Whether or not to teach zhuyin vs pinyin is something I’ve struggled with for several years. I can clearly see that pinyin is something we need to learn in the long term because China is so much bigger. Yet at the same time, there is a “But zhuyin is better!” refrain I often hear from people who have learned zhuyin as a child. And sometimes it feels like there is an underlying UNSPOKEN statement of “But China is better!” vs. “But Taiwan is better!” depending on which system you use.
I will stop here and just state my preference. In a bilingual environment, I think zhuyin should be taught alongside or after characters between 3-6. Then pinyin eventually added in, maybe after 3rd grade. I personally use pinyin to type now, after trying to use the Taiwanese tongyong pinyin for a few years. Pinyin in any form is not intuitive to me. But I find it much easier to type than zhuyin. One reason is because I learned how to type in English first. The zhuyin combo is just too slow for me. It’s clear that if English will be eventually your stronger language, then you will probably use pinyin. Another thing is that sometimes I can’t distinguish between the different sounds in two words that sound similar because /ng/ and /n/ aren’t pronounced very distinctly in Taiwanese Chinese. So having the English pinyin actually helps.
So what is zhuyin?
Zhuyin is the phonetic system that was developed in China in the early 1900s. It has 37 characters. It’s divided into 3 main groups, consonants, rhymes, and medials. I like to think of rhymes and medials as vowels. During my research I found out several interesting things that was not in the English Wikipedia. The symbols are “Underlying representation” rather than “Surface Representation“. This means that the symbols can change pronunciation when you combine them with other symbols. It isn’t always exactly one sound per symbol. You know someone has internalized the phonological rules if they don’t actually notice the difference when combing the symbols together to pronounce a word. What a revelation! It explains why sometimes I cannot find the right zhuyin to spell as an adult but if I were to see it combined, I know intuitively how it should sound.
Another interesting thing about zhuyin is that when medials are at the beginning of a sound, they change pronunciation. So typically a few combo medials+rhymes are taught as a set. For example, ㄧ, is pronounced as /i/, as in ㄅㄧ /bi/. But at the beginning of a combo, it changes to /y/ sound, like ㄧㄝ /ye/.
My decision to go with Zhuyin
Zhuyin, pinyin, or none? I went back and forth for a few years until Thumper learned about 150-200 Chinese characters by age 6 and only watched Chiao Hu zhuyin lessons but was never formally taught. I was much against her not learning zhuyin at the beginning but I found this way the best because we’re in the US. If she had to learn her characters starting at age 6, then it’s too late for her. Her English level is strong enough at this point and once you learn English phonics you’re already mostly there to reading. She would then prefer reading in English than Chinese.
About 60% of the reason I’m going with Zhuyin is because I learned it as a child. There just is something to be said about teaching what you learned. It’s easier. I feel like it’s somewhat blasphemous for saying it out loud (see intro reasons above). But I’ve decided to boldly admit it to myself. Other reasons (the ones I tell other people) are:
- It helps with pronunciation. I see this again and again with children who are learning Mandarin as a second language. Really they should have almost perfect pronunciation but they don’t because no phonics are taught. Whenever I’ve broken down the phonics of a word and ask them to repeat, I find that they pronounce the words perfectly. This is why I advocate phonics strongly. You don’t even have to learn it formally, just at least introduce the phonics.
- Related to #1, with zhuyin you are not biased with English phonics. It may not make too much of a difference to young children. I’ve heard of examples where child isn’t confused when taught pinyin and English phonics concurrently and also of ones where it confuses them. I figured if you want to teach it to them before age 6, which is when they are also learning English phonics, then might as well learn zhuyin instead. I’ve always also wondered why there is such a debate over learning zhuyin. When you learn Japanese or Korean you have to learn hiragana/katagana or the Korean alphabet. If you know English phonics it can interfere with pronouncing the words well.
- My books all have zhuyin in them.
- The characters are based in Chinese characters. So learning to write zhuyin is having really writing simplified Chinese. It helps with writing in general later on.
- I like the fact that it takes at most 3 sounds to pronounce a word. English words has various syllable lengths. But Chinese only has one, made up of 3 “sounds” at most, plus tones. And you can clearly see it with zhuyin. But if you were to use pinyin, you would first need to decode multiple sounds in English combined to make one Chinese sound. For example, /ai/ for ㄞ.
- A phonetic system needs to be introduced so the children are familiar with how to put words together phonetically. This will help when they need to learn English phonics.
How is Zhuyin taught typically?
The way they taught zhuyin when I was a child was to sound it out from beginning to end, just like English. For 3 letter sounds, you sound out last 2 letters (medial+rhyme), then add first letter (consonant). The way they do it now, for a consonant+rhyme combo, is to add the tone first to the rhyme, then add the consonant. For three consonant+medial+rhyme combo, you do medial+rhyme combo, then add tone, then add consonant. So for example, ㄅㄚˋ you say, ㄚˋ, ㄅㄚˋ. This is a better way because again, medials change sound when it’s in front of a rhyme. So if the child just learns the medial+rhyme combo as ONE sound, they don’t have as much trouble when combing them together. I definitely see this with Thumper, who ran into this problem.
We went to Mandarin Kids camp for 12 weeks (we missed 2) while in Taiwan to learn zhuyin. This is meant as a remedial course for children who have learned to read zhuyin but can’t put them together. I had an enlightening conversation with the teacher. In hindsight, now that I know that zhuyin is a underlying representation symbol, what she said makes sense. The way they teach zhuyin in the class is to just read, read, and read. They go through one short paragraph a week, work on individual word combos or sounds for that lesson, then just read. The teacher says they don’t teach HOW to combine the sounds together like the way we were taught as children. Maybe it’s because the children already learned it in school. But after 12 weeks, the children, who have read enough words, create and internalize the rules and most know how to read. In a way, it’s the whole word system of reading instead of the phonics system.
Before introducing zhuyin
Because Thumper is such a strong auditory learner, she actually learned how to spell before she learned her zhuyin. Though Astroboy is much more visual, I’ve trying to do the same with him. This is a learning philosophy I’ve gradually come to realize should be the way to go. Language is first and foremost listening and speaking. Then human invented writing and reading. Sometimes there is such an emphasis on the latter two, we forget that without the listening and speaking as a strong foundation, learning the mechanics of reading and writing doesn’t mean you know the content.
Similarly with zhuyin. I started around ages 2 and 3 talking about what sound a word starts with. ㄅㄚ, ㄅ, ㄅ, ㄅ, ㄅㄚ/ba, b, b, b, ba/. Around age 4, we started spelling. ㄅㄚ, ㄅ, ㄚ, ㄅㄚ /ba, b, a, ba/. I would randomly verbally show her how a word could be spelled. Again, since it takes at most 3 sounds to make up a character, it was actually SUPER easy for Thumper to pick up spelling. She got it after a few tries. What’s amazing is that she did not learn zhuyin the phonics way but she still got it. We only really need to teach her how to READ zhuyin when the time came, and how to combine it together visually.
Contrast this with Astroboy, who I’m teaching zhuyin as a 4 year old. As a second child (i.e. not as much time to devote to him), and one who has been much later than his sister in gaining verbal skills, I have not prepped him for learning zhuyin. So now, we actually need to really spend the time to teach the sound of each symbol, teach the concept of beginning sounds, and have him practice putting the symbols together; basically teaching him how to read. This will definitely take more time than the way Thumper learned. He is also a more visual learner so I think this way suits him fine, but I can see through our lessons that if he had the oral preparation, he will get the concept much faster.
How to teach Zhuyin
Typically, children learn zhuyin by its name. For example, ㄅ (B) is pronounced /beh/. However, a better way, similar to how we teach English phonics, is to teach the phonetic sounds. So you would pronounce ㄅ (B) as a soft b sound. In Montessori primary language, you introduce the symbols by their sounds. And if children ask, as they will because they are usually taught the other way, you say those are the NAME of the symbol. For example, when showing ㄅ, you point to it and say, /b/.
Every material you encounter will introduce zhuyin by name, so we have to make our own material. I still let Astroboy watch Chiao Hu, which teaches zhuyin. But I don’t teach it that way. It saddens me I bought a lot of video and audio materials for teaching zhuyin and now I can’t use them.
You also introduce the symbols non sequentially. There is no need to teach it as ㄅ /b/, ㄆ /p/, ㄇ /m/, ㄈ /f/. This has no bearing on how it’s actually used. Teachers have confirmed this to me. A child can learn the names of all the zhuyin, but they can’t put it together. Instead, introduce them as a word. In English you do the consonant-vowel-consonant (cvc) combo. In zhuyin, you can do the cv combo.
Here is the order that Astroboy has learned them.
Day 1 – ㄅ /b/, ㄚ /a/
Day 2 – ㄇ /m/, ㄚ /a/
Day 3 – ㄏ /h/, ㄚ /a
ㄚ is a great first rhyme to introduce because so many words end in ㄚ. Especially words children are familiar with (ㄅㄚ /ba/, ㄇㄚ/ma/). I will most likely introduce the medials, ㄧ, ㄨ, ㄩ after ㄚ. They are a special group of characters that can go either way, as a beginning or ending sound. There are lots of word combos that you can introduce once you introduce the medials and ㄚ.
For consonants, we’re basically doing father, mother, sister, brother, and their own names first. Astroboy LOVES pointing to ㄏ /h/ and saying, “This is my name!” I also ask him which words he wants to learn how to spell, introduce them if they are 2 symbol combos. I usually then review the 2 symbols by showing them with other symbols he’s already learned.
We are not quite doing it the Montessori way yet because we’re only learning this on the iPad through the kdraw program, during swim practice. He gets bored after about 15 minutes and I’m not pushing it. I don’t want to make the same mistake I did with Thumper, which was to push a bit too hard and now she resists reading.
I also have not introduced the tones yet. I think I really should. But since I have not done so verbally, I don’t want to confuse him by showing it visually yet. It’s adding a new layer of difficulty that is a bit beyond him right now.
Astroboy actually has been exposed to zhuyin for 3 years before I formally started the introduction. I shall write another post about Montessori way of introducing phonics, some sample activities, in another post. (coming soon!)