When I began to learn Chinese a few years ago, I planned to focus solely on speaking. At that time, I had no interest in reading Chinese characters. But then I met a teacher who convinced me to start by learning 汉语拼音 (Hànyǔ pīnyīn / Chinese Pinyin), a romanization system for the sounds of Chinese language.
Although literacy is not necessary for fluency, reading skills can enhance speaking ability. Books can introduce words and ideas that would otherwise not be encountered in real life. More importantly, parents of multilingual children will find that Chinese story time cultivates a love for the language.
I credit Pinyin for jump-starting my Chinese language skills, but my approach with my kids is different. Parents who are teaching Chinese to their kids may have similar questions:
- Should my child learn Chinese characters or Pinyin first?
- When should my child learn Pinyin?
First, I’ll give a brief overview about the Chinese phonetic system. Then I’ll discuss the pros, cons, and why I’m delaying Hanyu Pinyin for my kids.
What is Hanyu Pinyin?
拼音 (Pinyin), which literally translates to “spell sound”, is a phonetic system based on the Latin alphabet. Originally created to improve Chinese literacy rates, it is used widely for typing/texting and for teaching pronunciation. Most Chinese words have a consonant-vowel (CV) structure with consonants as the initial sound and vowels as the final sound. The only consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words end with “n” or “ng”.
Chinese characters are usually the same regardless of dialect, even if the spoken language is completely different. However, Pinyin reflects Mandarin Chinese only. Most commonly, it is used with simplified Chinese characters in mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia. Occasionally, Pinyin accompanies traditional Chinese characters in Hong Kong.
Introductory Chinese lessons typically feature Pinyin in American secondary schools and colleges. In mainland China and Singapore, children learn it in primary (elementary) school before Chinese characters. However, American Mandarin immersion programs wait until around age 6-9 (after children have mastered English reading).
If you’re interested in learning Pinyin, check out Yabla for a helpful audio chart.
Benefits of Pinyin
- Visual cues may improve phonological awareness (distinguishing and combining sound units)
- Improves pronunciation and tones
- Easy to learn if the student understands phonics
- Facilitates independent new word learning, especially if presented with sufficient context (eg, picture or sentence)
- Conveniently type on a computer or mobile device (will still need to know Han characters in order to select the correct suggested character)
- Phonetic confusion with other languages that use the Latin alphabet
- Note: Native English speakers may struggle with correct Chinese pronunciation; confusion with English is less likely if that is the dominant language in the community.
- Some people believe the temporary confusion is insignificant since Europeans often learn multiple Latin-based languages simultaneously.
- Pinyin syllables aren’t always straightforward sound combinations; a few letters may be omitted in actual speech
- Over-dependence may interfere with remembering new Chinese characters
- Many homophones; intonation alone cannot distinguish certain words
- Language attrition and skill loss in adults (see this research article)
When should my child learn Pinyin?
While adults often start learning Chinese with Pinyin, the optimal timing in kids is controversial. Important factors to consider include:
- Age of the child
- Native language
- Current reading ability (eg, fluent English literacy, preference for whole-word versus phonics)
I can’t answer the question for your family but can only suggest to consider these factors and share the rationale for our family’s decision. My personal opinion is to wait until your child has:
- Adequate exposure to spoken Chinese tones and pronunciation
- Learned several hundred characters
- Understands English well and/or is age 6+
Regardless of the timing of reading introduction, audio exposure to native Chinese is crucial for learning! Tones and pronunciation can be modeled without written phonics.
After learning Pinyin, I could read Chinese books with Pinyin and teach my daughter the corresponding characters. From age 3 to 4.5 years, she was able to learn 800-1000 characters without phonetic support. On the other hand, my ability to learn Chinese characters has been significantly slower. After 2+ years of study, I still cannot read as many characters as her, and I was only able to make progress when I pushed myself to read children’s books with no Pinyin.
She also can read Korean (phonetic alphabet) and is just starting to learn how to read English. Therefore, we are waiting to teach Pinyin because…
- She is still inconsistent with English phonics
- My daughter is a whole-word reader and does not like phonics. Of my daughter’s 3 languages, she prefers Chinese because reading characters provides instant gratification with no blending effort.
- Focusing on characters establishes a strong foundation. The ability to read characters helps to deepen the understanding of a spoken word. After learning a few hundred characters, patterns are recognizable and can help with making educated guesses of new Chinese characters.
- I am over-reliant on Pinyin and continuously reminding myself to focus on the Chinese character.
- Since English is so ingrained in my brain, I still pause to think about the Chinese pronunciation instead of the English sounds.
In summary, delaying Pinyin means that we are simplifying our to-do list and preserving my daughter’s joy of learning Chinese characters. For now, we have one less thing to worry about!
What are your thoughts about Pinyin? When do you think is the best time to introduce it if at all? Leave a comment with your thoughts below the article!
- Pinyin over Characters: The Crippling Crutch (Mandarin Companion)
- Focusing on Mandarin tones without being distracted by Pinyin (Hacking Chinese)
- China’s language input system in the digital age affects children’s reading development (PNAS)
- Could Pinyin in K-1 immersion programs accelerate Mandarin literacy? (Avenues Tiger Works R&D)
- Should bilingual children learn reading in two languages at the same time or in sequence? (Bilingual Research Journal)
- Hanyu Pinyin – When It Is Useful and When It is Not (Parenting Joy)
- Parent Guide to Teaching Pinyin (Hands-On Chinese Fun)
- The Case for Zhuyin Bopomofo (Mandarin Mama)
For general advice on raising multilingual children, I highly recommend the following posts:
- Raising Multilingual Children As a Non-Fluent Parent: 7 Lessons Learned in 2017
- Teach Your Child A Second Language at Home: 5 Key Steps
- 10 Ways to Get Your Child to Read Throughout the Day
- One Person, One Language: Our Family’s Trilingual Schedule 2017-2018
Happy learning, friends!