If you haven’t heard of Zhuyin (Bopomofo) yet, it’s a system used for teaching Chinese pronunciation to children before they are able to read and recognize the torrents of characters that will be in their future.
It uses a symbol plus a tone mark like this:
Pronunciation: ㄆㄧㄠˋ ㄌㄧㄤˋ
These symbols are placed vertically descending next to the character like this:
If you just started learning Mandarin on your own, it’s likely that you haven’t run into this system yet. Most likely, you’ve learned the Romanization system called pinyin.
In fact, almost all learners of Chinese use pinyin to learn pronunciation.
When I first started learning Chinese, I learned pinyin, too, and when I learned that zhuyin existed half a decade later, I jumped at the chance to learn it because I felt like it was the Chinese alphabet that I had been waiting for.
(It’s probably not fair to say I jumped at the chance…more like I meekly walked toward it.)
As I explored these new sounds, I recognized how vastly different they sounded to the pinyin sounds I had been taught (and had been incorrectly pronouncing).
They felt & sounded more accurate.
The pinyin that I had been taught over a period of two classes, for less than 90 minutes without long-term repetition or feedback, were surprisingly inadequate to what I was learning now.
From my own experience I think that you can absolutely learn pinyin & pronounce Chinese correctly (in fact, students from all over China learn pinyin for pronunciation), but you have to learn pinyin well.
The truth is that our idea of what the words should sound like based on our understanding of English monster truck blocks our way to ever pronouncing it correctly.
Bopomofo makes sure that we can’t associate the sounds we see on paper with the sounds we have in English from the start.
I also think it gives us a better chance to learn pronunciation more accurately, thus saving us pocketfuls of anxiety & embarrassment down the road.
Plus, Bopomofo, to me, feels more authentic…which can be great, except that it isn’t always easy to find learning materials that use it.
Many materials rely on pinyin to represent the sounds, and this can be a barrier because some of the best learning materials, like Assimil, will only use pinyin and characters.
All in all, learn both.
Learning both gives you a better chance to gain clear pronunciation and offers a variety of resources for you to continue practicing.
If you really want to choose just one I recommend starting with pinyin because you’ll have more access to materials and it will feel like a more natural transition.
However, if you do choose pinyin, I recommend that you watch this video series to make sure you’re pronouncing the sounds as correctly as you can.
[VIDEO] Comprehensive Pinyin Review (Part 1) – Yangyang Cheng
Which system do you prefer? Tell me what you’re thinking in the comments below.