Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Pinyin Alphabet 

Sitting on the bus today, I read a fascinating feature article in the China Daily about the guy who developed the pinyin alphabet. Most interesting to me (something I had not known before) was the fact that Zhou Youguang had taken quite a bit of flak from his colleagues at first for his insistence that pinyin be based on the English alphabet. Fortunately for me, he stuck to his guns. Without that, pinyin would still have been useful for Chinese children learning to read, but it would have been useless for foreigners learning Chinese.

Many people don't realize that since the development of pinyin, Chinese children learn to read phonetically, using the English alphabet. But I hasten to clarify. Pinyin is not English. It is Mandarin using English letters. And by now, it is taken for granted in China. When I mentioned to one of my friends a few years ago that pinyin was not used in Taiwan, she immediately said, "But how can the children learn to read?" I said, "Well, Chinese children somehow figured out how to read for hundreds of years before pinyin was developed." So of course I do not say that pinyin is essential. But it has simplified the process of learning Chinese characters for millions of people, both Chinese and foreigners.

Pinyin is not the first Romanization system for Chinese. The old Wade-Giles system was in place for many years before the pinyin system came into being. But Wade-Giles was used to reduce Chinese words to the phonemes that native speakers of English were familiar with (much like what katakana does for Japanese speakers). As such, it was not accurate. Pinyin is used to teach Chinese children how to read their own language. It is therefore far superior. Of course you still need a tutor to help you pronounce the vowels correctly according to Mandarin. And you would of course need help with tones, even though pinyin does add tone markers. But once you learn the basic sounds, you can sound out just about any word that is given to you. Before I came to China, I had a tutor (Ina) who gave me a chart of all the sounds in Mandarin, spelled in pinyin. We would go through that chart row by row, and Ina would listen to me to make sure I pronounced every syllable correctly. After that, whenever I met someone from China, I would ask them to write their name (both characters and pinyin), and then I would use the pinyin to sound out their name. People would ask me how I could learn to say their name so quickly. Foreigners who haven't learned pinyin don't do that. They listen and try to repeat it. That's much, much harder. Zhou Youguang and his colleagues made Mandarin a learnable language for many, many people who would surely have given up without the tremendous "leg up" that pinyin provides.

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