Pinyin VS Hard Work

01 Jun 2008

Language Log recently published a post by Victor Mair entitled How to learn to read Chinese, in which Dr. Mair talks about a Chinese language newspaper with pinyin accompanying each character called Guoyu Ribao (国语日报). He hails it as a great way to pick up characters.

This is all well and good, but I was quite surprised by this paragraph (bold mine):

> Guoyu Ribao was a godsend in that it enabled me to learn Chinese characters passively and painlessly. By assimilating massive amounts of publications from the Guoyu Ribao people, before long I was able to read texts without phonetic annotation. Slowly, with practice, I also became capable of writing in characters as well.

While I agree that overloading new students of Chinese with character memorization is a bad idea, the words passively and painlessly in regards to learning Chinese characters just don’t seem right. (Does Dr. Mair know Dr. David Moser?) Interesting material goes a long way toward motivating students to learn, but no matter how you slice it, there’s quite a bit of work involved in becoming literate in Chinese. Yeah, it’s a bit painful, and yeah, it’s active work. While Dr. Moser exaggerates for fun, Dr. Mair seems to give pinyin a bit too much credit.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I certainly don’t think learning Chinese is ever passive or painless. But, it is necessary to have the Pinyin next to the characters in order to begin learning–something I still need at this point (though it might be easier if I had a teacher).

  2. I also think that’s pretty unrealistic. But language log have a habit of talking about this sort of thing – they blame a lot of Mandarin learning problems on 汉字。 Which is fair enough but at some point if you want to get really into the language you need to start learning the characters. Personally I learn both, but keep the learning pretty separate so that if my 汉字 slow down, my conversation keeps going.

  3. I don’t like pain :((

  4. If you are illiterate, but otherwise relatively fluent, I think this is a great method to learn to read characters.

    The key here is not pinyin! I think LISTENING would be even faster.
    You could LISTEN to the spoken text while reading the text, that way you don’t have to switch your reading between pinyin and characters.

    I believe Dr. Mair is correct — one can make rapid, natural progress using this method. You naturally learn to associate certain characters to their corresponding meanings.

  5. I agree with you, John. In fact, I think pinyin is a double edged sword; it’s pretty easy to be lazy and remain lazy when you have the pinyin below the characters. There has to be an overt effort by the learner to move to the next step (forget about pinyin and focus on the active and painful memorisation of characters you mention).

  6. Henning Says: June 1, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    For me picking up from Hanzi/Pinyin-texts did not work at all. I tried it at the very beginning of learning Chinese. Effect: my lazy brain just blocked out all those strange and twisted symbols to completely focus on the stupid Pinyin. And it did so very effectively, I must say. I retained nothing.

    So, OK, learning characters indeed is painful and needs to be painful.

    But do not forget that it is also fun.
    Maybe in a sick, self-humiliating way, but nevertheless: It is fun.

  7. I don’t like Mair’s posts about characters- he seems to suggest that people follow his way or the highway, and I question the process of learning to write characters from lots of reading ‘and a little practice’.

    And seriously, in any case, surely his qualms about lack of annotated texts could be solved by just saying: get a copy of Wenlin.

    Henning I think you’re right- when something is over-annotated it’s hard to concentrate.

  8. Mair certainly does know David Moser: that essay was originally printed in the Sino-Platonic Papers, which he edits. (Specifically, it was in the Festschrift for John DeFrancis — himself another great advocate of Romanization.)
    And neither Mair nor Moser should be taken quite at face value here: both are extremely accomplished Sinologists who have done the grunt work necessary to learn the characters. Victor Mair, in his study of early Chinese texts, has almost certainly forgotten more characters than the lot of us have ever learned, combined. David Moser is a xiangsheng performer – but one of the light-side variety! – who is consistently funny and amazingly fluent.

    I think his comment here is actually not that far off-base: I’ve found that at least in my own study of Chinese characters, I’m much more easily able to remember something when I can tie the character to a word. When the characters are just glyphs unconnected to any spoken language, then memorizing them is an exercise in brute force; when they’re tied to syllables of a word that can be heard or said in daily conversation, things get a lot easier.

    That said, I do agree with Henning: annotation can be great, but once a learner is past a certain level it gets distracting. I think that’s particularly true for the way Pinyin is generally used to annotate — when it’s done on a per-syllable level, rather than word by word.

    @Cooper: Again, Mair is certainly not unaware of Wenlin: he’s the editor of the ABC dictionary that powers the software. His point is not that Chinese is hard to read; it’s that it should not be so hard to read, particularly given the success of Pinyin-based texts in education and in nonliterate communities.

  9. I have to say in my own experience, using pinyin-annotated texts has been really helpful.
    But, I have to agree with Jim’s statement
    “If you are illiterate, but otherwise relatively fluent, I think this is a great method to learn to read characters.”
    in that, it’s only pailnlessand passiveif you already know the words meaning through pinyin and context.
    I study using books that both use and don’t use pinyin, trying to use annotated ones for the more harder matterial. Although I wouldn’t call it
    passive, it’s definitely far less painless than looking up tons of characters via radical. (At least for us lower level learners)
    Making them stick is another story altogether. It all depends on how often you read, if you use flashcards, etc.

  10. Wow, I totally italicized the crap out of that. Only meant for painless and passive.

  11. You know, I don’t think Mair was really talking about a literacy method here; I think he was talking about a resource he enjoyed that obviously supplemented his hanzi study.

    If I contemporary media and literature were suddenly made accessible to me as a supplement, with both phonemic and semantic representation, that would be a huge improvement over the painful and active hard work that is reading about frakking 王朋, or that idiot 马达维 in my textbooks. I might even make the claim that learning through pleasure reading is painless and passive, relatively speaking. It certainly was the case in my native language.

    Besides, pain and effort in language learning are hard to quantify, and we should be careful in concluding how pain and effort are related to success in language acquisition and/or literacy.

    That said, I teach Spanish, which like Pinyin has a pretty phonemically consistent representation. When my students annotate their texts with English translation, their eyes skip the target form and go straight for the translation; if you ask them the target form, they will be unable to produce it, since they never physically looked at it.

    A student reading 国语日报 may read the Pinyin, but will have to look at the Hanzi for the semantic reading; also, the Hanzi will be the key to finding the word in the dictionary. Combine that kind of interaction with compelling material… maybe painless and passive is a strong claim, but it looks like a good strategy to me.

  12. Andrew Corrigan Says: June 1, 2008 at 11:07 pm


    I’m just getting started learning to recognize characters. Can you please offer advice as to what the most efficient and passive approach would be based on your experience?

  13. For myself, I’ve found that I retain a character much easier if I have the pinyin spelling associated with it. People always have different ways of retaining words, English or Chinese (hearing it, writing it, reading it) but for me, when I see a character, I instinctively spell it out in pinyin in my mind as I read it. It’s especially helpful for text messaging 🙂

  14. in which Dr. Mair talks about a Chinese language newspaper with pinyin accompanying each character called Guoyu Ribao (国语日报). He hails it as a great way to pick up characters.

    The 國語日報 is published in Taiwan. I get it every now and then at 7-11. It doesn’t have any pinyin in it. Like most children’s materials here, characters are annotated with zhuyin. I’ve got a picture of the paper here.

    I really have picked up a number of characters just from reading it. For western foreigners, it’s great to have zhuyin annotations. Pinyin tends to grab my eyes away from the Chinese text, since it’s the same character set I grew up with. Even if I know a character, I often find myself looking at pinyin, if it’s there. With zhuyin, though, it’s better. It’s still super easy to lookup an unfamiliar word, but it doesn’t leap out of the page and distract me like Roman letters do.

    If only the paper had stories I was interested in reading…

  15. I agree with JP above, I think Mair just meant relatively painlessly…I met Dr. Mair, albeit briefly, and from everything I can gather from that meeting (and from his numerous excellent translations) he is certainly not the type to shy away from scholarly rigor or good old fashioned hard work.

    Additionally, it seems from what you’ve quoted that all he is talking about is his own personal experience, not necessarily advocating that his methods could (or should) be helpful to everyone, so unless he suggests that elsewhere it may be a bit unfair to accuse him of giving pinyin too much credit…perhaps for him, it really was that helpful, and if so, it isn’t impossible that that information could be of some use to other Chinese learners as well.

  16. @Andrew Corrigan

    I can’t speak for John, but my favorite method of learning is to fold a sheet of paper into six vertical columns. In the first, write the Chinese character, in the second pinyin with tones and in the last English. Then cover the first two and try to write the Chinese and pinyin (saying them aloud for extra reinforcement.) Now cover the Chinese and pinyin and try to write the English. Repeat until you’ve covered the whole sheet. Then review after a day, a week, six months and a year.

    This approach isn’t passive, but it is effective.

  17. from Moser:
    “7. Because there are too many romanization methods and they all suck.”

    i once spent a solid hour explaining to one of my students why pinyin was really not a very good romanization system. he of course would not budge in his support of it as perfect.

  18. It seems what Dr. Mair meant was that he could passively and painlessly associate pinyin with characters he didn’t know, but I agree with your reaction that associating pinyin with characters is far from ‘learning’ a character. To really learn a character one has to know how to write it, what it means, what other characters go with it, what different forms it has, etc.

  19. @Brendan- I dunno man. You’d know a lot more about it than I would, but I’ve seen Mair demonising characters a fair bit. I mean I basically agree with him about learning to recognize characters but I reckon he understates the gap between recognition and production.

    Like that “Mair on Washington Post on illiteracy in China” article, he is pretty pessimistic in there.

    Thanks for the heads up on his position at the ABC though, I didn’t know that, and I had no idea about Moses either. Does make me wonder why Mair didn’t take the opportunity to give a shoutout to Wenlin, Adsotrans, etc, since he’s writing an article called “How to learn to read Chinese”, and many commenters are now asking where they can purchase the paper that he mentions.

  20. Ha, I think the ‘passive’ stands for the fact that if you learn characters in this way, you will really only create a passive vocabulary of 汉字. You’ll be able to read, but not write, to absorb but not produce. I think the key part is the sentence: “Slowly, with practice, I also became capable of writing in characters as well.” I’m guessing the practice included lots of repetitive writing and sentence generation.

    Most of the learning materials I sought out when I started (and I started with reading and writing, not speaking) were with pinyin accompanying the characters. You have to pay attention to both and write out both. If I only wrote out the characters I’d usually remember the pinyin but without the tone.

    I like Jim’s point about listening. If you have the program to do it with (i.e. some parts of ChinesePod), this seems like a great way to pick up characters, including the correct tone, properly. But some of us are visual learners and need both.

    I made myself flashcards with the character on one side and the pinyin and English meaning on the other. The process of making the cards really helped me to recognize characters – but not necessarily words… have no idea where they are now, I guess I’ve moved on.

  21. […] an article at Sinosplice I read a very interesting article by Victor Mair entitled How to learn to read Chinese The basic […]

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