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Pinyin versus Zhuyin: Some thoughts

There is some great debate over the best phonetic system for Chinese. Right now, the most popular and most widespread is Hanyu Pinyin [漢語拼音] (developed in Mainland China, now the international standard for romanization) and Zhuyin Fuhao/Bopomofo [注音符號] (developed originally in mainland China, now used primarily only in Taiwan). Each have their strong and weak points; and there’s plenty of literature online that will explain it in much better detail than I will be doing here. Instead, I will describe my experiences with it and finally offer up my own opinion.

I started, as most foreigners will, with Pinyin. It’s the standard: no need for special keyboards (like Zhuyin, see below), and it’s familiar. It uses the Latin alphabet, so it is immediately familiar, and one can get started right away without having to learn an extra character set.

This, I believe, is the biggest problem with Pinyin (and rōmaji for you Japanese learners out there! I draw a lot of parallels between Japanese phonetic/romanization systems in this entry. Yes, I know rōmaji was built for a romanization and Pinyin is intended as a phonetic system, but they run into the same problems. Attempts and completing romanji-ing and pinyin-ing the languages, I think, are a terrible idea. Anyway!). The problem is, foreigners will tend to read the Pinyin with their innate desire to pronounce them the way they are “used to”. So, things like “shi” become “she” instead of “shr” (I am NO phonetician, so I apologize for any inaccuracies!).

But it definitely makes typing a heck of a lot easier. Zhuyin is harder: in Taiwan, they have keyboards with the symbols on them so you know where to type; it’s harder to get that down in the States.

That is not to say there hasn’t been foreigners that have learned Pinyin and can speak very well, I just believe that unless learned properly Pinyin is more of a detriment than a tool.

As far as Zhuyin is concerned, there is a larger learning curve, but it is akin to learning the kana systems for Japanese. Zhuyin also makes a good “furigana”, or ruby characters, system for pronouncing the characters. You learn the proper pronunciation based on the symbol, not what it looks like to you. I think this is much more valuable to an early learner.

For typing: I’ll be honest. Pinyin is a HECK of a lot easier. You don’t need tones to type them in; just get the sound “(say, “zhong” and get the results for zhong’s of all tones). With Zhuyin, you’re forced to use the tone to find the character. Otherwise, just typing in “zhong/ㄓㄨㄥ” will only return first-tone results. You need to manually add the tone in yourself. This forces you to actually know the tones of the words you’re studying!

This is extremely important in Chinese. It is here that I feel Pinyin fails. Nowadays, people  are used to typing to communicate (MSN, emails, etc.). Notice how you regularly communicate in English, at least 70% of it is online, right? Well, if you’re doing it all typing in Pinyin, while, yes, it is initially much quicker, it always makes it easier to ignore the tones. You can build great character recognition, but can you even READ them correctly?

Honestly, learning both would be ideal. But I imagine most people will go with Pinyin since it’s easier. And getting a Zhuyin keyboard isn’t easy. But, if you’re devoted enough, they have keyboard maps that you could use to practice on and pick it up pretty quick! Seriously, you can sit down and learn Zhuyin in an hour, then spend some more time on learning to type with it.

19 thoughts on “Pinyin versus Zhuyin: Some thoughts”

  1. That’s such a bad argument. By that logic you wouldn’t be able to learn any other language well that also happens to be written with the Roman alphabet; German, French, Spanish, Dutch, you name it.

    1. Right, I can see your point. Though, I was specifically talking about Chinese, which is having a Roman alphabetic system grafted over it, unlike German, French, Spanish, Dutch, you name it. From what I’ve seen, Zhuyin is much stronger than Pinyin in that you don’t get caught up using it as a crutch. And I’ve heard people speak after years of using Pinyin, and trust me, it sounds like you’d assume it sounds. Maybe they’re just lazy and too used to reading it off the page 😛 but that’s just my experience, as I said.

      But, at least, the sounds of German, French, Spanish and Dutch can be at least similar to English; Chinese is a whole other story. But, as an example for the prior: The alveolar trill in Spanish/Italian. Many people just see a “rr” and gloss over it with the English “r” sound. Now, as I said above, people can learn it well, but there still is the problem of our native language leaking into it. That is why I feel learning Zhuyin for Chinese is better than going off of Pinyin.

      1. Sorry, for some reason I didn’t get an email about your response.

        At least the non-romance languages had the Roman alphabet ‘grafted over it’ just as much as in Chinese. Or how do you think they got it? And for the most part, it’s a pretty bad match as well; see English or German for example: sound changes for no reasons, by far not all the sounds are covered by distinct letters, the letters can stand for who-knows-how-many-sounds, and so on.

        The sounds of other European languages are as similar to English as Chinese is to it. You can say pinyin ‘x’ as English ‘sh’ and you can say the German ‘r’ as English ‘r’ and in both cases you will be understood, but in both cases it’s wrong and sounds bad. Chinese is not a different animal in that.

        I’m sure you also know many people that speak excellent Chinese, despite having learned pinyin. Conversely, I’m sure there are many people with terrible accents that started with Zhuyin. The thing is, it simply doesn’t matter. How you write characters has no significance as to how well you’ll learn to pronounce the sounds; whether or not you’ll make a concentrated effort on getting the sounds right, that’s what makes the difference.

      2. Hey buddy,

        I’ve been busy too, so no worries.

        You’re right, German and English are especially notorious for this! Trying to explain the sound changes, despite it clearly seeming like a similar sound, was very difficult when teaching kids. So, it always had to be “this is the way it is, no other way”.

        As you said, “whether or not you’ll make a concentrated effort on getting the sounds right, that’s what makes the difference.” And you’re absolutely correct! That is what I was getting at here. I felt, for myself, that Zhuyin is a much better tool to get you there, and by using it in typing, it helps you to ingrain the tones right along with the sounds as well. I also feel if you associate sounds with different symbols, it also alleviates any potential for native tongue bleed-overs; the rest is just frosting on the cake to really perfect your speaking.

        Either way, whichever system you chose, echoing what you said, you need to remain devoted to it, otherwise you won’t accomplish anything!

      1. You know Daniel, you’re probably right! But it does help me expound upon my argument, so I guess there is some merit to keeping it.

  2. Hey, nice site. I found it through my friend John’s blog (woochinese). I lived in Taiwan first and have now recently moved to Beijing. I’m still more comfortable with zhuyin input than pinyin, but for most purposes they’re equivalent. Learning to write a syllabary is a trivial task. With effort, I’m pretty sure most people could do it in a day. Getting the phonics right is a monumental task that will take a lot of listening and training one’s ear, regardless of what written representation is used.

    The problem is, foreigners will tend to read the Pinyin with their innate desire to pronounce them the way they are “used to”. So, things like “shi” become “she” instead of “shr” (I am NO phonetician, so I apologize for any inaccuracies!).

    How is this different from an English speaker learning German or Spanish? Clearly, letters aren’t read the same way in different languages. To me this is more of an argument for putting effort into listening before reading than anything.

    There is one thing I did like about zhuyin, though. When reading children’s books in Taiwan, I only looked at the zhuyin when I needed it. Pinyin tends to draw my eyes even if it’s by a character I can already read. On the other hand, a few zhuyin look too much like katakana, which is annoying in a different way. It’s hard for me to have any strong feelings for or against either system.

  3. Zhuyin Fuhao is better than Pinyin because of the following reasons:

    Zhuyin was specifically designed with Mandarin Chinese sounds as its basis.
    Pinyin, on the other hand, takes the Roman alphabet (inherently made for Western languages) and forced it onto the Chinese language.
    The result is that, due to the nature of pronunciation of the Western alphabet, there are quite a few cases in Pinyin where the same sound in Chinese must be spelled differently depending on whether the sound occurs at the beginning or the end, or which consonant precedes it. This may not be clear to those who learn only Pinyin, but it is annoyingly clear to those who understand Zhuyin. It just feels like it’s designed for foreigners. Zhuyin, on the other hand, has exactly one character for each sound in Mandarin Chinese, and all words can be spelled by Zhuyin in exactly 3 characters or less, unlike Pinyin with its varying lengths. With Zhuyin, you understand the sounds better in a visual way because of its clarity in specifying the syllables which make up the sound for a word. It’s also easier to see the rhymes in poetry with Zhuyin. Besides, when you want to spell out the pronunciation of a word for someone, you can distinctly pronounce each character of Zhuyin Fuhao. With Pinyin, you actually have to spell it in Roman alphabet instead of saying the sound itself. Zhuyin also has the advantage that it can be written both horizontally or vertically (the traditional Chinese writing direction), and the length is always constant, as mentioned earlier.

    It is also true that there needs to be a Romanization system for Chinese (for transliterating names, streets, businesses, etc). While Pinyin can serve that purpose well, I find the prevalence of the initial X very ugly and harsh. Wade-Giles romanization, on the other hand, feels softer, kinder and gentler, if you will. There is actually a system that has never been implemented called Mandarin Phonetic Symbols II (MPS2), which is a romanization system. As somone who is fluent in both English and Chinese, I can tell you that MPS2 is better at approximating Chinese sounds. That is, if you ask an English speaker who knows nothing about Chinese to pronounce words spelled by Pinyin, Wade-Giles, and MPS2, the person will come closest to Chinese sounds when reading MPS2 than with the other systems.

    On the topic of Traditional versus Simplified, there is just no comparison. Traditional Chinese has been a beautiful language for thousands of years. Simplified was unnecessarily implemented by the PRC in 1950. You want 5000 years of wisdom and elegance, or roughly 50 years of bastardization? It might be okay if they actually improved the language (very difficult to do), but the reality is that Simplified is so plainly ugly it is painful to see.

    1. Wow, thanks for your great comment! May I use it in a new post? I think it has some useful information that I’d like to share with others. If that’s okay, I will do so. Do you have a twitter/blog/etc. that I can link with it?

      Everytime I see Pinyin, I always get awfully confused. I am guilty in using it type more often than not, as my keyboard still doesn’t have Zhuyin on it, but I definitely think it’s a great way to practice tones as you type. Luckily I can use it on my phone and I see some great results from it.

      I think Traditional and Simplified are both necessary, as Simplified is used by many Traditional Chinese writers as a form of shorthand, though I agree that Simplified has no comparison at all. Traditional opens up a wealth of Chinese culture–poetry, calligraphy, etc. while Simplified keeps it very much “utilitarian”.

      Thanks again for your insightful comment!

  4. Yes, please feel free to use my comments in new posts elsewhere.

    I have no problem with Simplified as a shorthand for hand-writing of personal notes. This was already done by people even before the systematic implementation of the invented Simplified Chinese. Historically, there has been a form of brush calligraphy called “grass style,” which can be very artistic and beautiful indeed. The key difference is, in the traditional shorthand, people used common sense simplification which are well known and did not systematically force the entire language into its present Simplified form. Even worse, Simplified Chinese did not just simplify but actually merged words, so you end up with “face” and “noodle” being the same word just because they have the same sound. Thus, without the one-to-one correlation, when Simplified documents are converted to Traditional, you can still end up with incorrect words left in Simplified form because the computer cannot tell the context of the word. Even humans do this; I have seen cases where people (who learned Simplified as a first language) think they are already writing in Traditional but still end up using the wrong words, leading to a mixed Traditional/Simplified form, which is wrong regardless of which side you prefer. I see this often on food labels from China meant for consumers abroad. In any case, I simply do not see the value of Simplified in printed form (on paper or electronic media). And simplifying handwriting need not be taught; it is something people will do naturally, depending on your level of comfort with the language (and your penmanship as well as experience in seeing other handwritings). In reality, personal notes can be simplified or not depending on the formality of the note (e.g. a shopping list versus a thank-you or condolence letter), and people really need to know how to write Traditional as a standard. Also, handwriting can be very “cursive” when written quickly while retaining the Traditional form.

    Regarding the keyboard comparison, I think it’s more of a software design difference where you must enter the tone of the word. I would think Zhuyin again has the advantage since a maximum of 3 strokes plus a tone will give you the word, where Pinyin would likely require more characters. And the tone would serve to narrow down the list of words to choose from, making it faster and easier. If you are writing a sentence, you should know the tone of the words you are trying to say. Even if you get it wrong initially, it’s very easy to switch to another tone and pick from that list. I would think this is actually better for learning than having all the different tones on one list.

    This also brings up the point about what is “best” for a language. When we ask what is “best” for the Chinese language, we should consider what is best for a native speaker, not what is best for an English speaker trying to learn Chinese. After all, people in England and the U.S. don’t waste their time asking how they can change or re-design English or its input system or phonetics so that it will be easier for Chinese to learn English. People in France also don’t spend time trying to make their language easier for the English to learn. Isn’t it true that German/Spanish/English have different keyboard layouts? Therefore, the Chinese should choose what is best for their own language as native speakers, including phonetics and keyboard layouts. When the Chinese want to learn English, they learn the English alphabet and the QWERTY keyboard. In fact, anyone trying to learn a language, any language, should try to learn it the same way as the native speakers do, not hope for some shortcut based on their own language. Some might argue that making Chinese easier for foreigners has advantages in making Chinese more accessible, but I think English has become such a common world language for business and other types of communication that people will need to use English anyways. To the extent that people will find knowing Chinese useful in their particular circumstances, they can learn Chinese as the natives do, just as they would for any other language. Having said this, of course it is fine for computer manufacturers and software developers and language specialists to come up with as many different types of input systems suitable for people with different backgrounds, locations, and preferences. I am only saying that, on the issue of adopting a standard phonetics system for education, China should do so based on the characteristics of the language and actual merits of usage, not on whether it would be more suitable for a foreigner. After all, there are a billion Chinese and only a much smaller number of foreigners trying to learn Chinese (and of those, most will not have to live with Chinese as their primary language day in and day out for the entirety of their lives). China chose Simplified and Pinyin, and I feel Traditional and Zhuyin would have been better.

    I feel that both Simplification and Pinyin were the result of the Chinese feeling inferior to the stronger Western military and industrial strengths in the 20th century, and thus trying turn its back on its own culture and Westernize, when in fact, as we now know, Chinese culture is not the problem, and the language definitely isn’t the problem. Taiwan and overseas Chinese have blossomed magnificently by keeping their traditional language and culture, and China is now realizing this. In fact, Chinese culture and language is the underlying strength from which China is able to rise again from the rubbles of a difficult century. It’s time for China to take pride in its traditional culture (Confucian ethics of morality and greater harmony for mankind and nature) and language (Traditional character and the wealth of wisdom in Classical Chinese writings accumulated over many centuries). I think if Japan had not invaded China, the Communists might not have had a chance to gain power, and China today would already be a unified country using Traditional Chinese, so there would be none of the Taiwan/China and Traditiona/Simplified distinction, and Chinese culture would still be strong in the absence of the destructive Cultural Revolution. This is not to say China would not have had its share of problem and growing pains (getting rid of corruption and democratizing, etc), but it would have been better. The Communists tried to make the country better (and China did need to change and modernize), so I give them credit for trying, but Mao Zedong just made some really bad decisions with regards to language and culture.

    Sorry for the diversion into some political history. I know this blog article is only about the phonetics system and learning a language. The language and cultural issues are quite related, so you’ll naturally see this kind of diversion in many discussion of the Chinese language, and blogs can often degenerate into name-calling shouting matches. I appreciate that you are keeping a civil tone in your space here. Thanks for listening.

    1. Well, thank you for your long and quite interesting comments! I apologize it took me so long to finally reply to you.

      Recent history related to Chinese language is quite depressing, and many people just go with the flow of the language (well, that’s what they use in CHINA) that a lot of the rich culture encapsulated within the characters is often ignored or swept aside. It can’t be ignored, though, that traditional characters are slowly making a comeback in China, through calligraphy and other forms, but not nearly as fast as it has before.

      I can understand the logic behind opting for simplified; however, traditional could have just as easily been taught (it’s working in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, overseas Chinese communities…). I think it is primarily up to the student to make a choice. If I were in any position of guidance, I would suggest they start with traditional then work themselves into simplified. It’s much easier than going the other way.

      While we can’t change much, we do have the power of choice. Choose Traditional and Zhuyin!

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  6. if you are interested on a better way to “represent english sounds”, look at this: I know it will never catch on, but I think it would be better if we used a system like this.
    I do also agree that zhuyin makes it easier to understand what the real combination of sounds is supposed to be, but it’s so easy to use pinyin for an english speaker, it’s hard to make yourself move over!

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      After reading through the Shavian article you linked, it actually seems really interesting. If I still taught English, I’d try and find a way to teach it to my kids to see how that would work. Or I’m just a really lousy teacher. Either way it’d be fun!

      You’re right, though, and I think that is the big reason Zhuyin will never catch on (well one of them), is just that Pinyin is easier for foreigners. Easier isn’t necessarily better; and Pinyin has the backing of China (and it’s money) to dominate the market. Whereas, with Japanese, anyone with any sense breaks away from Romaji before it completely ruins them. Strange how that doesn’t work the same way with Pinyin!

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