Pinyin, or Hànyǔ Pīnyīn as it is formally known, is the Romanization of Chinese characters based on their pronunciation. ‘Pin Yin’ (拼音) translates into English as ‘spell sound’. This is exactly what Pinyin enables us to do, spell how Chinese words sound, using the Roman alphabet.
The history of Pinyin
During the 1950s, Zhou Youguang, the Father of Pinyin and a team of linguists developed the system to use the Roman alphabet to assist with the learning of Chinese.
1/ Today Google honors 112th birthday of Zhou Youguang 周有光, considered the father of Hanyu Pinyin 汉语拼音 cc @SinoReddit @MediaHistoryCN @LARBchina pic.twitter.com/g1PZF4wlnt— Tom Mullaney (@tsmullaney) January 13, 2018
Raising Literacy Levels
As well as making Chinese more accessible to foreigners, the new language system also changed the way Mandarin was taught in elementary and secondary schools across China. The introduction of Pinyin attributed towards raising literacy rates, supporting millions of Chinese learners to become literate.
In 1949, when the Communist Party came to power, the literacy rate was just 20 percent. Improving literacy levels became one of the party’s foremost priorities and in present-day China, the literacy rate is over 85 percent
Pinyin – Appearances can be deceptive
One important piece of advice for learners to heed before setting off to master Mandarin with the aid of Pinyin – appearances can be deceiving .
Pinyin looks like English. Many of the letters are pronounced in a very similar way to how they are in English. However, some letters represent sounds which are very different. For example , with Pinyin ‘c’ sounds like a hissed ‘ts’ sound, and ‘z’ sounds like ‘dz’.
Pinyin Chinese in hardly unique in these idiosyncrasies. After all, applying the Roman alphabet to different languages requires us to use the same set of symbols to represent different sounds, often including sounds which do not even exist in other languages. When learning a new foreign language, it is essential to be aware of which vowels and consonants are pronounced differently.
Anyone who learnt Spanish in high school will probably still remember how differently ‘c’ and ‘z’ sound compared with the English pronunciation of these letters. You may have even been told the tale of the Lisping King to explain these unique sounds. Sadly that story is a lie – yes, my Spanish teacher lied to me too!
As your Chinese studies continue you will soon become increasingly familiar with the difference between Pinyin and your first language. Before long it will all become second nature.
How to type Chinese characters
In the digital age, Pinyin has become the most common way to input Chinese characters using a regular QWERTY keyboard. Using Pinyin for instant messaging and social media is an excellent and enjoyable way to hone your Chinese language skills. For guidance on how to set up your, smartphone / computer to type in Chinese, click on one of the links below.