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The gulf between pinyin and Mandarin Chinese pronunciation

During the 2018 winter Olympic, the host city Pyeong Chang in South Korea had an international exposure. That brought its name to many people who had not learned Korean, including many major English-speaking network newscasters, who could not pronounce “Chang” correctly, i.e, as Koreans would do. The “Chang” became “Chay-ing”. As “Chang” is spelled the same and also pronounced similar as in Chinese pinyin, I commented, jokingly, that if the newscasters had learned Mandarin, they would have got it right. 

This kind of mis-pronunciation is common. Many cities, provinces and names become unrecognisable when uttered by English-speaking newscasters. I also have my own personal experience, as my family name “Zhang”, to many English speaking people, becomes “zay-ing”. 

How come words like “Chang” in Korean or “Zhang” in Chinese become so distorted even though they are written in a way, i.e. pinyin, which is actually trying to help people to pronounce them? 

The short answer is that, pinyin is not self-explanatory. 

Pinyin, which literally means “spell sound”, is a romanisation of Chinese characters. According to Wikipedia, pinyin was developed in 1950s by many linguists, and was revised several times after it was first published in 1958.

After people understand the basic rules of pinyin, it becomes a useful tool for them to pronounce the words correctly, especially when they do not know Chinese characters. 

However, for people who have not learned pinyin, it becomes a licence for them to mispronounce Chinese. The Chinese name “He” becomes “he”, the Chinese city Xi’an becomes something completely unrecognisable.

Other than the fact that pinyin is not self-explanatory, pinyin has other issues that Chinese language learners need to be aware of.

The problems of pinyin

Learning pinyin has great advantages. First of all, it visualises Mandarin Chinese sounds and helps students, especially beginner students, “see” those different and unique sounds in writing. Also, it can replace Chinese characters briefly and become a viable alternative way for beginner students to get a quick start to speak Mandarin. Comparing with thousands of Chinese characters, pinyin is much easier. 

However, pinyin is not without problems. And these problems are inherent in design.  

Based on my own teaching experiences, I realised that pinyin is really a poor imitation of Mandarin sounds, and it has many confusing elements. 

The number one issue is that the finals do not cover all the Mandarin sounds, and therefore we have to make shift by borrowing some finals and changing them into something else completely different.

The most confusing final is “i”. For people who have studied pinyin, they know the sound of “i” is like “ee” in “bee” in English. It is straightforward for students to pronounce “di” and “mi”. But “i” does not sound like “ee” at all in “zhi, chi, shi, ri”, and changes again in “zi, ci, si”. It always takes some time for students to take in the fact that, although all have the final “i”, they must pronounce “qi”, “chi” and “ci” quite differently. 

The other confusing final is “ü”. Sometimes the two dots are there, and sometimes they are not. When the two dots are not there, it has the same appearance as another final “u”. Comparing “bu” with “xu”, these are two different finals with the same look. This confusion could have been avoided if the linguists had declared that the two dots must always be there, that we must write the two dots for the purpose of differentiating the two finals for ever. But they did not.

There are other confusing elements in pinyin. Sometimes, it is quite a personal experience because one student finds a certain element extremely confusing while others are all right with it. 

In order to help students learn pinyin, there are tons of videos and diagrams available. I always find diagrams like these ones are hard to follow.

the gulf between pinyin and Chinese

The gulf between pinyin and natural speech in Mandarin

Even when students get pinyin right, they will sooner or later discover that, in real life, no one speaks according to pinyin scripts. 

Indeed, pinyin and Mandarin pronunciation are two different things. In natural speech, Chinese characters and words change their pronunciations constantly, and the pinyin which represents them is no longer correct without substantial modification.  

The common and the most noticeable one is the third tone, which in diagram often shows the pitch goes down and comes back up. In order to get this tone right, many students are taught to move their heads along with the tone. Actually, students have no reason to do that, because, in natural speech, the third tone in Mandarin is hardly ever pronounced a full throaty down-and-up. 

Other tonal changes include “” and “”. And for the neutral tone, how it is pronounced depends on the preceding tone. 

In short, Chinese people don’t speak Mandarin according to pinyin. It is the other way round, pinyin should be defined and manipulated to fit the speech pattern of ordinary Chinese people, who, by the way, often speak with some accents. 

A simple conclusion we draw here is that pinyin is a useful tool for non-Chinese speakers to learn Mandarin, and that it is only a first step towards Chinese language proficiency.