In a text like the one in the picture on the right, with both Chinese characters and Pinyin, what do you look at? Most students look at the familiar letters, and you need to be very familiar with characters to ignore Pinyin altogether.
This problem is known by teachers and textbook writers, which is why Pinyin only appears early in beginner textbooks or is placed on a different page. Some gradually remove Pinyin or add it only for new words, others never show both together outside of vocabulary lists.
Writing down Mandarin pronunciation
Some system is necessary when learning Chinese characters for the simple reason that the characters themselves at best only contain clues to how they are pronounced. A bridge is needed from the spoken language to the written language.
Which system you use to write the sounds is beyond the scope of this article, but if you want to read about alternatives to Pinyin, check out my series about transcription systems, beginning with this article: Learning to pronounce Mandarin with Pinyin, Zhuyin and IPA: Part 1.
The main difference between native speakers of Mandarin and foreign adult learners when they learn to write characters is that the former already know how to speak and the latter typically do not. Chinese Children need to connect the spoken language with the written language.
Why relying on Pinyin too much is not a good idea
As stated in the first paragraph, the problem with including Pinyin with Chinese characters is that rather than working as a bridge connecting spoken and written language, Pinyin often steals all the attention and students simply ignore the characters. This is incredibly hard to avoid, even if you know that it’s a problem.
If your goal is to learn spoken Mandarin and simply need a convenient way to write things down, then using Pinyin is not a big problem. However, if you want to learn how to read Chinese, the more you rely on Pinyin, the longer it will take you to learn how to read.
This is because reading Pinyin and reading characters are two very different processes. Sure, they overlap in some ways, but the challenge when learning to read Chinese is to process the characters accurately and smoothly. You will never learn that by using Pinyin. Read more about this problem in this article over at Mandarin Companion: Pinyin over Characters: The Crippling Crutch.
There is little need for Pinyin as a reading aid
In today’s world of digital learning resources, there is little reason to use Pinyin. Before the advent of pop-up dictionaries and digital reading, Pinyin was crucial.
I remember a book I used during my first semester of learning Chinese (汉语口语速成基础), which had no Pinyin for example sentences. It used to take us hours to just figure out what the characters meant by painstakingly looking them up by radical.
Since then, a digital revolution has taken place, radically changing the way we learn and teach Chinese. In this article, David Moser discusses the new paperless revolution in Chinese reading and how it affects how Chinese is learnt and taught.
In short, you don’t need Pinyin to look words up anymore. The only reason to use Pinyin is as a pronunciation reference, or as a memory aid for spoken language in case your goal is not to learn to read Chinese characters, at least not for the moment.
Why showing the tone might still be a good idea
Taking the step from Pinyin to only characters can feel very daunting, but you’re not going to learn to read Chinese any other way. However, I think some scaffolding can be helpful, while still allowing you to learn to process Chinese characters. I’m talking about showing information about tones without including Pinyin.
To understand why this is helpful, we need to realise that there are many different kinds of tone problems. One of them (number three in the article I just linked to) is the problem of remembering the correct tone.
I think this is a problem common for all learners, from beginners all the way up to advanced learners. I’ve encountered the problem many times and still do. It’s not that I can’t pronounce the tones, it’s just that I sometimes don’t remember which one it’s supposed to be!
Now, if you read a text without any annotation at all, this problem could in theory persist forever. You receive no feedback and no-one notices if you don’t know the tones of some of the characters, perhaps not even yourself. If you annotate the text with tones, you get the benefit of reinforcing your knowledge of tones while still avoiding the distraction of Pinyin. This is particularly useful for reading aloud, which is hard enough as it is.
There are two simple ways you can add information about tones to a Chinese text without also adding Pinyin. You can either use colours or tone marks only.
Using colours to annotate tones
Colours can be used to annotate tones. The idea is simple, just let each tone correspond to a colour, and then colour characters according to the tones with which they are pronounced. Before I show you an example, here’s a normal Chinese text annotated with Pinyin. The passage is the opening to the interactive text game 迷雾中 (Into the Haze):
Unless you’re a very experienced reader, the Pinyin will almost certainly distract you from reading the characters. Here’s the same text, but annotated with colours, created with this tool over at Purple Culture:
The link between the colours and the tones is completely arbitrary, of course. There are in fact many different colour schemes, which is one of the disadvantages of using colours unless you always have control over which scheme is used. This particular tool actually allows you to choose among several colour schemes, but you don’t always create your own learning materials.
Another disadvantage with using colours is that because the choice of colours is arbitrary, there’s an extra step between seeing the colour and recalling the correct tone. This can be learnt, of course, but still takes some getting used to.
Using tone marks without Pinyin
The second method, which I prefer myself, is to add tone marks without Pinyin. This can be done using another nifty tool over at Purple Culture. The same text looks like this:
Update: After writing this article, I e-mailed Purple Culture to ask them if it were possible to add a dot for neutral tones. They have now updated their tool so that is adds dots for neutral tones! The above picture represents this new output rather than the original version which had nothing at all above characters with neutral tones.
This takes a bit more space since an extra line is needed, but that’s seldom an issue. I personally find this method more appealing because it gets rid of the arbitrary colours and sticks to tone marks, which are directly linked to the contour of the tones.
I also feel that reading this text is much closer to reading normal text, because it’s easier to disregard the tone marks and only look at them when needed, whereas the colour of the characters in the previous example is impossible to ignore.
Still, to each his or her own! I think both methods work and they serve the same purpose. While we still don’t really know if either method would help student learn the tones better (see the first article in further reading below), but they definitely provide some scaffolding to your Chinese reading experience, while still keeping you on the task of learning how to process actual characters.
Which method do you prefer? What’s your experience with Pinyin in relation to learning to read characters? Leave a comment!
Struggling with tones?
If you’re struggling with tones in general and want a helping hand from someone who has been through all this, you can check out Hacking Chinese Tones: Speaking with Confidence, where I teach you the theory you need, the methods you should use to practice, along with high-quality audio recordings to mimic and clean tone diagrams to study.
Godfroid, A., Lin, C. H., & Ryu, C. (2017). Hearing and Seeing Tone Through Color: An Efficacy Study of Web‐Based, Multimodal Chinese Tone Perception Training. Language Learning, 67(4), 819-857.
Wang, X. (2008). Training for learning Mandarin tones. In Handbook of research on computer-enhanced language acquisition and learning (pp. 259-274). IGI Global.
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