Learning Chinese – Pinyin or Zhuyin?

When you’re learning Chinese in school or university, you will most likely first learn some form of Pinyin for a period of time before progressing on to learning and reading the Chinese characters themselves. While learning a phonetic alphabet is an essential part of learning Chinese, you do have a choice about which phonetic alphabet you learn, and the choice you make will affect your pronunciation, reading ability, and how fast you learn.

You’re probably wondering how the choice of phonetic alphabet could have such a big influence on the learning process, after all, it’s all Chinese in the end, isn’t it?

While Pinyin might be easier for westerners to grasp from the outset, the use of the roman alphabet to represent the Chinese sounds may have an adverse effect on pronunciation – shouldn’t a new language with unique aspects of pronunciation warrant a completely new phonetic alphabet that allows the learner to detach themselves from the pronunciation of their mother tongue?

That’s were Zhuyin comes in. Zhuyin, or BoPoMoFo, is a Chinese phonetic alphabet that was used in mainland China until being replaced by Pinyin, and that is in widespread use in Taiwan. If you want to learn more about the history of Zhuyin you can read the Wikipedia article.

Apart from providing a new system of pronunciation that enables you to complete remove yourself from any influence of English pronunciation, Zhuyin also has great benefits when reading Chinese. Learners of Chinese will know this all too well – that when you look at a poster or newspaper that has both English and Chinese, your eyes are automatically drawn to the English. Naturally, this problem also occurs when reading Pinyin accompanied Chinese too, and is amplified by the Pinyin being on a separate line than the Chinese. Consider the following text:

When learning Chinese and reading this text, the reader is forced to look away from the Chinese to read the Pinyin, subsequently overlooking the Chinese:

When reading vocabulary or terminology lists, as the Pinyin is even further away from the Chinese, the effect is more pronounced:

Again, resulting in the Chinese being ignored or overlooked unless the read specifically diverts their attention to it:

Zhuyin, on the other hand, is tucked in next to the character, almost becoming part of the character. It is nearly impossible to read the Zhuyin without being exposed to the Chinese character. The result is that when reading Chinese, the reader of Zhuyin receives increased exposure and reinforcement of the Chinese characters, at the same time speeding up retention.

Obviously the main set back up Zhuyin is that the learner must first memorise all of the characters that represent the Zhuyin alphabet. This process usually takes a couple of weeks, but as seen above, the long term benefits far outweigh this temporary setback.

Another thing to consider is that Pinyin based learning materials are far more widely available than Zhuyin based materials. Meaning that you are more likely to find something that interests you in Pinyin, than in Zhuyin. Although, if you are willing to use learning materials that aren’t specifically targeted at foreign learners, then you can still find many books available that feature Zhuyin pronunciation. For example, the except below is taken from a book targeted at Taiwanese secondary/high school children, but if you can read Zhuyin then you can read this book too:

Zhuyin/Pinyin table from Wikipedia

Ultimately, the choice of whether to learn Pinyin or Zhuyin, especially if you are learning in school, may not be yours. Added to the fact that Zhuyin learning materials aren’t as widespread in the west as Pinyin materials, it might not be as easy to get a Zhuyin-based start in Chinese. But even if you’ve been learning Chinese for a long time, it’s still worth your while learning Zhuyin, if not only to increase the variety of learning materials available to you, and get a non-mainland China perspective on things.

The image to the right shows the Zhuyin and Pinyin equivalents, for a full table including various types of Pinyin, please see the Wikipedia page on Zhuyin:

Which system did you learn when starting out learning Chinese? What’s your opinion of Pinyin, or Zhuyin for learning Chinese? Leave a comment below!

27 responses to “Learning Chinese – Pinyin or Zhuyin?

  1. I am a Taiwanese and read your comment from the following hyperlink.
    http://iphone4.tw/forums/showthread.php?t=89601&page=6

    Of course, I knew Zhuyin well, but with little knowledge about Pinyin. Your opinion is very interested and I have never though about it. I will forward this hyperlink to my friends.

    Before it’s difficult for me to explain the differences between them to the foreigners. Now, I could do it easier.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    RI

    Jones

  2. @RI no problem, personally I prefer Zhuyin, but I know people have different opinions about this, so I’m not sure everyone will agree, but it’s still an interesting topic to discuss.

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  4. This is really interesting; I’ve never really known anything much about Zhuyin before, and we were never presented it as an option when I was studying.

    You are very right though, with the beginner textbooks where they have the pinyin and characters together, it’s really hard to focus on the characters. This seems like quite a sensible approach to help people focus more. Is this a very popular method in Taiwan?

  5. I only found out about zhuyin recently and have never thought of using it my self. As you said a big problem is that if you see pinyin and characters you read the pinyin. That’s why I have covered the pinyin in the dialogues of my textbooks. The vocabulary lists of course still have the pinyin but when I get to reading I have to read characters. And if I don’t remember how to say it I’ll check the list again. I think any student of Chinese who is serious about learning characters should do the same way.

  6. @Ciaocibai, when I started learning Chinese here in Taiwan, the teacher taught us Zhuyin, we spent around two weeks on learning it, then gradually crossed over to reading Zhuyin and Chinese together. Although there were students who had already started learning Pinyin and so just ignored the Zhuyin (the text books for foreign learners in Taiwan have both Pinyin and Zhuyin).

    @Sara, I know what you mean, the Pinyin in my textbooks used to distract me so much that I used Tipp-Ex to cover it all up. But I think that you are right, after you have learned Chinese for some certain amount of time, the Pinyin or Zhuyin should only be used for reference.

    Here’s a picture of my textbook from a few years ago, of course all of my classmates thought I was crazy 😉

  7. Hey Dave,

    I agree 100% with what you are saying, and though I hate to admit, being a pinyin user myself, I do wish I had first learnt 注音. Why? I dunno, because it looks cooler!

    The problem for me was that I came to Taiwan and fair enough, I started Chinese class almost instantly, however from the outset all I was taught was pinyin, and to me it seemed fine, ignorance is bliss and all that. It was only maybe 2 or 3 months down the line that friends introduced me to 注音, and by that time I was already completely accustomed to pinyin and, still being a beginner in regards to language learning, did not recognize the benefits BoPoMoFo would bring in the long run. So, what I’m trying to say is, a big problem is that 注音 is not well known outside of Taiwan, and even in Taiwan, schools are starting to avoid teaching it. How do you convince a beginner to choose it over pinyin? Pinyin is so much more accessible. I personally think that you can’t. Either it’s used in their first school/first text book, or pinyin is. Very few will change to a different system later on and the benefits become less significant the longer you wait.

    Another thing I would like to “throw out there”, is that I really do not think pinyin is that bad. If you choose to ignore the character when studying a new word, then well, that’s your choice/fault, and if you continue to pronounce pinyin as if it were English, then well, you are also an idiot. Get it sorted early, and associate the combinations with sounds, and it’s fine. The people who have horrible pronunciation are all the same, they glance over it and say “oh as long as people understand” and, often they are lazy.

    BoPoMoFo is difficult at first, and therefore it weeds out the lazier folk who perhaps were not quite as interested in the language as they thought. OK, maybe this is not true, but I’m just saying it for discussion.

    To summarize, I do not think zhuyin=good pronunciation and pinyin=bad. I have come across many zhuyin speakers with horrible pronunciation and pinyin speakers from the other camp. For me, the benefits lie in the fact that a) often the strokes help you write/say the hanzi b) in Taiwan is allows you access to a lot more beginner/intermediate material for reading and c) locals in Taiwan will be able to write and read it for you, whereas nobody understand pinyin, oh and d) you get to use and understand that cool Chinese font that automatically puts the zhuyin next to the character.

    Chris

  8. I agree with your point that it’s tempting to read Pinyin instead of characters when you have both next to each other, but I don’t see how Zhuyin should help me to actually concentrate on the character itself. Admittedly, your focus is shifted a bit closer to the character, but I guess that most people will still just read the phonetics and not the character itself. As for the pronounciation aspect: when learning another Western language, you also have to get used to pronounce the same letters differently and of course you will make some mistakes at the beginning, but eventually your brain will start to switch between the two pronounciation systems. The same is true for Pinyin – once you’ve got the hang of Chinese pronounciation, you won’t make many mistakes because the letters are the same as in English.
    I have to admit that I’ve never learned Zhuyin, but I would even think that it can get between you and fluency in Chinese, judging from my experiences with Cyrillic script. Although the letters aren’t that different from Latin letters, deciphering new words can be quite challenging and when reading a text for the first time, you inevitably sound like a first grade just having mastered letters. Given that speaking Chinese is already very difficult at the beginning because of the tones, I don’t think it’s a good idea to add more decoding work if you only want to concentrate on the pronounciation. I mean that’s the whole point of having a transcription system – so that you can focus on speaking and pronounciation rather than reading, respectively decoding.

    I therefore don’t think it’s worth the extra effort of learning yet another writing system – not with all the characters waiting for you.

  9. great article! i happened to find your post while i was googling for zhu-yin and pinyin. i’ve been looking for a mandarin tutor who understands zhu-yin for a while now, but no luck so far. my former mandarin teacher in the philippines taught me zhu-yin and i really just prefer that method over pinyin. for me, i find it very helpful in pronunciation (may not be the case for others though)… i guess i’m lucky that i never was taught pinyin before zhu-yin.. i just wish there are more teachers who know zhu-yin where i live now.

  10. Hi Dave,

    I like your post. I’ve never met someone who has learnt zhuyin – I only know it as the mysterious brother to pinyin and imagine it to be like hiragana and/or katakana. I would love to learn it, simply because I enjoy writing characters over letters and words. Besides, pinyin is not Mandarin written with the English alphabet, it is Mandarin written with the roman alphabet and that creates a lot of problems too.

    However, I find it quite hard to imagine that many foreign learners would appreciate zhuyin as they do with pinyin. It’s a great idea, language knowledge transfer impedes foreign language learning but it also helps it. As soon as you give a learner a romanisation then their pronunciation goes a bit array because they are trying to read the romanisation with interferrence from using the roman alphabet for another language. However, having something written down that is phonetic and easy to read helps a lot of learners deal with anxiety (arguably the biggest hurdle language learners have to deal with).

    What I would like to know is, when you first learnt zhuyin were you given the romanised spellings as well or did you only ‘hear’ the pronunciations and had to learn the pronuncation auraly. This would be very interesting to know.

  11. @peachai, when we first learnt Zhuyin the teacher just used to hold up the card for each Zhuyin character and then pronounce it, and we had to copy her, because I started learning in Taiwan, there was no one giving explanations in English about what we were about to learn and the process etc. I just sat down and we started learning Zhuyin right away, the teacher couldn’t speak any English. The funny thing was that for a week at the start, I actually thought the Zhuyin WAS Chinese characters 🙂

    @suyen, it seems from what I am hearing there aren’t many, if any, teachers who use Zhuyin outside of Taiwan.

    @Mei-Mei, I think it comes down to the learner, and what suits them better. But if the learner is really serious about learning Chinese then it shouldn’t make a difference, true. Maybe it’s that Pinyin is so easy to grasp initially, it means that people who aren’t serious about learning Chinese in the first place can try (regardless of if you pronounce it correctly) – whereas if you spent a few weeks to actually learn Chinese pronunciation via Zhuyin at the start, you are more likely to be a serious student.

    @Chris, I agree with your point that Zhuyin would weed out the lazy folks from learning Chinese, and therefore anyone who learnt the Zhuyin is more likely to have better pronunciation at the start (statistically, because there re so many Pinyin learners). I also agree that it becomes less significant the longer you learn, as you rely less on the phonetic alphabets and use them only for quick reference as time goes on.

    This seems to be a topic that people are really interested in, I wonder if there’s been any serious research done on this?

    PS – I really need to turn on threaded comments so I can reply to each individual comment :S

  12. When I was a graduate student in Taiwan, I met a German student who came to Taiwan to study Chinese. By then, I was interested in why foreigns choose Taiwan to study Chinese instead of China. To my surprise, that German student had learnt Chinese in China for few months before coming to Taiwan. It was a good chance for me to ask the differences between the two, and of course, Pinyin and Zhuyin is one of the topics we discussed. Here is what he told to me.

    He personally prefers Zhuyin over Pinyin after learning both. The main reason was kind of surprising me. He said sometimes he gets confused when reading Pinyin. Although they consist of the same alphabetical characters (a, b, c, etc.), the ways to pronounce Pinyin and English are different. Sometimes when he read a new word written in Pinyin, he would unintentionally pronounce Pinyin in English, and that results in wrong pronunciation. So he would rather learn a completely new system to prevent the confusion. “It’s just 37 characters. One would only need a week or two to memorize it. It’s worth the time.”

    That was 10 years ago. Reading your article reminds me this story. It seems you and that German student have something in common when learning Chinese.

  13. Hi Oliver, thanks for you comment, when first starting out learning Chinese, being confused over the correct pronunciation of the Pinyin is an issue and it does seem to affect people. Although, as Mei-Mei mentioned above, once you get past this you should be okay, and if you are a serious learner it shouldn’t be a problem.

    Although I think the other problem of the reader’s eyes automatically targeting in on the Pinyin instead of the Chinese is still a problem, but people seem to handle it in different ways and so it seems like Pinyin or Zhuyin as a choice of phonetic alphabet really comes down to the individual. I’m still glad I learned Zhuyin though 🙂

    1. Hi Dave, I’m glad you learned BoPoMoFo (how ironic “Zhuyin” is Pinyin). I’m partial to this phonetic system and it served me well learning my first language!

  14. Pinyin and Zhuyin are both retarded ways to write Chinese, and should be equally dismissed ASAP when learning.

    I do agree with you about that the capital sin of text books is to locate the pinyin so and make it so prominent that the eye of a student is drawn to them automatically.

    Dropping pinyin completely after the introductory course is best; cover the pinyin or get books that don’t have it. For self-study, it’s better to look up characters separately and just remember the pronunciation by using them in sentences than to ever write down pinyin. I myself have difficulties remembering tones, and often write just the tone on top of a character. Bad habit, but not the same in my opinion. Any ideas on specifically learning the tones would be appreciated.

    To alleviate the problem by introducing another script is just silly. Suppose you learn zhuyin first instead of, say, 100 common characters (and why would you ever), how is your situation different from pinyin? Every time you see a new character, boohoo, take refuge to the zhuyin; and you’ll equally end up ignoring the characters.

    You mention rubytext (or furigana), and that’s probably the way pinyin should be written in intro level books as well; not separate from characters but jammed between them.

    Chinese has a system of transliteration of foreign names (it’s sort of retarded, sure, but official), e.g. Puerto Rico -> 波多黎各. Additionally, most complex characters contain phonetic radicals. Why not learn them instead of some hypothetical and weird never-used-in-practice script?

    1. Zhuyin is and was not meant to always accompany text. In Taiwan it is used to teach phonetics for kids in grade school, and sometimes up through jr. high school if more complex vocabulary is introduced, but that is rare.

      The point is to precisely and accurately, learn the phonetic system before jumping in to learn a multitude of vocabulary and far before an intermediate level. There is a 1:1 correspondence of zhuyin characters with Mandarin phonetics. We do not even have that in English! (“oo,” “au” “hard a vs soft a” “ph” “silent h”…) With pinyin, for many words there are more characters per word than phonetic sounds, which makes the initial learning of Mandarin phonetics challenging as many students just apply their own roman character phonetics (whether they’re French, Italian, Spanish, or English) towards a Mandarin sound.

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  16. Zhuyin vs Pinyin

    Since returning from China (a short period spent in Taiwan) I spent over two years (on and off between work etc.) trying to learn Chinese using the pinyin system.
    I have learnt several things – but it really has been like drilling a nail through your own foot!

    When in China it became obvious that some foreigners were able to adapt to the pinyin system relatively easily, whilst many others just gave up – a lucky few were able to completely ignore it and still learn Chinese simply from auditory practice.

    The idea of learning another 30 odd characters (to facilitate zhuyin) before learning anything that had any meaning really didn’t appeal to me at the start [naivety].
    The absence of zhuyin learning material has also been a significant hinderance.
    Since finding some zhuyin learning material, and being completely exasperated with pinyin, I have since spent the hour of two needed to pick up the zhuyin symbols (and an A4 sheet sitting next to me for quick reference) and with the practice since then they have become relatively easy and a much quicker way of learning Chinese (much more straight forward and logical – basically easier).

    I realise that generally the North Americans are able to adapt to pinyin, and a few British (let’s be honest – half of Britain speaks North American and not English anyway); however for the rest of the world that does actually speak English (far greater population, though on aggregate poorer, than North America and England) the pinyin system does not encourage the learning of Chinese.

    Background to the development of pinyin and why it doesn’t help the Chinese government expand it’s sphere of influence:
    The Chinese government wanted to develop a writing system able to be used on a type writer (as the European and North American languages were able) and so requested (for a reason I don’t know) an economist who was working on Wall Street at the time to return to China and develop a linguistic system.
    This economist (I forget his name – though he was recently featured on al jazeera) wasn’t a linguist at all, he simply adopted what he had learnt from his experience when working on Wall Street – is it any wonder then why the sounds of pinyin are those of merely one dialect of the North American language?

    China (is presumed to – we can’t speak on behalf of the government) wanting to become a world superpower, i.e. expand it’s influence. The USA achieved this to great success through the export (primarily) of movies and music – both of which are reliant upon the listener understanding the language. China has developed a significant movie industry over the last decade, and has (internally) a large music industry – but does anyone (other than Chinese) living outside of China actually know this? Probably only a very limited number of people.

    If China hopes to expand it’s influence and recreated the successes of the USA media export then it would be better advised to help and encourage the world at large to learn Chinese – maintaining a phonetic script which the majority of the world outside of North America cannot even pronounce properly – even when trying (because it is based off of a New York North American language and not off of a standard European language) – does not encourage this.

    Note that the need for a type writer style keyboard for entering information into a computer is slowly become outdated.

    For me (now that I have some experience in learning the language) choice between zhuyin and pinyin is obvious.

  17. Did you know that there are two ways to locate the zhuyi phonetic symbols? When the characters in a text are arranged vertically, the phonetic symbols are arranged vertically to the right of the corresponding characters; when the characters in a text are arranged horizontally, the symbols should be arranged horizontally above the corresponding characters. Because zhuyi symbols are used for elementary books, and those books have text arranged vertically, the fonts with integrated zhuyi usually comes with the symbols on the right. If you use these fonts for a horizontally arranged text, a situation for which these fonts were not designed for, you end up with the “meshed” arrangement shown in this post.

  18. I’ve had this discussion with friends over the years as well, trying to impress upon them to start with zhuyin rather than pinyin. I hope this post helps somebody because I never heard it mentioned:

    The biggest advantage (other than being distracted by roman alphabet itself on the page) for learning zhuyin is that there is a 1:1 correlation of zhuyin characters to phonetic sounds. With pinyin, there may be multiple roman characters to express a single mandarin phonetic sound. That alone makes it more difficult for non-native Mandarin speakers to pronounce accurately as they end up trying to force-fit their own pronunciations of English (or whatever other language they speak if using the roman alphabet) rather than focusing on the Mandarin phonetics.

    Pinyin, finally, as a the single standard is useful for romanizing Mandarin, but not for learning Mandarin phonetics. Most pinyin material is from China, and their main thrust in the past has been to teach Chinese English, not foreigners Chinese (Mandarin).

    Separately, I find interesting that this is not more well known. When I began learning Japanese I had to learn hirigana and katagana, which are the phonetic systems for Japanese. Regardless that Japanese *can* be written in romanized form, having individual phonetic characters per sound helps learning proper pronunciation.

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