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Learning pinyin is a real tongue twister

By Warren Singh-Bartlett | China Daily | Updated: 2021-08-20 15:23
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Ever since I lived in Taiwan as a child, I've wanted to learn Mandarin. I was supposed to do that at university but decided on Hindi. Then I was supposed to move to the Chinese mainland after Japan but ended up in Lebanon for 20 years.

When I finally got here last year, I found a teacher, and got down to it, and after a year of on-again, off-again lessons-more the latter, sadly-I will be taking the HSK 2 exam this month.

The process has been delightful. I struggle with tones, particularly in combination, but love learning new characters for the way they progressively unlock the world around me, but may I politely and respectfully say that I am less enamored of pinyin.

Don't get me wrong. A phonetic alphabet of some kind is needed to bridge the gap between spoken and written Chinese-even Chinese schoolchildren learn characters through pinyin.

For foreign students, it's essential, for learning characters, remembering tones and (thanks to pinyin-to-character keyboards) for using Chinese messaging apps practically from Day One, which for nerds like me is still quite the thrill.

However, Chinese schoolchildren already speak Chinese when they start learning characters. They also do not come to pinyin with preexisting notions of how Roman letters are pronounced. Most foreign students do, so when it comes to conveying the way a character is pronounced, pinyin can be hurdle and helper.

Take something simple, like the character for 10. It's written in pinyin as shi, the accent over the "i" indicating that it is the second tone.

Forget the tone for a moment. As a nonnative speaker, how would you pronounce that? Shee? Shy? Shih? The correct pronunciation is closer to "shir". Did you get that from pinyin? No, I didn't either.

And what about "day", which is written as ri? Ree? Rie? Actually, it's an "urr", the "i" effectively absent.

Obviously, Chinese has sounds that don't transliterate easily, though I'm told that zhuyin, the system that existed before pinyin, is much better at that. But pronunciation varies even in languages that use the Roman alphabet, so studying a new language usually means learning to pronounce letters you know in a different way to which you are familiar. I've done this before, so why does doing this with pinyin bother me so?

In part, I think it's the gap between certain letters and their Chinese pronunciations (yes, "c", I'm looking at you), but it's also a combination of factors. As a beginner, I'm juggling multiple tasks. I'm trying to recognize the characters, remember their meaning, pronunciation and tone, as well as figure out what the sentence means.

Like a neon sign, pinyin inexorably attracts the Roman alphabetized eye. Even printed in a smaller font, it overwhelms characters and as I struggle to reconcile Roman letters with Chinese sounds, the sentence I can read and understand in my mind comes out sounding like a car crash.

This might be no more than navel-gazing were Chinese not gaining global traction, but over 70 countries already include Mandarin in their national curricula and with more than 530 Confucius Institute facilities worldwide, tens of millions are learning it as a second language.

Introduced after China's combat-illiteracy campaigns of the 1950s, pinyin was created principally to boost adult literacy, which stood at around 20 percent in 1950. Today, that figure is around 96.8 percent, so it has obviously worked.

But as China encourages the rest of the world to learn a beautiful, complex language that has been evolving for over 3,000 years, perhaps it's time to revisit the way nonnative speakers are taught to master the language more than 1 billion Chinese call the "common tongue".


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