Teaching Chinese Using the Roman Alphabet–Really?

Jean gets on the soapbox.

I am a firm believer in teaching Chinese using “bopomofo” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhuyin). This quote summarizes nicely why I think “bopomofo” should be the pronunciation guide for Chinese instead of pinyin. “For non-native speakers of Mandarin Chinese, bopomofo can be useful as a learning tool. Because it does not use romanization, confusion over “Latin alphabet” sounds and “Chinese” sounds is not an issue.”

This year the United Nations declared simplified Chinese the official standard characters instead of traditional Chinese. I have to reserve my commentary on that for another blog post but teaching someone how to pronounce Chinese should not be done with the Roman alphabet.

A native English speaker will see “qi” and not know how to pronounce it because English speakers have been taught “q” is always with “u”. Chinese is challenging enough to learn, why complicate it by teaching Chinese characters and reintroducing the roman alphabet with new pronunciation?

I understand that “bopomofo” will be something new to learn and it will add to the stress of learning a new language. However, I feel this will allow the learner to step away from thinking English to Chinese is a word-to-word translation. Before I went to Russia on a mission trip, my then-boss told me that to learn Russian is to not take an English word to translate it into a Russian word but to take an idea and express it in another language.

If you teach someone Chinese with the letters he/she recognizes in English, he/she will just pronounce it with an English speaker’s dialect. The way the tongue, mouth, and lip shapes are formed are different than in English. Focus on idea to word translation and the movement of the mouth, do not equate Chinese characters to English sounds. There is the IPA (international phonetic alphabet) to aid in the understanding of pronunciation and most IPA symbols are more similar to the Roman alphabet. If you want to use something more familiar to you than bopomofo, use the IPA. Pinyin makes no sense to me. Learn Chinese using bopomofo or use IPA to transcribe the sounds. Don’t turn the Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet and English sounds.

Jean steps off the soapbox.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Teaching Chinese Using the Roman Alphabet–Really?

  1. Judy Wang

    In Taiwan, most of my students they use “bopomofo” to transcribe the sounds of English words. Since they all know “bopomofo” very well, that’s the tool they can use to help them to remember the English words.

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