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Why I like Zhuyin

photoThere’s a lot of debate out there on whether or not Zhuyin is better than Pinyin, which makes your pronunciation better, etc. (and I am caught up right in the middle of it). And I’ve thought out it. Really thought about it. And here’s my conclusion:

Your pronunciation can suck regardless of the system you use.

That being said, I think I finally realized why I prefer Zhuyin over Pinyin, and it’s the same reason I prefer the kanas over romaji: I’ve always loved how vastly different East Asian languages were from English–with Kanji, Hanzi, Katakana, Hiragana, Hangul–everything. That’s what really drew me to these languages to begin with. So, being stuck using Pinyin seemed, not necessarily bad, but that I was still trapped in that English environment. For me, to fully “immerse” myself in the language, I wanted to avoid (escape?) English, which meant avoiding Pinyin and learning Zhuyin.

So I always feel better seeing something like ㄅㄧˊㄐㄧㄢ rather than something like bíjiān. It also helps a text flow more, I believe, if you’re reading a book that has Zhuyin in there as a guide. It seems to make your brain glide along with the fact you’re looking at Chinese characters, instead of the sudden jarring of going from English letters to Chinese and back.

That’s just my thoughts on it, and although Pinyin ultimately wins out for speed and usefulness (no Zhuyin on US keyboards!), I still love seeing and using Zhuyin as my reading guide.

10 thoughts on “Why I like Zhuyin”

  1. I’m a big fan of Zhuyin! That’s why my dictionary has an option to use zhuyin instead of pinyin.

    Pinyin has inconsistencies that bug me: u vs v; uan (yuan vs. chuan), etc.
    I also think Zhuyin would be a better system for young children to learn. I think introducing pinyin to a kid who is just learning their ABCs would be extra confusing . Learning Zhuyin instead of pinyin would eliminate such confusion.

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      Yes! Those inconsistencies get to me, too!

      That’s interesting what you mentioned about using Zhuyin for kids. I hadn’t thought about that before. I completely agree, though, and it’s part of the reason I still think Zhuyin is better for adult learners too, so they don’t get caught on how those English letters look like they should be pronounced.

  2. The reason people have bad pronunciation has little to do with pinyin vs. zhuyin. It’s because they’re trying to use their eyes to convert some symbols to a sound that they haven’t yet become familiar enough with (aural sensitivity), and then trying to pronounce that sound with a mouth that hasn’t learned to accurately produce the sound yet (muscle memory). Language is sound, not ink.

    Much better to take the writing out of the equation to begin with, learn to mimic the sounds of the language accurately, and once those sounds have been mastered, say “OK, here’s how that’s written.” The writing is completely incidental to the sound. It’s just an abstract scratch on a piece of paper, not the sound itself. It serves to remind you of a word you already know, nothing more. Or, that’s how it ought to work. And that’s how it works in your mother language (you know and can say the word ‘cat’ before you learn to write it). Realizing that language is sound and that writing is incidental makes a lot of things clear that tend to get muddied up when these basic facts are forgotten.

    Idahosa Ness recently wrote about this on Benny’s blog (perhaps the only post there I’ve ever liked, it’s called Sound Rehab), and Khatz wrote a sort of response/follow-up post on AJATT a few days ago. It’s about time this idea gets some press, because it solves so many problems.

    Anyway, to the topic at hand, I don’t really care about pinyin/zhuyin/Yale/Wade-Giles or whatever else. They all serve their purpose adequately if you learn the system behind them well, and once you’re comfortable with one, the others can be learned pretty painlessly.

    1. It’s very interesting you bring this up. A very early textbook we had in my university was similar to the method you mentioned in the second paragraph (which was later dropped in favor of Integrated Chinese because that’s what “all the other schools were using”, later using a mix of that and《視聽華語》系列). Basically, we didn’t get Zhuyin until Lesson 8! And it was like, “OH SO THAT’S HOW”. Prior to that we just had characters, pure and simple. And it worked. I remember those lessons better than anything that had a pronunciation guide with it. I should show you that series some time.

      Back to the post you mentioned, I haven’t gotten to Sound Rehab yet but I did read Khatz’s follow-up post. I definitely need to work in more listening to my routine!

      I agree, once you’ve learned one you can learn the others. I always found it interesting how heated the debates can get on both sides, though.

      By the way, I hope your program is going well!

      1. It’s actually going quite well, and it looks like I’ll be getting the kind of training in palaeography that I was hoping for. I’m still planning to move to Japan next year if possible to study Japanese (the professors at the universities I’m planning to apply to for my PhD have all recommended this over finishing the MA), but if not, I’ll be glad to stay and finish the MA.

        I’m actually taking an interpretation class outside of my department, and the Taiwanese students have been asking how I’ve gotten to the point that I have little discernible accent in Chinese in such a short time. It’s because I’ve paid close attention to sound, and particularly to how native Taiwanese Mandarin speakers (as opposed to native 台語 speakers) speak Mandarin, rather than to textbooks and 教育部 standards, and I’ve trained myself to be able to reproduce the sounds reasonably accurately. I’m doing the same with Japanese (I hired a friend to re-record the Assimil books rather than using the provided recordings), and the results have been good so far, despite my low level.

        1. I’d love to actually sit down and have a cup of coffee with you sometime to see how things are going and what you’re currently working on. It’s certainly an interesting topic to me, and although I’m in history, I’d love to find out more about it.

          If you move to Japan, though, does that mean you wouldn’t be finishing your MA? Or you would just be putting it off until you finish in Japan? I just find it interesting they would recommend dropping your MA to do go to study in Japan for a PhD program (are the schools in the US?).

          I would actually love to work on my accent, my speaking is admittedly the weakest of my abilities. It would be interesting to picky our brain the training methods you use sometime as well.

          I’m at the stage where it’s nothing bu thesis writing mode (plus working full time in a publishing company in Taipei) so I haven’t put as much time and effort into studying the language as I once did (although, oddly, in some ways that has been better for my Chinese!).

          Anyway the best of luck with everything, and I’d totally love to go to Japan myself as well!

      2. Yeah, we should get coffee some time. I think you should be able to get my email address from my post (through the WordPress dashboard), so hit me up and we’ll figure something out.

        Yeah, the schools I’m applying to for my PhD are in the US. The Japanese do some of the best work in my field, so it’s a requirement. I’ve been told by other PhD students, “Run, don’t walk, to the nearest Japanese class,” and “Chinese is nice to have, but Japanese is essential.” The latter is an exaggeration, of course, and a play on the old (and similarly exaggerated) adage about German for classicists, but there’s some truth in it. There are Chinese scholars that do great work, but there are also a lot of people who don’t really have a clue about how to approach any of this stuff rationally and scientifically (but lots of nationalism, lots of “中國是一個歷史悠久,文明燦爛的偉大國家,而漢語是一個非常特殊的語言,與其他語言不同” and, a direct quote: “這種西方人所不能理解的學科,我們只有把它叫做“中國文字學。”). American and European scholars in my field cite Japanese sources nearly as often as Chinese ones, so I take that as a good indication of where my Japanese needs to be.

        Also, I’ve been told that having a high level of proficiency in both Chinese and Japanese will make me stand out as an applicant more than having an MA from Taiwan will. And I’d really like to have most of my language work out of the way before I start the PhD. Some of my PhD student friends, even at some of the top universities in the US, have told me that their lack of adequate language ability has been the largest obstacle to being able to do good, professional-quality work. I know a guy who recently finished his PhD and can’t even really make it through a Chinese journal article in his field, much less a Japanese one, so he has to rely solely on what’s available in English or German. Needless to say, he can’t find a job because he’s unable to put out good research. I don’t want to be that guy, so I’d like to have that barrier out of my way before I even start the PhD. Another guy I know is ABD at (big time west coast university), but can’t start his dissertation research because he’s not good enough in Chinese or Japanese. He’s having to spend two years, one here and one in Japan, just doing intensive language work before he can even begin working on his dissertation, and even that will really only get him up to “passable” in each language.

        Anyway, ideally, I’d finish the MA and then go live in Japan for a few years, but I’m not getting any younger and I do eventually need to start the PhD. I don’t think any of the schools I’m applying to require an MA for admission, so shouldn’t be a big deal if I don’t finish it. So, if I have the opportunity, I’m going to take it. I can 休學 for up to two years, so if I end up needing to, I can come back and finish later.

  3. For me the best part of switching to zhuyin was that I discovered I’d been pronouncing some characters/words with the wrong tone for a long time. Unlike pinyin, typing zhuyin on a computer requires you to put the tone marker before you see the list of characters. More often than I’d like to admit, given my level, I found that the character I was looking for didn’t appear because I’d chosen the wrong tone. This helped me identify some issues in the very foundation of my chinese language abilities, so I think switching to zhuyin is a worthwhile exercise even for advanced students.

    1. Hi Luke!

      Thank you for the comment! Zhuyin input is really great for that reason, and it’s why I prefer using it because, to me, it really drills home the tones. Pinyin you can pretty much just 隨便打 and not have to worry about the tones. Plus, using Zhuyin helps you narrow down the list, whereas Pinyin requires a lot of scrolling through the entries to find the one you want!

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