Learn Pinyin - The Ultimate Roadmap

This article is intended for the beginning Chinese learner, who is looking to learn pinyin either through self-study, with an online course or app, or with a teacher. This page will not actually teach you pinyin (you can learn pinyin with a free course, here), but will make you very well informed and prepared before you dive in.

There is plenty of information here that is not only accurate and helpful, but also much that cannot be found elsewhere on the web. I think you will find it worth your time.

Contents of the Article

What Is Pinyin?

Pinyin is a system that uses the letters of our alphabet (though not all of them) combined with 'diacritic marks' to represent all the possible sounds of the Chinese language. These 'diacritic marks' are marks over certain letters to indicate the tone of the character or to in some other way distinguish its sound.

The 'tone', if you are not already familiar, is simply how your voice rises, falls, or holds the pitch as you pronounce the sound. There are four different tone marks to familiarize yourself with in pinyin.

It's interesting to note that pinyin is quite young. All the kids learn it in the schools today, but there is nothing traditional about it. It was developed in the 1950's. Among other practical uses, it helps to fortify 'standard Chinese' in a country where a lot of various dialects coexist.

And it's also helpful for us foreign learners of Mandarin Chinese.

Why You Should Learn Pinyin

Knowing pinyin will empower you in a few key ways on your road to learning Chinese. Once familiar with the system, you will be able to:

You may choose still, to learn to write with pen or finger, of course - which is terrific and you should not be discouraged from doing so. But with pinyin, if you want to type out characters to the screen, it is not required that you learn to recall the characters stroke by stroke.

My first move before coming to China was to begin to get familiar with pinyin. I didn't have a proper teacher at that time, and my efforts were pretty crude. My understanding of some of the sounds I had learned were definitely off base in several cases. Nevertheless, that bit of preparation, however imperfect, gave me a huge leg up on diving into the language.

If you are going to learn or have already begun to learn Chinese, you should learn pinyin. It is a great starting place and empowers you in these important ways that I have mentioned.

Three Approaches to Learning Pinyin

We can break down the approaches to learning pinyin into three categories. Here are our names to refer to these approaches.

  1. the up front, systematic approach
  2. the learn-as-you-go approach
  3. the hybrid approach

I should note here that sometimes it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the learning of pinyin, as a system, with the learning of Chinese pronunciation - which would include the ability to hear and produce the sounds of the language. And because of this difficulty, I won't try very hard to make any distinction between the two.

The up front, systematic approach

In the up front, systematic approach, you, the learner, go through all the sounds of pinyin systematically, using a book or resource designed for the task. You may be under the guidance of a teacher (good idea) or you may be flying solo, relying only on your ears, your good judgement of how well you're reproducing the sounds, and the quality of your chosen resource (be it an online course, or a traditional textbook with audio).

This approach of systematically learning pinyin as a starting point and foundation for your Chinese, traditionally (and wisely) involves drilling of the sounds. It should also involve training your ear to identify the sounds you hear in addition to speaking them out. One aspect of this approach that I should mention is that it requires parroting sounds, and also listening for sounds, where the actual meaning of what you're saying or hearing is not so important for you to know.

This brings to mind the notion of 'rote learning', which, in Western culture, has gotten a pretty bad rap.

Ideally, all the sounds that you learn would be in some useful context, where the meaning of the sounds would be relevant. But such an ideal is rarely if ever realized, and pinyin in this approach is often taught with only passing reference to the meaning of words you are speaking. Sometimes it is not even necessary to connect the sounds with any given words as they are taught.

A good teacher will, however, keep you engaged, often showing how the sounds are used in high frequency words that are worth your time, as a beginner, to attend to.

But, you can and should accept that if you engage in the systematic, up front approach to learning pinyin, the meaning of the sounds you are making, is, for the time being, secondary to the task of getting a hold on the pinyin and the skills of making and hearing the sounds.

If you can forgive the so-called 'rote' aspect of this method, this is arguably the best way to learn pinyin, in my view. It is, as the name implies, systematic, and because of that, is quite efficient. This time laying down a strong foundation for pronunciation and skill with pinyin is time well invested.

Drawback of this Method

I wouldn't consider the aforementioned roteness a drawback, as any negative perception I think is mostly a result of our own cultural bias. However, one possible drawback of this method is that many resources and/or teachers will give an even treatment to all the sounds of Mandarin regardless of the background of the learners.

All sounds are not equally easy to master, depending on what sounds are similar in your native tongue. However, materials, particularly those developed in China, are aimed at an international audience, for whom it may not be possible to foresee who will have trouble with which particular sounds, and which others will present no difficulty whatsoever.

This doesn't become such a problem if you are directing the learning yourself and can choose to spend your time where it is most needed.

However, a word of warning is necessary: when your ear is untrained to the sounds of Chinese, even some sounds that are remarkably close to sounds in English, may have subtle differences. One way to help you avoid jumping to such a conclusion is to not only listen to the sound, but also pay attention to the way the Chinese speaker holds his mouth. Is that the way you would do so when making the apparently identical sound in your own language?

In short, it won't hurt to be thorough.

The learn-as-you-go approach

In the learn-as-you-go approach you may have, at select times, access to a teacher or helpful native speaker to point out your pronunciation defects or to demonstrate for you how a pinyin sound that troubles you should be spoken. You also have resources, be they online, in an app, or in book form, that make use of pinyin. (Almost all do). You gradually accumulate experience of seeing these sounds represented in pinyin and correspondingly, hearing them produced when you play the audio.

In this way, you avoid the so-called 'roteness' of learning sounds in isolation and lacking context. You always are learning things in some sort of meaningful context. That is an advantage of this approach.

You have gaps in your learning, but patiently and gradually, those gaps get filled.

If you do have a responsible and able teacher or tutor at any point in your Chinese learning, he or she will address any problems or errors in pronunciation that you are consistently making, even if you are not aware of them yourself. There is a danger, though, that if you never meet up with this sympathetic native speaker, you could have errors going uncorrected for a long time that will, if they exist, certainly interfere with your communication and ability to be understood by others.

I could predictably say that a big downside is that you will get into bad habits whilst you are making such errors. But I'm not completely convinced that it is any more difficult to correct so-called bad habits than it is to begin with good ones. After all, if you are starting learning Chinese as an adult or even young adult, then the habits of making sounds other than those unfamiliar ones belonging to a foreign language are already present.

In whatever situation you find yourself, don't despair. Get good guidance, buckle down, learn how to do it right. And practice it the right way. You will learn pinyin and all its associated sounds and skills in time.

So to conclude, the learn-as-you-go approach can be carried off effectively if you continue to be vigilant about improving your pronunciation, and get enough feedback from sympathetic native speakers. But no doubt, it lacks the tidiness of the up front approach.

The hybrid approach

A hybrid approach - one that combines both the up front approach and the learn as you go approach - is what I myself used to learn pinyin. I did set out to learn pinyin in its entirety at the start, recognizing the utility of it. But without a teacher or any feedback whatsoever, (and with pretty outdated materials), my learning was full of holes and misconceptions about what the proper sounds were.

I continued to learn Chinese when I arrived in China and avoided the systematic approaches I saw in textbooks and classrooms there, being turned off by the 'roteness' of it and how the learning of sounds was detached from any context. This can be a mistake, I now realize, but nevertheless, at the time I had no patience for it.

Luckily I had access to a sympathetic native speaker - who later became my wife, and you might know her by her videos teaching pronunciation on this site - who herself was vigilant about correcting my errors in pronunciation. I wouldn't say her willingness to correct me was so much out of goodwill, but rather we can all imagine that it is less than pleasant to hear the sounds of one's language all gone amuck.

But your own hybrid approach, should you adopt one either intentionally or not, will certainly follow its own narrative, and it too, can lead you unto good Chinese pronunciation in time.

As for a recommendation, while all approaches can lead to the same end, I do recommend the up-front and systematic approach as the best. It is not the way I learned, but as my wife is a Chinese teacher by profession, and she takes this approach with her students, I have seen demonstrated regularly in the attainments of her students the effectiveness of learning pinyin up front and systematically. Likewise a good hybrid approach to learn pinyin would have a strong systematic component.

How Pinyin Functions Cognitively, When we Speak

One reason it is very helpful to learn pinyin is, in general terms, pinyin is a tool for us to gain greater familiarity with and knowledge of new words as we encounter them in our learning.

We can think of pinyin, in the process of acquiring new words, as a sort of 'scaffolding'. In other words, just as scaffolding is required in the beginning stages of a building, and then is discarded once the building is up and functional, pinyin, too, once a word is fully 'acquired' or internalized, is no longer needed.

It will be helpful for you to get an understanding of this process as you undertake the task of learning pinyin. So let's describe what this scaffolding process looks like in practice.

We can view the acquiring of words and the internalization of their pronunciation in three stages. I will work backwards, from the end stage, and desired result back to the first encountering of a word.

Of course these stages can and do blend together. For example, if you are like me and many others, you may need to be reminded of what the pinyin is several times - particularly the tones - before it is wholly committed to memory. Likewise, in going from the intermediary stage to internalization, you may produce the word with little thought, but with varying degrees of confidence that you got it right.

It is not necessary to use pinyin, of course, to gain mastery over a word. But in practice, when we utilize pinyin as a tool to familiarize ourselves with new words, this is a progression that we may naturally fall into.

And there is certainly some value in doing things in this way, being that the process generally ends in success.

Criticisms of Pinyin - Valid or Not?

Let's look at two criticisms of pinyin that I have heard and examine just whether they are worth our consideration. Stick around for the second criticism, which actually asks the question of whether it is better to not learn pinyin at all. This idea has more merit than you might expect.

'Hey, I Think This or That Letter Would Have Been a Better Choice...'

One criticism I have heard of the pinyin system is that it uses some initials and vowels that are non-intuitive. "Why did they use a 'zh', or an 'i', etc. to represent that sound? Wouldn't this or that letter have been better?" This is the sort of comment I'm talking about.

I'll come right out and say that this sort of criticism is quite short-sighted, and comes from either a cultural bias, or just lack of reflection on what pinyin is and does.

First of all, you should consider that the representation of English sounds with our alphabet - particularly vowel sounds - are terribly inconsistent. Any given vowel sound can be represented by a variety of the 5 vowels or combinations thereof, depending on the word and the letters that might surround it. What's more, British English, American English, etc. are not consistent with each other as concerns the pronunciation of certain vowels.

Pinyin, on the other hand, is marvelously consistent.

No version of English, American or otherwise, has a monopoly on the letters of the alphabet. They are just symbols, actually. Personally, I feel the letter choices for representing the Chinese sounds in pinyin were done quite judiciously. Pinyin is an elegant system.

But whether you are impressed by the elegance of the system or not doesn't matter much. What matters is that you learn, either gradually or with up front intensive effort, what Chinese language sounds the pinyin 'alphabet' represent. Once you have internalized them, you won't pay anymore thought to why this or that letter was or wasn't chosen.

verdict: criticism irrelevant at best; but in my view, downright mistaken

You Will Do Better to Not Learn Pinyin at All

This second criticism can come as a surprise to anyone who has exposure to the way Chinese is traditionally taught in textbooks, schools, and the like. When I first came across a successful learner of Chinese put this recommendation forth on his blog, I was a bit surprised myself, unsure what to make of it.

After repeated reflection at various points in my journey of learning Chinese I continue to be intrigued by this notion of deliberately ignoring pinyin. I believe there is something to it - and that, coming from someone who has co-created a course that specifically teaches pinyin - is saying something.

I have written an article exploring this idea and you can refer to that if you wish. But let me briefly explain here just why this anti-pinyin stance may have some merit to it.

Successful language learners - particularly those who attain high levels - must be or must learn to be good imitators of what they hear. When we use pinyin to guide our speaking - both the 'letter' sounds and the tones, we are relying on a certain abstraction in our head to lead us through the making of the sound. And it works.

But if we did not have that pinyin abstraction in our head, we would surely be forced in the direction of imitation using our sense of hearing. We would need to imitate the speech of native speakers using our ear. Pinyin, particularly 'knowing the tonemarks', helps take the burden off our ears to an extent. And in doing so, we are losing the opportunity of developing that hearing sense to a more refined degree.

You're certainly not going to hear me flat out recommend you don't learn pinyin, as, for one, I have not done that myself. But at least we can take away from this perspective an added awareness of the need to exercise our ear for Chinese, particularly for tones, even when pinyin can sometimes seem a shortcut for informing us of what the proper tone for a given character is.

Verdict - this intriguing idea merits some exploration for those willing to go off the well-worn path, and can also help us who choose to use pinyin to appreciate the need for developing certain refined listening and imitation skills.

Resources for Learning Pinyin

I am going to include a short number of resources here - ones that are really terrific (and free).

Our own course to learn pinyin consists of 18 video tutorials to cover all the individual sounds. It's nice because you get the feel of a live teacher leading you through the lessons. The course is completely free.

The Confucius Institute's page for learning pinyin is awesome, too. Though it doesn't have that same warm human presence, it does do well at automating quizzes to test your recognition of the sounds. It also can serve as a good quick reference for how to say each sound, using an inviting interface (perhaps designed for kids, but why not adults, too?)

Pinyin shown in a clickable table, where you can click on any and every possible combination of sound and tone and hear a real speaker pronouncing is a nice one. The one on Yabla's site has a nice simple presentation.

A tutorial on the tones is an essential part of any pinyin course. Audrey does a nice job in keeping it short yet still making it interactive, where you have space to practice where she prompts you to mimic the sounds.

So great luck on your efforts to learn pinyin. Be assured, you are on the right course when you set out to build a strong foundation for your pinyin from the outset. Or if you have studied some but are looking to fill gaps in your knowledge of pinyin, you also are on the right track and I applaud you for your wise persistence!

Happy Mandarin learning.