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Learning Chinese Mandarin Romanization

Paul began learning Chinese at DLI in 1967. He spent an immersion in Taiwan 1984-1985 improving Mandarin listening, speaking, and reading.

Pinyin Romanization for Mandarin Phonetics


Learning Chinese Mandarin

Different systems of romanization have been used in the teaching and learning of Chinese Mandarin. For the elementary student, romanization is an excellent way to represent sounds in a language that has a writing system very different from Western languages. This article will present an overview of Mandarin, and then examine the advantages and disadvantages of using a romanization system.

For most of my life, I have been using Chinese Mandarin almost as a second language. It has been fascinating and challenging for other Westerners and me to learn and use. This is because Mandarin is very different from Western Indo-European languages. What makes Chinese Mandarin challenging for Westerners is that it is a tonal language, and it employs character writing very foreign to the Latin alphabets that most Western languages use. The phonemes and grammar of Chinese Mandarin are also different from Western languages.

What Is Chinese Mandarin?

The Chinese Mandarin dialect has been popular for over 100 years; however, Chinese language writing has been around for 3,700 years since the Shan Dynasty ruled China. When I started learning Chinese Mandarin in 1967, I was immediately introduced to the five tones used in the spoken language. Tones are very important in Mandarin because they can tell us the meaning of words. Mandarin has five tones: the first, high-level; the second, rising; the third, first falling and then rising; the fourth, falling; and the fifth, a neutral tone. If we consider the word, "ma," it will have five different meanings according to the tone which is being used. To cite some examples, "ma" in the first tone means mother; "ma" in the second tone is hemp; "ma" using the third tone means horse; "ma" in the fourth tone is to scold, and "ma" with a neutral tone is used to make a question.

My initial study in Chinese Mandarin was a 37-week aural comprehension course. Reading and writing were not emphasized in this course, and I believe I only had to learn 300 Chinese characters. Chinese Mandarin uses characters to represent all the sounds in the language. Books in schools and business and government documents are all in Chinese characters. There is, however, a romanization system called Pinyin which is used to teach beginning Chinese speaking and reading to Westerners, other foreigners, and Chinese who are learning Mandarin in school as a second language or dialect. A Chinese character is systematically constructed by writing strokes and radicals, and it can be anywhere from one to 57 strokes in length. Characters are written in a definite stroke order from top to bottom and left to right. There are anywhere from 60,000 to 80,000 Chinese characters in the language; however, a literate Chinese will only be able to use about 4,000 of them. Chinese characters are easier to write now because they were simplified by the Chinese Communists in 1949. Still, it is very challenging to memorize how to read and write all of the characters you need for daily use.

Chinese Mandarin also has phonemes and grammar which differ from many Western languages. Mandarin uses a systematic arrangement of voiced and unvoiced initial consonants, many of which are not present in English. For example, consonants are paired according to the position where they are produced in the mouth. In making the labial sounds of "b" and "p," "b" is always unvoiced, and "p" is voiced or aspirated. The same holds for the dental sounds of "d" and "t". "D" is always unvoiced, and "t" is voiced. Mandarin also has initial consonant sounds not present in English. For example, the "c" sound in Pinyin romanization represents a "ts" sound which appears at the end of the word "cats." The "x" sound in Pinyin also has no equivalent in English, although in earlier romanization systems it was represented as a "hs" sound. Chinese Mandarin grammar is not as complex as English grammar. Verbs are not conjugated as they are in English and other Indo-European languages. Instead, perfectives are added after verbs to denote the past and present perfect tenses. Specific differences in English and Chinese Mandarin grammar will not be discussed in this article.

Chinese Mandarin Romanization Systems

Romanization systems have been around for a long time to aid Westerners in learning the sounds of spoken and written Chinese. The Wade-Giles system developed in the 1800s was most popular up until a few decades ago. It was developed in 1859 by the British diplomat, Thomas Wade, and refined by Herbert Giles in 1892. In this system, many-voiced initial consonants are differentiated from unvoiced consonants by an apostrophe following the second letter of the initial consonants. For example, "ch" as in Chen would be an unvoiced consonant, while "ch'" as in ch'eng would be a voiced consonant. Although the Wade-Giles romanization system is no longer taught to beginning students, many cities in Taiwan such as Taipei, Kaohsiung, and Changhua still retain Wade-Giles spelling. Many elderly Chinese in Taiwan and Southeast Asia also still use Wade-Giles in the spelling of their surnames as evidenced by last names such as Hsu, Ch'en, Ts'ai, and Chang.

My first introduction to Chinese Mandarin was through the Yale system when I began my Mandarin study at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. The Yale system was created at Yale University during World War II to facilitate communication between the U.S. military and its Chinese counterparts. The U.S. did not want to take sides in choosing the use of either Wade-Giles supported by the Chinese Nationalists or Pinyin supported by the Communists. Consequently, the Yale system was devised as a neutral system for political reasons. The Yale system appears closer in pronunciation to English than Wade-Giles. There are, however, major differences from Pinyin in representing Mandarin sounds. For example, the initial "j" consonant in Yale is represented by "zh" in Pinyin. The initial "ch" in Yale is written as "q" in Pinyin, and the initial "sy" in Yale is rendered as "x" in Pinyin.

Pinyin was first developed during the early 20th century; however, it was not until 1982 that it was accepted as a standard for transcribing Chinese sounds into English. Pinyin employs letters of the Latin alphabet without any apostrophes as in Wade-Giles. To the novice student, the pronunciation of the initial consonants "q", "x", "zh", and "c" are misleading, because they are not pronounced as they are in English. Tones are indicated by the use of diacritics over the syllables. A foreigner learning Chinese Mandarin today will begin with everything in Pinyin until he or she has acquired basic vocabulary and grammar to make sentences with characters.

Chinese Pinyin Pronunciation

Advantages and Disadvantages of Using Romanization

So what are the pros and cons of using romanization in the study of Chinese Mandarin? The following are four advantages:

1. You Can Begin Learning The Language Without Recognizing Characters:

From my personal experience, a romanization system allows the student to learn Chinese Mandarin without having to first recognize, know, and remember a lot of characters. I would have never been able to complete my aural comprehension course in Mandarin without Yale romanization.

2. Tones Can Be Taught Through Diacritics on Syllables:

Diacritics in the form of numbers after the syllable or rising and falling lines above the Romanized syllables can be used to successfully teach tones.

3. Dictionaries And Word Lists Can Be Easily Created:

By using Pinyin Romanization today, words can easily be put into alphabetical order, and dictionaries or word lists are created. It is a lot easier to do this than arranging characters by radical and stroke order.

4. Input Into Emails And Other Computer Files:

Spoken Mandarin can easily be inputted into emails and other computer files without the use of special software fonts.

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Using Romanization also has disadvantages which are as follows:

1. It Can Lead to Bad Pronunciation:

Unless a student has an attentive teacher who is always in the correcting mood, a student will learn bad pronunciation. This is because there is interference from the first language in learning a second language. For instance, an English speaker will tend to pronounce "shan" in Mandarin with the vowel sound found in English "can" instead of the Mandarin vowel sound found in English "bon" as in "bonfire."

2. It Can Lead to Bad Usage of Tones:

Reading tones above syllables in Mandarin is a little like reading notes of music. Not everyone can do it. Many persons including myself could never master tones unless we were constantly corrected by our teachers. We all know this is not going to happen. Furthermore, in a lot of Pinyin Chinese texts, tone diacritics do not appear above the syllables.

3. The Ambiguity of Correct Character Usage:

Sounds in Mandarin can have different tones. An example cited earlier in this hub was the word "ma" which had five different meanings for the five different tones. Characters with the same tone can also have different meanings. An example would be "bi" in the fourth tone which can refer to jade, coins, and other meanings.

The study and use of Chinese Mandarin have been an adventure and challenge throughout my life. Romanization systems such as Pinyin are great for the beginning student. The language, however, can not be successfully learned without teachers and friends who give you constant feedback on pronunciation and tones.

Chinese Mandarin Romanization Systems

  • Learning Chinese at DLI in Monterey, California
    Learning Chinese at DLI in Monterey, California, did much to stimulate my interest in learning foreign languages for conversational fluency. It also led to a career with the Chinese language.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn


Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on July 21, 2013:


Thank you very much for reading and commenting on this Chinese Mandarin hub. You are absolutely correct in noting that tonal variations of the same sound like ma change the meaning of words. For example, one of the tones will mean horse, another mother, and still another to scold. Ma is also used at the end of sentences to make sentences. For example, Ni hao ma? How are you? mang ma? Are you busy? Have you learned any Chinese phrases already? What about your daughter? Can she speak Chinese Mandarin? Thanks for voting up this hub and sharing it!

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on July 20, 2013:

Paul, Romanization of the Chinese characters has made it easy for those who know English and wanting to learn the Chinese language, I believe. It is interesting to note how the tonal variations of the same word change the meaning of the word entirely.

Voted up and interesting and shared.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on March 09, 2012:

What you say is true for the world today, but if you really want to read and appreciate classical Chinese literature, it is worthwhile to study the hanzi or traditional long form Chinese characters. Thanks for your comments.

MAO ZEDONG on March 09, 2012:

. hanzi belongs in the Age of Dinosours. Dig a big big big Hole and Bury Hanzi... No civilized uses 80,000 character-block for writings...







that all the world needs...


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