What good is Pinyin for someone in Taiwan (or at all)?

What good do all these super features of Pinyin (like Capitalization, connected (or not connected) syllables etc) in pure language learning, where you have to learn the characters? (One can argue how far characters are needed for learning, but if you want to do classic language learning (= “I want to use the language as close to the locals as possible), you have to learn reading and to some degree writing). Usually, Pinyin as well as Zhuyin would just be used to write the pronounciation of an unknown word, which is usually 1 or 2 syllables long and in many cases is not a name. Also, in these cases, the definition of a word (e.g. that a certain compound is a word, not two) is given by the text book, the teacher or some other context, but not by the pronounciation guide.

Hmmm…well, first I’m honored that the person asking seems to believe that all Pinyin has helpful capitalization and so on — hopefully Tonally Orthographic Pinyin is spreading!  😀  Tonal spelling is so helpful to students learning Mandarin that I recommend it to everyone.

But the idea that Pinyin isn’t needed for a person learning Chinese in Taiwan, or that Pinyin is useful only as a means to read the vocabulary list in the textbook so you can memorize it — these ways of thinking really limit what can be a powerful tool in the foreign learner’s arsenal.

First, about Pinyin and literacy. Many people believe that the faster you go to using only Chinese characters, the better you’ll learn Chinese. After all, “real” Chinese people don’t use Pinyin, right? It almost sounds like some learners feel embarrassed about using the English alphabet to represent Chinese sounds — though Pinyin is a system unto itself and, taught and used properly, does not cause students to fall back on the English sounds associated with the letters.

But think about it. The most efficient way to acquire a language and become literate in it is to do just that — treat language and literacy as separate entities (but overlapping, of course, to leverage what you know.) You already knew your native language when you were asked to start reading it. You were just matching up visual forms to language that was already in your head, with no question about what it meant.

Now imagine you only knew 50 words of English, but you were being asked to read a book with 100 different words in it. How frustrating would that be? The traditional approach of “memorize these words today including how to write them in characters, we’ll practice them tomorrow” is no different, and it’s clearly not the most efficient way to go. It’s much faster to get literate in a language if you know the language first — and language in its basic form is not written. There are plenty of languages that have no written form at all. Reading known language is much easier than painfully decoding new stuff, where even when you figure out which word a character represents, you then have no idea what it means because you only heard of it for the first time the day before on the vocabulary list.

For language acquisition purposes, Pinyin has a much larger role to play for those who want to acquire quickly. Doing extensive readings in Pinyin is a great way to get more comprehensible input in Chinese. It’s like an ideally modified form of listening, in a way. You control how fast the input comes (and can even “cheat” and look back over something more than once). You’re still getting pure sound, without any of the semantic information characters can (sometimes) carry, so it’s very much like listening. The only drawback is that there is so little material available for learners in this form, as Pinyin has been widely viewed as “a crutch” or “something to be eliminated as quickly as possible” for so long.

Where else can you get “spoken” input in Chinese in a form you can control and refer to?

Pinyin (or Zhuyin, for that matter) doesn’t have to be a “spend five hours memorizing that” proposition, either. A good CI-based teacher will have students learn Pinyin in the same way they acquire other features of the language — through a “just-in-time” and “when the student is ready” approach. Pinyin is used to Romanize words from the start, but there’s no excruciatingly boring two-hour Phonetics Lab component where you parrot syllables without having any idea what they mean, in the hopes that you’ll have completely internalized them when your brain is (finally) allowed to think about what the sounds mean rather than merely how to produce them.

Whenever some of the Pinyin “hot spots” come up (q-x-j, zh-ch-sh, r, tones, sounds of various finals, etc.) they are quickly spotlighted and language acquisition goes on. These “phonetic popups” are quick and painless, yet over the course of time, they add up. It’s also more efficient to link this instruction, short though it may be, to actual real-life situations where the features occur, rather than having the weekly phonetics lesson (“This chapter is brought to us by the letter R”).

Learning Zhuyin only limits the world of your Chinese. You can’t use most dictionaries. It’s tough(er) to input Zhuyin on most computer keyboards. I never did manage to learn to touch-type efficiently in Zhuyin, though I can in Pinyin (including touch-typing TOP with all its tone marks). Pinyin feeds into a great many online converters of one type or another. It’s found on cell phones, electronic dictionaries, and so on. If you registered a Pinyin domain name way back when (I own “fanyi.com”), it’s now a commodity…try that with Zhuyin!

Most importantly, though, as a foreigner learning Chinese, you are a member of an international community, not just of a small locality. As much as I love Taiwan, it’s tiny.  As a Taiwanese using Chinese in the world, you can get away with not knowing Pinyin, especially if you’re not teaching Chinese. But as a foreigner, you almost need to know “both” (Simplified and Traditional, Pinyin as well as Zhuyin) or at a minimum, know Simplified and Pinyin, to engage with the vast majority of Chinese users.

Pinyin. It’s not just the international standard — it’s a learner’s weapon toward acquisition, used right.

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