as far as acquisition is concerned, it's a highly useful visual tool for getting a word initially ingrained in my head.

Michael Medlock said...

You're right,pinyin isn't just a crutch for beginners. You need it whenever you come accross a new word.

Some advice for beginners, learn pinyin in parallel with your language lessons. Just learning pronunciation with out language is demotivating and no the best use of your time.

Have a look at the Medlock Chinese pinyin course. It doesn't cost anything and it is based on screencasts so it easy to follow.

ivac said...

I'm among those who most of the time remember the words but not the tones. May be I should check back my vocabulary and use your pinyin number system. It seems better for memorization.