What is Pinyin?

If your kiddos are in immersion you may have heard the term Pinyin, pronounced "ping-ing". What is it and where did it come from? It almost feels like yet another language on top of the Chinese character my child is learning. It kind of is! The letters/words you often see above or below a Chinese character are called the Pinyin. 

The summer before my son started Mandarin Immersion Kindergarten, I wanted to get him some Chinese books, coloring books or simple number, letter or animal books. I got frustrated when I couldn't figure out what to buy because I didn't understand how the language exactly worked. I ended up refraining from buying anything at all. I didn't want to buy him something none of us understood and definitely DID NOT want to pass along my frustration of not knowing or understanding Chinese. I wanted his kindergarten experience to be authentic and positive with no other preconceptions. 

Formally called Hanyu Pinyin, Pinyin is the system used to translate Mandarin sounds into the Roman Alphabet. Different, of course, from the characters used to actually write Mandarin Chinese. Pinyin was created in the 1950’s for a variety of uses, the ease of teaching, typing on the computer and now your smart phone as well as transcribing names and words into the roman alphabet. It is not the first system of its kind however, in the first part of the twentieth century a different system was used. 

For example, the english color red, is written in the Mandarin character form  红色, and the associated Pinyin for "red" is  Hóngsè.

You may be wondering what those accent marks are over the pinyin word. Those accents are called tones, there are four tones and they represent how the letters in a word are pronounced. Super important since the same Chinese character can mean different things when pronounced differently. There's an entire blog post dedicated to "tones".  I will tell you though, my son tried to pull one over on me this year in relation to this very topic! We were practicing his 2nd grade spelling test words one afternoon and he was leaving off the tone marks. When I asked him why, he told me that they weren't important. I knew better! He was shocked when I confronted him and to make a long story short, we now also speak his spelling words as a part of practicing these tones.

Also note, many of the translated letter sounds are similar in English but some sounds are very very different. For example, the letter x is pronounced more like sh in shy. The letter c will be pronounced more like ts in cats.  If you can get your hands on the Usborne book, First Thousand Words in Chinese, it is a great resource for these pronunciation differences.  The book is no longer in print, so try to find it used somewhere.

Now, if only it was that easy to actually read and speak Mandarin! I found this really great Mandarin Chinese Pinyin chart with audio online. Check it out to learn more!


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