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What is Pinyin?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Pinyin is a the name for the system used to transliterate Chinese words into the Roman Alphabet. Pinyin is used to make learning Chinese easier, and also to provide a way for learning about obscure dialects of Chinese, not all of which are written. Like other attempts to Romanize the Chinese language, pinyin is not entirely successful, but it is certainly better than some earlier attempts. Usage of pinyin around the world varies, with many native Chinese speakers preferring traditional written Chinese.

The use of pinyin was first adopted in the 1950s by the Chinese government, and it became official in 1979 when the People's Republic of China endorsed it. There a number of uses for pinyin, ranging from standardizing postal address materials to entering Chinese text into a computer system. People who are learning Chinese also use pinyin as a jumping off point, since the complex written characters of the Chinese language can be daunting.

When looking at words in pinyin, it is important to remember that the letters of the words do not always correspond with English pronunciations. In some cases, the sounds used in English do not appear in Chinese, so their representative letters have been adopted for other sounds. In other instances, letter combinations like “xi” will yield a unique sound, also not found in English. This can be challenging for people who look at text in pinyin, since it will be incomprehensible if the letters are just sounded out with an English pronunciation.

In Mandarin, pinyin means “spell sound,” meaning that the pinyin spells the sounds of the Chinese language. Although this concept might not seem terribly alien to non-Chinese speakers, it is awkward for the Chinese because their written language represents ideas and concepts more than sounds. In addition, Chinese is a highly tonal language, so speakers need to know how to place the emphasis in a word, or they may get the word wrong. In pinyin, this emphasis may be indicated with additional punctuation.

Writing Chinese in Roman characters is, at best, a shortcut for learning Chinese. Ultimately, learners will probably want to learn written Chinese so that they can understand the nuances of the language. Learning written Chinese can also be very useful when it comes to illustrating basic concepts of Chinese grammar and sentence construction. However, when people need to quickly communicate the basic sound of a word in a well recognized alphabet, pinyin is a great option to have available.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon349297 — On Sep 24, 2013

“Immersion is the best way to learn a language.” Agreed. However, the most important benefit of immersion is exposure to and participation in Mandarin *speech*. Overemphasis on characters, with all their complexities and vagaries, can actually distract from learning to understand and speak Mandarin speech.

That is bad, because as modern linguists hold that “speech is primary, writing secondary”. Nature itself shows that children learn first to understand speech, then to speak it, and then later to read and write it; it would be quite odd for a normal, healthy child to write “father” before it ever says “dada”.

A great thing about Pīnyīn is that it represents Mandarin speech simply and straightforwardly, so it makes it easy to focus on speech, on *communicating*, which is the main, most important purpose of language.

Note also that since Pīnyīn can represent in writing anything that can be spoken in Modern Standard Mandarin, it qualifies as a full writing system for Modern Standard Mandarin, and one with much less mental overhead compared to the characters.

I would say that for the best of all worlds, Mandarin-learners should make use of immersion *and* Pīnyīn (who said it had to be one or the other?), focusing first on understanding and speaking, while learning characters as time allows.

By anon290008 — On Sep 06, 2012

@indemnifyme: Remember that there are tens of thousands of chinese characters. Even mandarin speakers use pinyin for computers because it would be really awkward if you try to find one character among 80,000.

By indemnifyme — On Jun 28, 2011

@ceilingcat - You're probably right. But as the article mentioned pinyin has other uses besides just helping English speakers learn Chinese.

I think pinyin is probably most useful when it comes to entering things into a computer system. I'm sure in China they have computers that use Chinese characters, but entering Chinese characters onto a computer anywhere else in the world must be pretty difficult. If pinyin can help with this than I think that is a legitimate use.

By ceilingcat — On Jun 27, 2011

At first glance pinyin sounds like it would be a good idea to help people who are learning Chinese. Especially for English speakers- English and Chinese are pretty far apart on the language tree so to speak.

However I think this really does students a disservice. It's been proven over and over again that immersion is the best way to learn a language. I think students should start off learning the Chinese characters and skip the pinyin all together. In the end I think this would be a better way to learn Chinese.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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