The Pinyin blur

The kind of dual-script format (Pinyin above, hanzi below) kids’ book I showed the other day

click to embiggen

…is quite common for books targeted at early elementary kids. Since my daughter has been hiding under the covers with a flashlight to read this one, I thought I’d ask her if she ever read the Pinyin:

“Read what?”

“The Pinyin,” I said, pointing. “I mean, it’s right there, above the characters.”

“Oh yeah,” she laughed. “I kind of don’t really even notice it. It’s like a blurry line.”

“But what if you come to a character you don’t know? Do you look at the Pinyin to learn the pronunciation?”

“Oh no. I just skip it or sometimes I guess it.”

Ah, to be a kid learning Hanzi. Sounds a helluva lot easier than what I’ve gone through. If only I could relax and just guess.

21 responses to “The Pinyin blur”

  1. My kids do the same thing, but I think they check the pinyin when it’s there (possibly because of my telling them that that’s why its there.

    I’m sure all of us English native speakers (at eight years old) would not sweat too much over an unfamiliar English word in our reading, the main difference being that we would have a higher likelihood of arriving at the right pronunciation through guessing. We would not go looking for a dictionary unless there was something about the word that sparked our curiosity (which wouldn’t happen often).

  2. Oh man, I hate having the Pinyin above Hanzi. I always end reading the Pinyin instead of the characters.

  3. Zev Handel says:

    Randy, many of us also have personal stories about incorrect pronunciations of words that resulted from that guessing — some of which stayed with us into adulthood, if the word was seldom used in the spoken language. I remember thinking that the w in ‘dwarf’ must be silent, by analogy with ‘sword’. I thought ‘chaos’ was pronounced with the ordinary English ‘ch’ sound. And I thought ‘misled’ was a past tense form of ‘misle’.

    There was a post earlier — I think by Syz — that talked about how similar mistakes in the reading of Chinese characters can end up turning into common or even standard pronunciations over time.

  4. Syz says:

    @Confused laowai: I completely agree. When I first came across those books I thought they’d be great, but after a while I started actively disliking them. Exactly the opposite of my daughter (and just like you) I can’t tear my eyes away from the line of Pinyin. It’s just too easy. Makes learning characters from such a book almost pointless for me.

    @Zev: “misle” is classic. I’m sure I’ve got dozens, but the one that comes to mind is “debris” which I pronounced in my head for years as, well, /debris/. Thankfully it was my mother (rather than someone I was trying to impress) who discovered this in a conversation and gently corrected me.

  5. I hate those pinyin books for a different reason: the Chinese in them is ridiculously hard! Without a dictionary, I don’t have much problem reading a translated version of Goosebumps with no pinyin, but a pinyinized kid’s version of The Thousand and One Nights or 三国演义 is too full of literary expressions. I can ask my kids or my students what these expressions mean and they have no idea. If it weren’t for the pictures and the dialog (and prior knowledge of the stories from cartoon versions, etc), kids wouldn’t be able to understand the stories at all.

  6. Julen says:

    @Zev @Syz –

    OK guys stop complaining about “misled” and “debris”, at least you had gentle moms who corrected you. Think of us non-native speakers of English who never even lived in an English speaking country. Believe me, English is hell to learn if you’ve got it mostly from books. Only recently I was corrected on words like “endeavour”, and many others I don’t remember right now.

    It is even more embarrassing because my choice of words sometimes makes me sound deliberately pedantic (as I naturally feel more comfy with latin roots than with phrasal verbs). Then people seem to take pleasure in pointing out my pronunciation quirks… I guess that is the main reason why I am not so interested in phonetics, as opposed to Kellen and Syz here.

    In fact, we speak a lot of hanzis here… but I am sure you guys do realize that English words spelling is about as non-phonetic as most Chinese characters?

  7. Randy Alexander says:

    but I am sure you guys do realize that English words spelling is about as non-phoneticphonemic as most Chinese characters?

    As someone who has written a children’s entry-level textbook on the relationship between English spelling and pronunciation, no, I don’t realize that at all. There is a system to English spelling. It’s complex, and broken in places, but there is definitely a system. The system is strong enough that if you mispronounce “endeavor”, anyone would know what you meant.

    Chinese is not like that at all; there is very little relationship between Chinese characters and their pronunciations.

  8. Julen says:

    Dear Randy, your comment sounds like you want to take me to task. I love debates and I will be glad to get into this one, but let me tell you I don’t like your tone.

    I have never hidden that I have no formal training in linguistics, I haven’t written any books, and I am not even an English native speaker. Therefore, I am glad when people corrects me.


    If you are going to go against me I recommend you to at least get a clue of what you are talking about. Because I get the impression that you take me for an ignorant, and if you are not careful you will only prove that you are one yourself.

    First of all, “phonetic” is defined in my dictionary (Oxford) as:

    phonetic: (of a system of writing) having a direct correspondence between symbols and sounds.

    I said phonetic and I meant phonetic, sir, damn it. Your correction is obnoxious.

    Secondly: of course there is a system to English spelling and there is one to Chinese as well. Both scripts ARE largely phonetic at the origin, this is so obvious to any serious linguist that I allowed myself to do a little exaggeration writing “non-phonetic”. Clearly, my point was that in both cases the original phonetic systems are so broken as to be unreliable to the reader.

    Third: you say if I mispronounce “endeavor” everyone would know what I meant, because the writing system is strong (??). In fact this has nothing to do with the writing at all, it has to do with the enormous variety of sound combinations in the English language, which make that most of the words sound distinct.

    No other word in the language sounds “endeevor”, so everyone obviously knew what I was trying to say. Compare this to Chinese, which is very contextual, there are less distinct syllables and it is very to have misunderstandings when you mispronounce a word(see this example story I wrote about this)

    Finally, I don’t want to pick up a fight. I appreciate your writing on this blog, so let’s not make a big deal of this. It would be nice however if those of you with all the rolls of diplomas could give us a break to people like me who spend a big part of our lives studying and thinking about language. Even if we are not professionals we can give useful contributions.

    From my side, I will try to be a bit more careful with my vocabulary and not use lightly words like “non-phonetic” that will set all the grammar Gestapos after me.

  9. Julen says:

    Damn, and on second read I see I used “ignorant” as a noun, taken from my Spanish head. Make that an “idiot”, for the sake of English grammar :)

  10. Randy Alexander says:


    I’m sorry you didn’t like my “tone”. I didn’t intend any “tone”. I don’t take you for an idiot (if I did, I wouldn’t bother responding) or an ignorant (there’s nothing wrong with using “ignorant” as a noun).

    Back to the discussion: English doesn’t pretend to be a phonetic script, which is why I made the correction. If I hadn’t made the correction, then I couldn’t have commented on it in that light. Let’s look at that definition of “phonetic”:

    phonetic: (of a system of writing) having a direct correspondence between symbols and sounds.

    English spelling doesn’t directly correspond to its sounds; it does so indirectly through phonemes. The International Phonetic Alphabet is an example of a phonetic alphabet (though often in dictionaries it is used as a phonemic alphabet), but the alphabet English uses is not.

    Secondly: of course there is a system to English spelling and there is one to Chinese as well.

    I can’t imagine how you are thinking of Chinese characters as ever constituting any kind of “spelling system”. Yes, there are phonetic compounds that were made to give the reader a clue to the pronunciation of the character, but the reader would already have to know what the phonetic component sounded like. At best, that would constitute a kind of syllabary. But even when these characters were classified that way (about 1900 years ago), 82% of characters classified were classified as phonetic compounds, so you would only be given a clue 4 out of 5 times. And over the next nineteen centuries words and characters changed their pronunciation so much that now the “phonetic compound” classification is meaningless to those who need to read the characters.

    In regards to English having a “strong” spelling system: I once took a Chinese girl out on a date and she suggested I eat some particular dish. She said it was good for my [skain]. It didn’t take me longer than ten seconds to realize that she meant “skin”. This is because the letter “i” in English most commonly sounds like /ai/ or /ɪ/. Her mistake was a likely mistake.

    But Chinese doesn’t normally allow for those kinds of mistakes.

    And just to be crystal clear about my main point, Chinese characters do not constitute a spelling system, whether phonetic or phonemic.

  11. Sima says:


    I think you’re quite right. Randy did come across sounding a little pompous. But I think he was just making the point that, like you, he thinks a lot about language. Whilst one or two of the people who contribute, one way or another, to this blog, might have reams of papers to prove their credentials, most of us do not. We’re just a bunch of people fascinated by language.

    Normally, when someone has Randy on the back foot, I jump at the chance to sneak in a couple of rabbit punches myself, but you appear to have the situation quite well under control, so I’ll try to restrain myself for now.

  12. Julen says:

    OK, perhaps I overreacted. But I still think your correction was completely unwarranted. And wrong. Here is why:

    Following you strict definition of “phonetic”, the IPA (and a few similar systems) is the only “phonetic script”.

    If you have read anything on linguistics, you should know that there is also a long tradition of using the term “phonetic writing” in a different sense, as opposed to “ideographic writing”. It means loosely “representing sounds”. Even linguists known for their rigorous work use the term in this way, see for example “The Chinese Language”, by J. deFrancis, check the Glossary where it gives exactly these two definitions.

    Your correction falls right in the field of grammar Nazism, and I would have liked to see the answer of the late J. DeFrancis if you corrected him in this way. Like all engineers know, many technical words have a strict definition and a looser one as well, both are fine when people are intelligent enough to know their limitations. Otherwise I would spend my life correcting people for using the terms “energy” or “force” wrong!!

    In this definition, therefore, both English and Chinese writing had once largely phonetic writing systems.

    I can’t imagine how you are thinking of Chinese characters as ever constituting any kind of “spelling system”.

    Randy, this is low, and silly. Of course there cannot be such a thing as Chinese character “spelling”, the very definition of spelling requires an alphabet! But if you read my sentence carefully you will see I don’t mention “Chinese spelling” at all!!

    Finally, regarding the Chinese writing, you are right it was never entirely phonetic, that is why I said “largely” and “most” in my comments, no surprise there.

    I hate to come across as a thin skinned contributor and I hope this doesn’t stop anyone from correcting me in the future. But please, if you are going to openly attack what I say, then please make sure you have a more solid argument.

  13. Julen says:

    Regarding “ignorant”, when I re-read the post it suddenly sounded very weird, so all my “faux-amis” alarms went off, and I checked a few dictionaries. I didn’t find it anywhere as a noun (the closest noun I found was “ignoramus”).

    But then again, you are the native speaker, so if it sounds right to you then it must be right. English is really a cool language, I dig descriptivism!

  14. Randy Alexander says:


    You said: Secondly: of course there is a system to English spelling and there is one to Chinese as well.

    You are saying that there is a system to:
    1) English spelling
    and there is one to
    2) Chinese _______
    as well.

    If you didn’t mean “Chinese spelling”, then I hope you can see why I took it that way.

  15. Julen says:

    OK, I give you that. You were right to point that out, my phrasing in the first comment was too loose for a linguistic blog, and I will try to pay more attention in the future to avoid confusing other people and myself.

    In exchange for that, I will appreciate it if commentators don’t treat me like they are my primary school grammar teacher. I may know more about language than what is apparent at first sight.

  16. @Julen: if you’re really interested in linguistic debate, please avoid expressions like “get a clue”, “obnoxious”, and “Gestapo”. My only intention is to engage in debate. Name-calling doesn’t belong on this blog.

    I love linguistic debate, even heated linguistic debate. Maybe especially heated linguistic debate. But I don’t like to put ideas forth with no backing.

    It is regrettable that presenting myself as an author of a book on spelling came off as pompous. I didn’t do that to swing any kind of credentials around, but rather to show that I’ve spent a good amount of time looking carefully at how English spelling works.

    I don’t take credentials at face value. There are hundreds of people in the world with PhDs in linguistics from MIT (for example), but I only know of two or three of them, which means that most people with such credentials remain unknown and insignificant in the world of linguistics (from my, perhaps ignorant, standpoint!). On the other hand, there are linguists who I revere who have no formal training. What counts is their ability to analyze, and to put forth good arguments.

    Vamos a participar en un debate académico.*

    *Thanks to Google Translate.

  17. Oh, I forgot! I don’t understand why you say I’m treating you like I’m your “primary school grammar teacher” when we weren’t even talking about grammar. 😉


    In fact, I am a primary school grammar teacher, so I hope you’ll forgive my sounding like one. :)

  18. Julen says:

    I am usually careful not to do name-calling in blogs, because I know how it always ends. I don’t think obnoxious falls under that category, and neither does gestapo, which is obviously in the sense of “grammar nazi”, not of IIWW Nazi. The “get a clue” thing was a bit too much, I admit.

    I appreciate your debate with me, and I wasn’t upset by WHAT you said, just by HOW you said it. Starting a post by scratching my words was patronizing, at least that’s how it sounded to me. Now I realize this might be proper form for a school teacher.

    Anyway let’s not make a big deal of this, it really isn’t. I will continue to read and answer your comments peacefully, like I have always done before.

  19. Zev Handel says:


    “OK guys stop complaining about “misled” and “debris””

    I wasn’t complaining!

    I do appreciate the incredible difficulty that the English writing system presents to non-native speakers, and I sympathize. The world is full of writing systems that are very hard for non-native speakers (French and Chinese are two other examples; Spanish is not).

  20. Julen says:

    Yes, there are a lot of originally phonetic writing systems that are so “broken” nowadays that they are very tricky for non-natives. The reason is that non-natives tend to rely more on reading to learn words, whereas natives learn most words primarily through listening.

    But I would point out in your last paragraph that English is not just one of those systems. It is “the” system in European languages that is by far most broken. I am very familiar with French writing and it is still far from the situation of English. Other languages I have seen, including Germanic, Latin, Slavic, are still largely close to the sounds they represent. I think you would be hard pressed to find a system in Europe – or even in the World – that is as “broken” as the English writing system.

    And that was the point of my remark at the end of my first comment: Chinese and English have this in common, that in both writing systems most symbols where initially phonetic, but nowadays they don’t give reliable info on how to pronounce the words.

    Here is an example: you just have to learn the pronunciation of “Gloucester” by heart, just like you have to learn that of “通”, in both cases the writing doesn’t tell you how to say it properly unless you have previously learnt and memorized the word and the symbol to represent it.

    I am not saying that English is as bad as Chinese in this respect (the letters in English still give you more info on pronunciation than Chinese characters). But I have good reasons to think that, among the alphabetic writing systems, English is probably the one that most resembles Chinese in this “non-phoneticness”.

  21. Kellen Parker says:

    ( I like phonetics quite a bit. just for the record. )

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