Pinyin and the Roman Alphabet

Maybe there’s an argument for ditching pinyin in teaching Chinese as a foreign language?

Pinyin is the dominant modern way of writing the sounds of Chinese. It uses the familiar Roman alphabet (in which most European languages are written) to represent the small number of sounds in spoken Chinese.

The sounds represented by characters in pinyin are close, but not identical, to the sounds they typically represent in English. They may be closer to the sounds typically represented in other languages, but I don’t know that for sure.

A class I attended in London had students with a variety of native languages, including a Spaniard. His Chinese sounded odd to me – although I am no great judge – and after a while I realised why. He was re-creating Spanish sounds when reading pinyin. The teacher also picked up on this.

It’s natural, I suppose, on seeing familiar letters, to match them to familiar sounds. Once upon a time, in the era of mechanical typesetting, it may have been prohibitively expensive to use new characters when existing ones could be recycled. But now that everything is typeset digitally, would it be such a bad idea to create a new alphabet for pinyin?

I’m not proposing replacing pinyin. Its breakdown of the sounds of Chinese should stay. I just wonder if the sounds should be mapped to different symbols, instead of using the Roman alphabet.

There are 21 initials, and a larger number of finals when combinations are considered. While I don’t know how long it would take to learn a new alphabet, for a student of Chinese, 60 or 70 more characters wouldn’t add much to the burden. If this resulted in more comprehensible pronunciation, I think it would be a price well worth paying.

For Chinese students of European languages, too, there may be benefits. I understand that Chinese students are typically taught pinyin with the Roman alphabet at an early age, before moving on to standard Chinese characters. If they don’t associate the letters of the language they are learning with Chinese sounds, they may be more able to produce the authentic sounds of the language they are learning.

3 thoughts on “Pinyin and the Roman Alphabet

  1. There is an alternative to pinyin! It is 注音符號 (zhu yin fu hao) and is the phonetic system taught in elementary school in Taiwan. The system has characters and tone marks. The characters correspond to specific sounds. For example, the characters and tone marks corresponding to 注音符號 are 注(ㄓㄨˋ)音(ㄧㄣ)符(ㄈㄨˊ)號(ㄏㄠˋ). The 注音符號 are written vertically and align very nicely next to the characters.

    1. That’s really interesting, I hadn’t heard of this system before!
      Basing the phonetic symbols partly on conventional Hanzi makes sense to me. Do you know why this system is dominant in Taiwan but not the mainland? Is it just down to politics? Is there any evidence that one system is better than the other?

      1. As far as I know, 注音符號 was developed by the Republic of China Ministry of Education during the time it was on China. So perhaps the diffrence is political. I have not looked into studies regarding which is better, for native or non-native learners of Chinese.

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