Hanyu Pinyin: Learn the pun, find the fun

At some point in our Chinese learning adventure, Jon found the confidence to sign up for Mandarin lessons in San Francisco. On the first day of class, his teacher from Beijing invited me to sit in and I gladly sat at the back of the class as an observer. 

Throughout the entire session, only Hanyu Pinyin was written on the whiteboard (without any Chinese characters). The teacher wanted to help students remember the “spelling” — how words sound — rather than how they look. This confused Jon a lot when the teacher began to read, and I began to realize the problem.

Hanyu Pinyin (汉语拼音) is the official romanization system for Standard Chinese, created by the Chinese. Tones aside, there are two parts to each character – Sound (声母) and Rhythm (韵母), also known as the Initial and Final to English speakers. Although these combinations are made up of modern English letters, they do not always sound like the English pronunciations that we are accustomed to. It is a functional system and has its merits for learners who start at a young age with no prerequisite of another language. 

At the age of 7, in Singapore, I learned English and Mandarin Chinese concurrently in separate classes. In English class, the pan refers to a cooking device while in Chinese class (tones aside), the Hanyu Pinyin “pan” usually refers to the plate [盘] and it actually sounds more like the English word for a play on words, pun. Although they were both “p-a-n”, I had not connected the English pronunciations with Hanyu Pinyin, because they were equally foreign and new to me at that point. 

When I took up Russian class at the age of 24, my first instinct was to read “Москва” like an English word. It is in Cyrillic but between English and Mandarin that I already knew, I instantly drew an association to the former. I read it as “Mock-bah” and soon learned that it should sound more like “Mosque-va” which means Moscow.

Jon is in his thirties and spoke English all his life. Looking at the Hanyu Pinyin “fan”, his first instinct was to read it like the English word for a cooling device, fan. What if I could tell him, the Hanyu Pinyin “fan” sounds like fun?

With that thought, I started making all sorts of strange noises and revisited the Hanyu Pinyin system that I have taken for granted. I began to appreciate what the father of Pinyin had created and, without reinventing the wheel, plotted out my own Initial and Final charts.

Pages from A Little Daily Dose: Discovering Chinese Through Short Stories

My goal was to present English readers with a visual pattern that they could relate to. I picked the closest existing English words (that do not differ too much between British and American English) for each Hanyu Pinyin. When I couldn’t find any, I combined two words with a ” · ” in-between, to be read as one.

While hanging out with our friend, Cincinnatus, we put my charts to the test. Cincinnatus’ American English usually sounded different from Jon’s British English (which is great for comparison), and he was not learning the language so that made him neutral for this experiment. He ended up rapping horizontally and vertically, hitting all the sounds (and rhythms) that I had envisioned. A Little Daily Dose of Hanyu Pinyin worked!

I recently discovered that I could insert tables in WordPress. It is a work-in-progress but this means I could publish the rest of the charts too. Yay!