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 at MSL Master, their first couple of lessons are almost always learning pinyin. But, this is not how I started my Chinese lessons. My first Chinese lessons, probably true to most Chinese people, dealt directly with Chinese characters. Learning pinyin, and how to use pinyin to look up a character in a dictionary, was a much later event. How did I do it, learning how to write Chinese without learning pinyin first?

The biggest advantage I had is the fact that I started early. I was still 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. It is all because I was 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 is 大, this one is 小, this one is 爷爷, and that one is 姥姥. I knew everything else, such as their pronunciations, their meanings, and how to use them. Learning characters and words which were not part of my 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.

For non-Chinese speaking students, they often start learning Chinese at an olde age, and they do not have the language skills or the cultural knowledge a small Chinese kid would have in China. Why would anyone try to deal with Chinese texts directly from the beginning, pronunciations, characters, meanings, words, usages, all at once? It is more sensible for them also to follow a good sequence of learning, sort of emulating 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, pinyin becomes a good starting point. 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. Pinyin is also easier to learn as it uses Roman letters (take a look at a beginner’s guide to pinyin pronunciations).

Secondly, as wonderful as pinyin is, it is not without flaws. The biggest problem pinyin has is that it is not a sustainable solution for the long run. Read more about some its shortcomings here: The gulf between pinyin and Mandarin Chinese pronunciation, and Why learning Mandarin using (only) Pinyin will create more hurdles.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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