1. The Most Difficult (and Important) Aspects of Learning Pinyin
Overcoming the most difficult challenges when children learn Chinese Pinyin – the 23 initials, 24 finals, and 16 whole syllables – is the key that opens the door to being able to fully learn the language.
Why is pinyin difficult?
We’re about to get into what makes pinyin so difficult for many new Chinese learners, but don’t be dismayed. You can think of them this way: these are simply aspects of the language that make Chinese unique, and things that add the excitement of learning a new language!
1) For students used to writing in English, pinyin letters often cause confusion… after all, they look the same! However, the pronunciation of pinyin ranges from “slightly” to “vastly” different from English letter pronunciation, so when they first start learning Chinese, children have to work hard to control their initial reactions when they see a letter, and use the correct pronunciation instead!
2) Not only are pinyin pronunciations different from English letter pronunciations, but the actual sounds are unlike any other language! Regardless of what a child’s native language is, if it’s not Chinese then figuring out how to make Chinese language sounds will be a challenge.
3) We’ve talked about the differences between English letter and Chinese pinyin pronunciations, the differences in English and Chinese language sounds, but there’s a third thing that comes into play when speaking Chinese: tones. Tones are rarely found in other languages, and without exception are an added difficulty when learning Chinese.
Let’s be clear, though: these things aren’t difficult just for the sake of being difficult. These aspects of pinyin are exactly what makes the effort worth it!
Once children learn how to tell the difference between pinyin and English letters, they’ll be able to fly through learning new vocabulary and even reading long passages of pinyin text; after they get a hang of how Chinese sounds are made they’ll be able to speak like native Chinese speakers; and once they understand how tones distinguish words from each other, children will really be ready to express themselves how they want AND understand what they’re hearing.
Chinese pinyin are components are divided into “initials” (the beginnings of syllables), “finals” (the ends of the syllables), and “whole syllables” (syllables that cannot be broken down into “initial + final” components).
1) 23 initials:
b p m f d t n l
ɡ k h j q x
zh ch sh r z c s
2) The 24 finals can be divided into:
6 single vowels: ɑ o e i u ü
9 compound vowels: ɑi ei ui ɑo ou iu ie üe er
9 nasal vowels: ɑn en in un ün (5 front nasal vowels) ɑnɡ enɡ inɡ onɡ (4 back nasal vowels)
3) 16 whole syllables:
zhi chi shi ri zi ci xi
yi wu yu ye yue yu yin yun ying
Both of these recommendations make use of animals, since animals are something that children tend to be drawn to, whether in imitation or simply because they’re interesting (and cute!) to look at.
1) Matching sounds with pictures
Combining pinyin sounds with visual cues can help children remember them. For example, showing a picture of a rooster crowing and miming the “o” pinyin sound, or showing a goose swimming and pointing out the word for “goose” is the same sounds as pinyin’s “e”.
2) Telling stories about animals
Really take advantage of the fact that some pinyin letters are pronounced like the sounds certain animals make. For example, when learning the final “ei”, talk about a little boy letting a lamb, and allow the child to imagine they are in the story. What sounds do lambs make? Not quite the “bahhh” of sheep, but more of an “ayy” sound – just like the pinyin final “ei”!
Everyone who learns Chinese has to learn pinyin at some point if they really want to be able to do well. It may not seem fun to have something that “has to be done”, but this means that we can get really creative when teaching children! We’re always finding new ways and fun approaches that help children learn without feeling like they’re in a classroom, and if you do this correctly, they will come to enjoy their time learning Chinese.
“The Perfect Chinese Song for Kindergarten Age Mandarin Learners”
“What Should Parents Do If Children Can’t Pay Attention to Their Teacher in Chinese Class?”
”Are There Any “Best Practices” for Your Child to Learn Chinese?”