Zhuyin or Pinyin? Which one should you learn?

What is Zhuyin(注音)?

The simplest way to look at it is “They are symbols representing initials and finals”

Or its definition: A group of Mandarin phonetic symbols named Zhuyin. It is a transliteration system for Mandarin Chinese, and it is most commonly used in Taiwan.

Still not so sure? It looks like this in practice:

Wǒ xǐhuān xué zhōngwén

There are 37 symbols in total in Zhuyin, and they can be divided into three groups:

聲母 Initial (21)
ㄅㄆㄇㄈ ㄉㄊㄋㄌ ㄍㄎㄏ ㄐㄑㄒ ㄓㄔㄕㄖ ㄗㄘㄙ

介音 Medial (3)

韻母 Final (13)
ㄚㄛㄜㄝ ㄞㄟㄠㄡ ㄢㄣㄤㄥ ㄦ

The form of Zhuyin actually came from ancient Chinese characters, thus you might find some of them look familiar with some characters you know or you’ve seen before. Zhuyin is the first thing we learned about Mandarin as a kid. We practice writing them following the stroke orders we apply to regular characters(top to bottom, left to right). Thus, you can look at them as simple characters or as Hiragana or Katakana as well if you’ve learned Japanese.

Is Zhuyin easier or more difficult than Pinyin?

While Pinyin uses Latin script, which makes it easy to type and write, Zhuyin is actually much easier though it looks foreign and complex to read! Because it doesn’t have as many spelling rules as Pinyin does. For example, in Pinyin we have to change “u” into “w”, “i” into “y”, “ü” into “u” or “yu”…etc, while in Zhuyin, they all remain the same! Another example, while in Pinyin the simple final “e” is pronounced differently in different situations, such as “ye” vs. “le”. Zhuyin causes less confusion than Pinyin does too. For example, in Pinyin, we pronounce “ui” like “way”, “iu” like “yo” in English, but they don’t look like anything to their sounds at all! The biggest challenge to learn Zhuyin is to memorize all the symbols’ sounds, but once you get it, then all you need to do is to put them together for spelling, which is fairly easy! 

In addition, when we are learning a new language, we always want to avoid influences from our first language as much as we can! Especially when it comes to pronunciations, you can’t emphasize its importance more! So that’s where the fact that Zhuyin uses a unique group of symbols to represent sounds help learners a lot. When learners first learn Pinyin, it’s hard for them to get rid of everything they know about English pronunciations, and it’s even harder for them to look at, for example, “q” or “ch” but pronounce them with completely different sounds.

Which one do people usually choose?

This is a common dilemma learners face when they first start to learn Mandarin. In my experience, most students go for Pinyin, but some of them, out of interest, learn both of them after they have studied Chinese with Pinyin for a few years. Not many students learn Zhuyin in the beginning nor stick with it the whole learning journey.

Which one do I use to teach Chinese?

In Taiwan, we grew up using Zhuyin, but I learned Pinyin during training for teaching Chinese, and I mainly teach Chinese with Pinyin too. Though Zhuyin has its advantages, Pinyin has its irreplaceable reasons for learners to use. 

  1. It is more internationally used by the fact that it uses Latin script. It is relatively easier to type even if you don’t have the input set up in your computer. The keyboard is the same as QWERTY, so there are almost no obstacles to start typing Chinese.
  2. Its use of Latin script makes it more beginner-friendly after all! Even for someone who has never learned Pinyin, he can still try to guess it by reading it with the pronunciation method he is used to though it won’t sound accurate, but it reduces possible struggles in many life situations. For example, for tourists, when they see the Pinyin marked under a road sign, though they’re not sure, chances are they can still get by to successfully communicate with people about where they want to go. 
  3. Learners usually find more resources with Pinyin too. That’s the reality. Since the users of Pinyin are much more than Zhuyin’s, and plus other advantages, there are more materials using Pinyin than Zhuyin.

So should I go for Pinyin or Zhuyin?

There is no right or wrong answer, and everyone has his own preference. I personally think learning Pinyin in the beginning is a better option, however you can always come back and learn Zhuyin on the side, which is what most of my students do. Because by knowing Zhuyin, you will definitely have a new connection with Taiwanese people since you’ll understand things written in Zhuyin in Taiwan(ie. some shops or stands use a few Zhuyin on their signs or menus), and also on the Internet!

Plus, when you already know one of the systems, it will be easy for you to learn another one for sure since you already know the sounds, and how they work, thus all you need to do is to learn another “tool” for transliteration.

So if you use Chinese mostly with your Taiwanese partner, family or friends, why not try to learn Zhuyin? You can then communicate with them with super informal texts in your chat, ㄅㄅ!


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