Should I Learn Pinyin or Chinese Characters First?

This post is similar to my last one on learning Japanese kanji. I received the following question from a reader about Chinese…

Robertson, thank you for putting this book together.  I certainly picked up some tips and tricks to help me learn a new language.

I am attempting to learn Chinese.  Do you have any experience learning pinyin?  Your thoughts about using pinyin to learn Chinese?

In regards to your learning Japanese, did you only learn the characters (Kanji?) or did you first learn any Romanization of the language? (if there is such a thing for Japanese)

I’m guessing it would be easier to learn to speak the language first, instead of trying to read or write it.  Especially an Asian language, since there is no alphabet equivalency for English speakers.

Your thoughts?

Thanks,
Wes.

Hi Wes,

Thanks for contacting me. I do have some thoughts concerning Chinese.

About characters, I would suggest this: concentrate on learning to recognize many characters but not necessarily how to write them just yet.

I would suggest that when you create new entries in your flashcard program, type the entire word and sentence in Chinese characters (traditional or simplified or both if you so desire) and then write the pinyin afterwards. On the “other side” (answer), you can write the English as I describe in my book.

The reason for this is that by going through your daily repetition, your mind will get used to seeing the characters and by receiving this kind of input, you will find that you will begin to remember them more easily. Since you’ll be doing a high amount of repetition for vocabulary and sentences, you may as well get the most out of it by adding characters, too.

If you have not studied characters at all, I would suggest studying them a little to get a sense of the basic radicals, etc. You may want to take a look at the most basic ones. Then you can just sit back and slowly get more accustomed to the characters through your vocabulary repetitions.

Again, I wouldn’t worry too much about being able to write the characters since in today’s world, everybody uses computers to write and thus you only need to know the pinyin and be able to recognize the correct character to use. If you are interested in being able to write the characters properly, I would suggest practicing that only after you are able to read and recognize many characters. As I said before, most people use computers these days to write so the ability to read and recognize characters is much more important than writing. For this reason, it makes sense to put your writing studies at a lower priority than reading, recognizing and learning new vocabulary and sentences.

I hope that helps! If you have any other questions, feel free to ask me here. Thanks.

-Robertson B. Kunz

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  1. The question asked by Wes is actually a very good one. The fact is that even the professionals in Chinese pedagogy are divided on this issue, with one school of scholars arguing for teaching PinYin first so students are able to figure out pronunciation themselves, and the other against PinYin as that may make students dependent on it instead of actually reading characters many of which have same pronunciations. No matter which sequence you choose to study, you’ll probably have to learn both eventually: PinYin for typing Chinese on computers and characters for actually reading/writing in this language. That said, to learn the characters is a daunting task for foreigners and native-speaking pupils. The main reason is that Chinese is not a spelling language and being able to speak it doesn’t translate into being able to write. Also with about two to three thousand characters to grasp before effective communication, it’s a huge challenge to everyone who wants to learn Chinese, including those who were born and grow up in China. Fortunately we have a lot of resources these days. One particular example is an iPhone/iPad app I recently came across. Unlike most other software out there, this one indexes characters with pictures, explains their their ideographic (picture) origins, and group them based on the radicals (etyma). I tried quite a few of the characters and they now make a lot more sense why they’re like what they are.

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