Zhuyin and Pinyin

ㄓㄨˋㄧㄣ | pīn yīn

Zhuyin, aka bopomofo, and pinyin are phonetic alphabets for Mandarin Chinese. While there are many other phonetic systems for Chinese, pinyin is the de-facto romanization standard for Mandarin Chinese, and zhuyin is widely popular in Taiwan where it remains a default input method on smartphones and computers.

注音 或 拼音?

If you’re a native English speaker you almost have no choice but to learn pinyin. If you can type well on a Latin-keyboard, you’ll be able to type Chinese well using pinyin. I love zhuyin, but I still type much faster in pinyin.

That said, while pinyin may be an excellent romanization system, romanization systems can be inherently confusing. Not all languages fit into a Latin alphabet.

Did you ever notice that English isn’t entirely phonetic? We write English in the Latin alphabet which provides 5 vowels, and yet English has at least 14 vowel sounds (usually more than 20 in a given dialect). This is why we have competitive Spelling Bees.

Spanish has 5 vowel sounds, and they perfectly match the 5 vowels in the Latin alphabet. Spanish, unlike English, is perfectly phonetic with the Latin alphabet. This is why a Spanish spelling bee wouldn’t be very interesting.

Before the romanization of English, there were writing systems such as Anglo-Saxon Runes. After more than a thousand years these runes are still a better phonetic match to modern English than the Latin alphabet with its 5 vowels. Imagine if we kept these runes and everyone used modern versions that were perfectly phonetic to spoken English — this is what zhuyin is to Mandarin Chinese.

Chinese, like English, has more than 5 vowel sounds and is a poor match to a Latin alphabet. Personally, I recommend learning BOTH zhuyin and pinyin. I’d actually recommend learning pinyin from zhuyin in order to properly focus on the Chinese phonemes and not get them confused with English phonemes.

注音 / ㄅㄆㄇㄈ

The primary advantage for learning zhuyin is because it’s perfectly phonetic to spoken Mandarin. Chinese phonemes are very different than, say, English or Spanish phonemes, and zhuyin provides you with an entirely foreign set of symbols for a foreign sounding language. In fact, zhuyin symbols are based on traditional Chinese writing, and learning these symbols helps your brain to avoid the collisions that happens with pinyin.

E.g., the pinyin “u” sometimes sounds like “oo” in cartoon, but other times sounds like a German ü, which sometimes will be written as yu, or v, or ü.

In zhuyin, there are no such ambiguities. The German-sounding ü is always ㄩ

There’s only one way to write tones in zhuyin. The zhuyin tone markers are intuitive and easy (literally just ˊ ˇ ˋ ˙).

Best ways to learn zhuyin

+ apps
+ memrise
+ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bopomofo
+ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhuyin_table


The main advantage to pinyin is that it’s the official phonetic alphabet in mainland China. Every Chinese schoolkid learns pinyin. Throughout China you’ll see signs written in pinyin. Even if you don’t speak Chinese, learning pinyin can be useful if you’re traveling in China. Taiwan has also increased their use of pinyin (mostly as an aid to international visitors).

That said, remember that pinyin is a romanization. It maps Mandarin Chinese phonemes onto a Latin alphabet. This is not the same as English phonemes.

Learning pinyin properly involves unlearning the English (or Spanish, French, Italian, etc.) phoneme mapping and instead associating Chinese phonemes onto the Latin alphabet. These are not English sounds you’ll be making, these are Chinese sounds.

There are multiple ways to represent tones in pinyin. Sometimes, like in Microsoft and Google input methods, you simply leave off the tone marker and let the computer figure out what you’re trying to type from the context. Other times you can use numerical tone markers, e.g., zhong1 wen2. But the most common is diacritic tone marks, e.g., zhōngwén.

Numerical markers are easy to type and avoid the ambiguity of diacritic marks. E.g., chángān can be “chan2 gan1” or “chang2 an1”. Although in these ambiguous cases it’s recommended to use an apostrophe along with diacritic marks to avoid ambiguity (chán’gān and cháng’ān).

Best ways to learn pinyin

+ apps
+ memrise
+ Google translate (uses pinyin with diacritic tone marks)