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Why should I learn Chinese characters, can’t I just learn pinyin?

By Memrise Blog

Pinyin uses letters that we are familiar with. Familiar things are easy to remember, so we find it easier to learn the pinyin spelling of a Chinese word than we do to remember an unfamiliar character and the sound that we are supposed to make when we read that character. So, by this logic, we might as well just learn the pinyin spelling of words and forget the characters, right?


Wrong for a whole bunch of reasons. So many that I hardly know where to start. So let me start with the difference between learning to spell a word in pinyin and learning to pronounce it.

Although pinyin uses letters that we are familiar with, it doesn’t use them in a way that we are familiar with. It is based more closely, for what it is worth, on the German use of letters. But even that is not perfect. “Q”, for example, is pronounced with a sound more like “ch”. “X” is pronounced something like “ssh” – a slightly more sibilant form of “sh”. Differences like these may seem small – but they are crucial. They mean that even if you have learnt the correct pinyin spelling of a word, your instinct will be to pronounce it wrongly.

Take, as an example, my mother. When I lived in Qiqihaer in Heilongjiang province, my mother knew full well how to write “Qiqihaer”. She could even say it correctly in conversation – “chee chee ha er” – but if you asked her to read it out loud, she would almost invariably say “Qui Qui Har”. This is only natural, and a mistake repeated by virtually every other english speaker who tries to read the name. The reason is that the way to pronounce our letters is deeply ingrained in our brains. To pronounce them differently takes a huge mental effort. So even if you know the correct pinyin spelling for a word, you have to put in a huge amount of effort to make sure that you can say it correctly. And that, after all, is the main thing, isn’t it?

And that is before you have thought about adding the correct tones into the mix. I have much to say on the problems with using pinyin to learn the tones (and, be sure, I will say it soon enough!), but for now suffice to say that separating the tone from the spelling creates extra work for you to do when you come to say the word out loud. Which in turn increases the chances of you getting it wrong.

These are not insurmountable problems. You can learn to pronounce the pinyin correctly, and with practice you can learn to say the tones correctly as well. You have to re-learn how to read English letters, and to learn a new skill of modulating the tone with which you say each syllable in response to a line above the letters. But make no mistake – this will require effort. So don’t think that just learning the pinyin will be a huge short cut.

Perhaps that effort in learning how to use pinyin correctly would be worth it, were it not for the next two crucial points.

Firstly, once you reach a certain level, pinyin becomes actively confusing. There are only around 420 different pinyin syllables, ignoring the different tones. Because each syllable in Chinese represents on character, and each character has a meaning, this means that these 420 syllables of pinyin represent the pronunciation of all of the characters in the entire language. Of the characters in everyday usage this means that there are an average of around 11 characters for each pinyin syllable.

Take “bao”, for example. This single pinyin syllable can mean “a package”, “to carry”, “full” (as in “having eaten enough), “a bubble” and many, many others. If you are asking your brain to store each of these meanings in association with a single spelling, then you are asking it to do an almost impossible task. You are bound to become confused.

If you use characters as your basic unit of knowledge, and then learn to pronounce each character later, then you decimate the opportunity for confusion. There are thousands of characters with different meanings, and you can learn these very quickly using the mnemonic methods on Memrise. You can then learn how to pronounce these characters. But since you will be using the character and its meaning as the basic mnemonic structure that underlies your knowledge, the differences between the different words will be plain to you. The more you lean, the greater this advantage will become.

Finally, and I think most importantly, the characters are brilliantly, exquisitely fun. They are jammed full of anecdote, cultural insight and artistic falir. If you don’t learn the characters then you are sucking the pleasure out of learning Chinese. The experience of seeing meaning grow out of the incomprehensible squiggles is one of the most deliciously enjoyable learning experiences that the world has to offer. So since it is also the easiest and most effective way to learn, why would you not want to learn the characters? It’s a no-brainer.