Thursday, May 26, 2005

Pīnyīn hǎo!

In my various on-and-off efforts to learn Mandarin Chinese over the years, I've stoutly refused to spend any time or energy on the pinyin romanization system, even eschewing study materials that use it. My reasoning went something like this:

  • Native Mandarin speakers don't need it.
  • It's nothing but a crutch for English speakers who can't handle learning the characters directly.
  • Once the language is mastered, pinyin is useless; therefore it's an artifical and unnecessary intermediate step.

But after some discussion with my coworkers, about 80% of whom are Taiwanese or Chinese, and reading some web material on the subject (including the excellent Wikipedia article referenced above), I discovered that these assumptions are dead wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, to the point where I'm embarrassed at the level of my misunderstanding. Here's why.

Far from being just a tool for Western students of Mandarin, pinyin is actually used in schools in China to teach Mandarin pronunciation to children. After all, it's not as if one can see an unfamiliar character and sound it out as one can with alphabetic languages. The reason I was not aware of this before was that my parents (and I, by extension) learned Mandarin the Taiwanese way, where the Bopomofo phonemic alphabet---which does not use Roman letters at all---is used to represent sounds. So Taiwanese speakers of Mandarin have no exposure to pinyin, and in my life I have associated far more with people from Taiwan than from China.

Furthermore, pinyin is far from useless even once a full vocabulary of Chinese characters is attained. The existence of a standard romanization system eliminates confusion resulting from multiple arbitrary ways of expressing the same sound; the common Chinese surnames Wang and Wong are actually the same, but that's not obvious without a consistent representation. Libraries that carry Chinese language materials use pinyin to alphabetize their books on the shelves. And pinyin is invaluable as a method of expressing Chinese words on a computer, ever more important as we head deeper into the digital age.

I am humbled by my misguided arrogance, and encouraged by the implications of my new knowledge.


Alison said...

My fiancee had a similar experience with pinyin. He took Chinese 101 (Mandarin) at our school, and his approach to studying was to associate a sound/word with a character, and to bypass the pinyin. He did quite well with that, but it turned out the teacher's mode of testing was to have students translate a written pinyin sentence into Chinese characters, or to transcribe spoken Chinese into pinyin. He ended up failing at the first couple of quizzes and tests, and dropped the class because of it. He thought it was stupid, and actually that it was somewhat of the other way around from how you considered it: not that it was a crutch for English speakers, but that it was geared toward all the people (pretty much everyone but him, the only caucasian guy) in the class who seemed to know how to speak Chinese already (they knew the sounds), but not how to write it.

Unlike you, however, I don't think he ever saw the light regarding pinyin. I'll have to show him your story. :)

Language Lover said...

Ugh. I agree that that's a stupid method of testing; while I now understand that pinyin is valuable, it still isn't a language in and of itself. I hope he'll try again with a teacher who gets it. :)