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A Pinyin Opinion

I am frequently asked for advice on how to learn Chinese. My answer always includes a pitch for perfecting pinyin. (Pinyin is a system which romanizes Chinese Characters, whereby is rendered nihao.)

In my observation, despite the fact that Chinese textbooks typically cover pinyin thoroughly in their opening pages, most students of Chinese only muddle along, clear on some sounds, like "ma" and "dou", but fuzzy on others, like "xu" and "zhi".

Why? Since most Chinese sounds are similar to English, pinyin seems unworthy of much class time. It's boring to practice. With the simultaneous learning of tones requiring so much attention, pinyin is easily neglected.

The resulting mediocrity affects both pronunciation and listening, like static on the telephone. Bad pinyin dulls students' ability to study from a textbook, and it blurs their memory of words learned in class. It impedes typing of Chinese and drastically slows use of a dictionary. It holds you back.

Anyone at all serious about learning Chinese as a second language needs to have "perfect" pinyin. That's why I developed "Laokang Pinyin Test," a free app for Apple iOS devices.

This diagnostic test is an easy way to objectively measure pinyin proficiency, both listening and speaking skills in about three minutes each. It can be taken over and over again as students progress, until mastery is demonstrated.

True proficiency in pinyin is of great benefit to students. It helps them get the most from their study time. When they hear a word for the first time, they can visualize the spelling, write it down and/or remember it more readily. As they encounter new words in a textbook or dictionary, they can read them aloud to themselves with confidence. Their pronunciation is guaranteed to be understandable, and their ear will be tuned to keep up with the pace of a conversation. Finally, they will be able to type Chinese with fluency.

Let me describe how the test is designed. Try it out here. Perhaps someone will design a better test, but I trust you can see how assessing this basic skill early and often equips students for success.

The listening test plays 26 three-syllable nonsense words, like "ye an zhi," one at a time in a monotone. After each word, the user types in the pinyin, then "replay" to hear the word again or "enter" to proceed to the next word. After 26 words, the score is generated instantly, showing the percentage correct, and taking off a point for each word which took over 10 seconds to enter.

The monotone helps the user focus on pinyin only, without thinking about the tone; the user's tones, good or bad, do not affect their pinyin score. The nonsense words help the user focus on the sounds only; the users vocabulary, large or small, does not affect their score. Three syllable words, instead of just one or two syllables, challenge the user to process the sounds more quickly and remember what was heard. In these twenty-six words, 78 syllables, every initial and every final sound in Chinese occur at least twice.

The speaking test displays 26 three syllable nonsense words one at at time. As each word is displayed, the device begins recording. The user reads the displayed pinyin in a monotone, (or in any tone, it doesn't matter), then "play" to hear the recording [and "record" again if not satisfied] or "enter" to proceed. After 26 words are recorded, the sounds are then played back. A teacher, classmate or the user himself then grades the test by typing in the recorded sounds, until the score is automatically given. The score shows the percentage correct, and takes one point off for each slow response.

"Perfect" pinyin does not mean your pronunciation must sound like a native. It means a grader can distinguish every sound you are saying without any context. If he can, you will be readily understandable in context. An accent does not impede learning, but unintelligible speech does.

In my Chinese 101 class at Wheaton College, I require students to achieve a score over 90% in pinyin listening and pinyin speaking within six weeks. Email me about how you are doing.

Pinyin could no doubt be improved, and other systems have certain advantages, but I believe this system in its present form will only become more dominant in Chinese language classrooms for the foreseeable future. Though quirky, pinyin is perfectly functional. The quirks do present teaching challenges, however, which I will cover in my next post tentatively titled "#Pinyin Perfect."

Image credit: PCWong

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Paul Condrell

Paul Condrell, whose Chinese name is Kang Baole 康保乐, grew up in Washington, D.C., and has lived in China since 1988. He is founder and chairman of consumer products retailer 小康之家 is developing apps, under the "Laokang" brand, for Apple iOS devices to help students master Chinese. He teaches …View Full Bio

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