When people first start learning Chinese, they sometimes don’t realize that learning the Pinyin romanization system is an important early step in the process. But just like any part of learning a language, Pinyin is a skill that needs to be practiced, not just knowledge to be learned.
The path to Pinyin
Ever since people from the West have had contact with China, they have felt the need to write Chinese words using the Latin alphabet. At first this was done unsystematically, mainly with names of people and places. One interesting result of this is that some Chinese family names in the United States have multiple spellings for the same character. For example, 李 (lǐ) can be written as Li or Lee, the latter being found mostly in families that migrated to the US before the widespread adoption of standardized romanization systems. (An added wrinkle of unsystematic romanization is that names are often given as they are pronounced in non-Mandarin varieties of Chinese. This is why 厦门 (Xiàmén) is often rendered as Amoy in historical documents.)
During the 19th century, as contact between China and the West increased, so too did the need for a systematic method of romanization. Before Pinyin, the most widely used of these systems was the Wade-Giles system. People who enjoy studying history and Chinese are often puzzled by the Pinyin names of people and places, such as 南京 (Nánjīng, Nanking in Wade-Giles) or 毛泽东 (Máo Zédōng, Mao Tse-tung in Wade-Giles). That’s because many English-language history books and websites use the Wade-Giles system. By the way, Wade-Giles is still often used for the names of people and places in Taiwan, such as 蔡英文 (Cài Yīngwén in Pinyin, Tsai Ing-wen in Wade-Giles) or 台北 (Táiběi in Pinyin, Taipei in Wade-Giles).
Today, Pinyin is the primary method of romanization for Mandarin, both in China and out. Because of this, it is essential for Chinese learners to master Pinyin before they are able to proceed very far in their studies.
The purpose of Pinyin
One thing to remember when learning and practicing Pinyin is that it was not designed for people who don’t already know Chinese. Its purpose is to provide a way to succinctly write the pronunciation of Chinese words, for example in dictionaries or when typing on a computer. Because it is intended to be used by people who already know Mandarin, there are some spelling conventions that can be stumbling blocks for English speakers.
Today, Pinyin serves a few purposes for native speakers of Chinese. Since it provides a systematic method of representing Chinese sounds, both digital and paper dictionaries often use Pinyin. It’s also one of the main ways to type Chinese on computers. Chinese children often write in Pinyin when they don’t know how to write a character. Another place you’ll see Pinyin is in museums and history books; historical characters that are no longer used in everyday Chinese are often accompanied by their Pinyin pronunciation.
The perils of Pinyin
Let’s list out all of the initial consonants found in Pinyin.
b p m f d t n l g k h
j q x zh ch sh r z c s
The sounds in the first row all match the corresponding letter sound in English pretty closely! But the second row gets tricky. We won’t go over each of these sounds right now (if you like you can see a good interactive Pinyin chart here), but the point is that generally English speakers don’t have a need to practice the first row while they often do have to practice the second row.
Of course, if you’ve spent any time studying Chinese, you know that another challenge of Chinese is the four tones. Not only are the tones necessary to speak the language aloud, but you’ll also want to be able to recognize them so that you can look up the right characters in a dictionary.
The difficulty of the Chinese sound system means that it’s critical for Chinese learners to master Pinyin as well. Often, mastering Pinyin overlaps with mastery of the Chinese sound system. So even a learner who is only interested in speaking and listening to Chinese will benefit from learning Pinyin.
The practice of Pinyin: digital resources
There are several websites and apps out there to help you practice Chinese. Here are a few of our favorites.
Arch Chinese’s Mandarin Chinese Tone Drill
A simple webpage that will play a Chinese syllable and ask you to pick the tone. It might not work on all devices. (For me it worked on my laptop but not my phone.)
Chinese Pinyin Trainer by Trainchinese
For something on your phone, check out this app from Trainchinese. (They have several other good apps too). Unfortunately the free version limits how much you can do in one day, although if you’re really determined you can change your device’s time and trick the app. This app trains tones as well as similar sounding initials and finals. Here’s a link to it on Apple Store and here’s one for Google Play.
Pinyin Practice from guihuazhu.com
This site operates a little differently. It provides one or two characters and asks you to pick the correct tone for those characters. It assumes that you already know some words, and is perhaps a little less “pure Pinyin” than the website and app mentioned above. That brings us to the next way to practice…
The practice of Pinyin: typing
Typing Chinese using a Pinyin-based keyboard is a great way to practice Pinyin. Good language learning should spend as much time as possible using the language to communicate ideas. After all, you would never learn Pinyin just for the sake of learning it, right? Your goal is to use Pinyin to more effectively learn Chinese.
There are a few ways to go about this. One is to text or email a Chinese-speaking (or Chinese-learning) friend in Chinese. As you type out each word, you’ll have no choice but to know the Pinyin. If you’re someone who takes handwritten notes, for example in a class or while doing listening practice, you can type up your notes afterwards to have a clean, organized version.
(Not familiar with typing Chinese using Pinyin? Check out this article.)
Plus one more potential practice
This may not apply to everyone, but for folks using a Chinese textbook, there are usually Pinyin exercises in the early pages of the textbook or workbook. In Chinese classes, teachers often skip over them or only assign a few of them, so there’s a good chance there’s more that you haven’t done.
Want to learn more? Here are some other articles that might interest you!