Pining for Pinyin

When I started out learning Mandarin I was always annoyed by pinyin, but it turns out the real problem is that it so poorly supported. Sure, there are some issues with it, Bopomofo certainly looks more elegant, but pinyin is the standard and if just learning the (relatively) few rules and irregularities by rote is too much for you–frankly, maybe Mandarin isn’t for you.

Okay, this is a bit of a case of do as I say, not as I do, but it’s still true.

My own (somewhat extreme) focus on the characters has worked out very well for me, but for most people being able to converse in Chinese probably has priority. However, even if the characters are a strong focus, starting out with mainly dealing with the spoken word still makes the most sense. Odd as it may seem–no matter what dialect/variant of Chinese you learn (or Japanese, Korean or oldtimey Vietnam), the spoke word always comes first and the characters are based on it. (Don’t ask me how that works. I think I mostly get it, but no so much that I could explain).

It is also important to know that, while using the characters is necessary to avoid getting the false meaning, in practice it is often (possibly usually) very much possible to go without. In fact, even pinyin without tone marks will probably work. (That’s pīn yīn, meaning “phonetic spelling“, not pín yín, meaning “poor silver”. You can tell from context. So, while pinyin is used in Chinese schools early on, tone marks are (apparently) not that relevant to a native speaker, which possibly partly excuses the  poor support for pīnyīn.

Well, not to me, but to some more forgiving and less compulsive people who don’t mind seeing “pīnyīn” and the like.

Don’t get me started on using a “v” key to input “ü”. I can’t tell you how confused I initially was (and still sometimes am) by this:

With a ürtual keyboard this is obüiously unnecessary, but it is more intuitiüe to a natiüe speaker of Mandarin and there are more of those than learners, so whateüer..

And all of this may sound trivial, but when you start out learning Mandarin you really don’t need another thing to have to recall from your memory in addition to everything else. Best to just bite the bullet and lear this stuff by rote early on. Say what you want about pinyin, but something is needed there and I for one am not going to use the IPA instead.

(Do as I say, not as I do.)

In practice, even those not as fascinated by them as I am tend to,prefer Hanzi (or Kanji or Hanja). Not many tattoos in pinyin around either, I think. And your Chinese teacher is probably about as pleased as having to call up knowledge from second grade as you would be…

That is why this mnemonic is quite possibly the most useful thing on this site for a native speaker:

(Note to self: Come up with another mnemonic that’s more suitable for a classroom setting)

So in conclusion: Learn pīnyīn by heart, even if your heart isn’t in it, and learn to not hate it.

Of course that still leaves you with the issue of finding enjoyable media for practice purposes that provide proper pinyin.

This is getting a bit long now so I’ll talk more about that amother time.

Sorry for the rant, by the way. I’ve been meaning to talk about this almost from the very start, but my perspective always just started to changed just when I was getting around to it. Titles for this post would have been at various points “Why I Hate Pinyin”, “Problems With Pinyin”, “Sticking It To Pinyin””Don’t Pin It On Pinyin”, “Leave Pinyin Alone!”, and “Why I Still Hate Pinyin.”

(Also “Various Alternatives to Pinyin And Oh God I Am So Confused Now Please Make It Stop Let’s Just Stick With Pinyin” but that’s yet another topic.)


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