How do Chinese people learn to write Chinese without pinyin, and why non-Chinese speaking students should not try it?

When students start learning Chinese, their first couple of lessons are almost always learning pinyin. But, this is not how I started my Chinese lessons. I learned to read and write Chinese characters first and pinyin later.

It is probably true to most Chinese people that our first batch of Chinese lessons dealt directly with Chinese characters. Teachers showed us characters, such as , , , , and told us what these characters were without teaching us any pinyin. We were instructed to write these characters. 

How did I do it, learning how to read and write Chinese without learning pinyin first?

Advantages of a Chinese kid

The biggest advantage I had is the fact that I started early. I was a small child when I started learning how to read and write Chinese. 

The second advantage was that, at the time I started learning how to read and write Chinese, I was already a fluent Chinese speaker. I was born and raised in a Chinese speaking environment. I had listened to many stories, asked many questions, accumulated tons of combinations, and gained tremendous amount of cultural insights. The best part was that I did not even know that I had it. 

These two advantages, a very young age and all the knowledge I had at that time, prepared me well to learn how to read and write Chinese without the need to learn pinyin.  

Therefore, when I started learning how to read and write characters, the only thing I needed was someone to show me that this character was and this one . I knew everything else, such as their pronunciations, their meanings, and I had already used them thousands of times. Learning characters and words which were not part of my daily speaking vocabulary was much later. 

Unknowingly, I followed a good sequence of learning Chinese, understanding it, speaking it, writing what I could speak, and everything else followed gradually.

A different starting point for non-Chinese students

For non-Chinese speaking students who are not born into a Chinese speaking environment, they often start learning Chinese at an older age. They do not have the language skills or the cultural knowledge a small Chinese kid would have in China. 

For non-Chinese speaking students, it is very difficult to try to deal with Chinese texts directly from the beginning, pronunciations, characters, meanings, words, usages, all at once.

It is more sensible for them to follow a similar sequence of learning, a way that emulates how a Chinese kid learn. Speaking some Chinese first, then learning how to write what they can speak, followed by everything else gradually. 

When it comes to learning how to speak Chinese before learning any characters, pinyin becomes a good starting point.

More about pinyin

A number of articles about pinyin have been published on this website. Below are some of the links to a few must read articles. 

First of all, we need to know that pinyin is a tool, which enables non-Chinese speaking students to get some sense of what Chinese is like. Learning pinyin is not learning Chinese. 

Secondly, as wonderful as pinyin is, it is not without flaws. Pinyin does not accurately represent the natural speech. There is a gap between pinyin and Chinese pronunciation.

Also, pinyin is not a sustainable solution for the long run. Relying on pinyin alone will create hurdles that prevent students from making progress. 

If you want to have some fun deciphering pinyin, read here: Does “shi li” mean “strength” in Chinese?”.


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