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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.