11 January 2008

Mandarin teaching alphabet

The Chinese written language consists of thousands of characters. The western world learns these with the help of "pinyin", which tries to represent the different sounds of the language using the Latin alphabet.

The Chinese also learn their written language with the help of an alphabet. It consists of 37 sounds and looks like:

The symbols are in order from top to bottom, right to left. They are pronounced (roughly):

r aan ie ah eee tzih jü jee guh duh buo
en ay oh ooo tsih chü chee kuh tuh puo
ong ow uh ü sih shü shee huh nuh muo
oeng oe eh ür luh fuo

... so while English-speaking schoolchildren are reciting "ay bee cee dee" their Chinese-speaking counterparts are reciting "buo puo muo fuo." (There might actually be other non-English European-language weird letters with umlauts or whatnot that better represent the sounds, but unfortunately the only one I know is ü.)

I learned the teaching alphabet as a kid. Unfortunately, I learned it so well that I failed to learn the actual characters they were next to, because it was easier to just use the crutch than memorize the real character. Thus, I'm functionally illiterate. I also only barely speak Mandarin - basically at the level of an 8 year old kid - which is just enough to get by with the non-English-speaking fellow workers at the Chinese takeout if I use a lot of hand waving.

The most useful thing I've ever done with this bit of knowledge was to help someone translate some arcane Buddhist texts. It was filled with rare words that she didn't know, but it did come with the teaching alphabet next to them. As she was perfectly literate with all of the actual characters, she'd forgotten the teaching alphabet. So I read everything out loud, having no clue what I was saying, and then she was able to take lots of notes and explain it back to me.


Janiece Murphy said...

MWT, don't feel bad. I have no gift for language, and sometimes, I don't even speak English very well.

I admire people who are bi or tri-lingual. It boggles my mind.

Michelle K said...


From that I'm guessing that you're around my age.

It seems like that for awhile parents who were not originally native to the US would not teach their their kids to speak their native language. (My best friend and his brother didn't learn Spanish until their parents put them on a plane for Spain to spend the summer with their grandparents, who spoke no English).

But now, most of my friends who were not originally English speakers make sure their kids are bi-lingual from the start, and immersed in both cultures as much as possible. (This would would to occasionally confusion when one friend's son would accidentally slip into Chinese.)

I suppose it's similar to people taking "English" names, because they are afraid American's can't pronounce their names. (That always seemed the height of American ignorance to me--I'm sorry, you must change your name because I can't be bothered to learn to pronounce your real name.)

Oops. Was that a non-sequitur?

John the Scientist said...

Zhuyin are only used in Taiwan - the Da Lu uses only Pinyin. We do a bo - po - mo - fo drill before bedtime every night.

I have lots of arguments with my wife about the future of Chinese orthography. I think Chinese ought borrow a page from the Vietnamese and switch over to only Zhuyin with diacritics for the tones, and drop the Hanzi altogether. I don't think the Pinyin do the Chinese language justice, either in the Wade-Giles or the form used by the Mainland. But the Hanzi were developed in order to restrict literacy, not promote it, and ought to be dropped altogether. As a taditionalist, you can imagine what my wife thinks about this.

I agree with her that the simplified characters are an abomination, as they make what used to be disparate characters look the same, confusing the heck even out of educated Chinese. My wife used to get into etymological arguments with people who had M.Sc.s from the Mainland. She almost always won, with only a 6th grade education from Taiwan.

Did you go to a Chinese school on the weekends as a child? We are facing this problem with my kids - so far they speak only Mandarin at home, but at some point we need to step up the education. The wife is teaching Hanzi the old school way, and the local Chinese school is full of Communists, so they use the simplified characters. That, plus the fact that when we went to the first day of classes, the ten year olds didn't speak as well as my five year old (and used English when the teacher was not around), pretty much kiboshed the local Chinese school for us.

I think I'm going to have to get myself transferred to Taipei or Singapore.

John the Scientist said...

Michelle - "But now, most of my friends who were not originally English speakers make sure their kids are bi-lingual from the start."

Maybe the educated Chinese do this, but those who are not University grads still push English on their kids because they think that is all they would need to get ahead in America. Nothing makes my wife madder than Chinese speaking to their kids in heavily accented English. As she says, the kid will learn English in school anyway, it's keeping Chiense up that will be a chore as they hit high school.

At the University you see the very top of Chinese-American society (excluding Old Money Overseas Chiense, who, from what I can tell, also enforce Cantonese at home).

I think MWT might have some varying perceptions on the blingual issue, as do I. (My wife's mother ran a restaurant before retiring.)

MWT said...

Janiece: Your command of English seems plenty good to me! Your blog is certainly well-written - expresses what you're trying to express, entertaining to read, etc.

Also, I don't feel especially bad about not knowing much Mandarin. It'd make things easier when I'm visiting Chinese-speaking places of course, and sometimes it's a neat party trick, but on the whole I look at it more as one of those horizon-broadening things. And it did come in handy when I took Tibetan in college.

I do envy people who pick up other languages easily, though. The former takeout manager was picking up on a lot of Spanish because we have a lot of Hispanic customers who don't speak English (some days the takeout is a veritable Tower of Babel). This in addition to her English, Mandarin, and Fujian.

Meanwhile, I've also picked up a few Croatian words due to sharing a chat channel with a language enthusiast in Croatia - that's been pretty nifty too. :)

As a general rule, I don't like the way languages are widely taught in schools. Grammar drills do nothing for me. It's not how anyone learns their first language, and I do better if I get it in hear-speak-read-write order. It's how my first-year Tibetan class went, and I enjoyed doing it that way immensely; I certainly remember much more of it than any of the French I was forced to take in high school.

Michelle: I'm 34. And no problems on non sequiturs, as we already know you're seemingly-random. ;) For my family it was the other way around - my mother was really big on trying to make us learn Mandarin, but we kids didn't see the point when we were completely surrounded by English. My siblings ended up taking Chinese in college (probably for easy A's :p), but as I was saying about school-taught languages to Janiece...

[I'm beginning to understand why Jim Wright likes to write tons of little comments in a row instead of one big one; this window is friggin' tiny. I'll stop here and do a separate one for John...]

Nathan said...

I used to speak Hebrew fluently and read it passably if they left the vowels in. (Hebrew vowels are represented by dots and lines placed over or under the consonants and they leave them out for anything meant to be above 2nd or 3rd grade level.) I never could read a Hebrew newspaper to save my life.

I haven't used it since the end of the 70's when I lived for half a year in Israel.

Recently I was at a restaurant and the couple at the next table were speaking in Hebrew. I was shocked to realize I couldn't even figure out when one word ended and the next began, much less be able to follow the conversation.

Not that I need it, but I'm really not happy about having forgot it.

MWT said...

John the Scientist: According to the Wikipedia page on Zhuyin, there are several Taiwanese languages that do use it as their actual written language.

As for me, I'm kind of in the "keep it in traditional form" camp (though my opinion is probably based more on my mother's biases than any in-depth thinking it over). Unlike English, there aren't variant ways to spell words that sound the same when spoken out loud - so how would you tell the difference between them? Wouldn't that be the same kind of confusion as for the simplified forms, only worse?

On the other hand, attempting to convey correct characters over the phone can be a major endeavor; one time my mother was trying to explain to a florist which characters made up a number of peoples' names, so they would know what to put on the flowers. It took like 20 minutes. In English, spelling things out would've been straightforward and simple.

And yes we did go to a weekend Chinese school. Basically it was my mother and a bunch of her friends, plus people from the local university, who all got together to educate all of us together. We were doing traditional words. You might have to look around a bit to find other people in your town who are also traditional-minded, and form a separate community for it.

MWT said...

Nathan: yeah, lack of use will cause it to all go away eventually. But if you keep hanging around Hebrew-speaking people long enough, it'll start coming back. The order you forget is in reverse of how you learned it - first writing, then reading, then speaking, then comprehension.

My most annoying problem with Mandarin is that part of my brain remembers what it was like to speak it fluently, and so I proceed as if I can. But then I run full-speed into a blank spot where some vocabulary has completely vanished, and I probably look a lot like I have aphasia. It's really really annoying. That's when the handwaving starts, until the other person figures out what word I'm stalled out on, tells it to me, and then I'll light up and say "yes! that!" Working at the takeout has definitely improved my Mandarin overall. ;)

John the Scientist said...

" Unlike English, there aren't variant ways to spell words that sound the same when spoken out loud - so how would you tell the difference between them? Wouldn't that be the same kind of confusion as for the simplified forms, only worse?"

For single characters, absolutely. But Mandarin is not a monosyllabic language, as a lot of Westerners think - it's actually more like German, in that it strings compound words together from multiple roots to form polysyllabic words.

Every time I go to a frigin' dictionary to look up a commonly-used character I get five or 6 different meanings, and the meaning in any given context is either determined by the character before or after the one I'm looking up in the word I'm trying to define. Hanzi represent morphemes more than they do words, although often a morpheme can be a word used on its own.

The meaning of true monosyllabic homonyms (both sound and tone the same) would be determined in the written form exactly as it is in spoken - from the context of the polysllabic word. Even now when I hear Chinese people explain an unclear word they say "AB" de "B" to explain "B", where "AB" is a compound word and "A" and "B" are morphemes represented by a single Hanzi. That's how the Vietnamese "pinyin" system works (they ditched Hanzi long ago for the crime of being Chinese).

Am I making any sense?

John the Scientist said...

A few other thoughts - I don't think aboriginal languages are tonal, so they had no problem adopting Zhuyin. I didn't know they used it, because I've never seen it written. The ones I've talked to spoke Taiwanese well, but Mandarin not so much. They all hate GMD / Mainlanders, anyway. My wife has aboriginal blood in her.

And I've never seen the Zhuyin in the top-down / right left of Hanzi. Our learning tools from Taiwan always present them in the right to left horizonatal script of a Chinese newspaper. Did you learn them that way? We have something that looks like an abacus. Little wooden squares rotate on dowels. On one side is the Zhuyin, on the other side is a picture of something that starts with that Zhuyin, the Hanzi, and the zhuyin fuhao for the entire word next to the Hanzi. The five-year-old (and by extension, me) gets drilled on that every night. They are in the left-right order.

We'll homeschool for Chinese until there are enough traditionalists in the area. I'm serious about going back to Asia for a stint - I already spent 2 years in Japan.

I think good Chinese and perfect English is going to be pretty important for my kids' mental well-being. They're going to run into their share of "half-breed" s#$t from both Chinese and Americans, so as my wife tells them, they are going to need to be better than the average bear in both languages. We were at a party a few weeks ago in Chinatown, and one of the Cantonese ABCs mentioned that she was embarassed that the 5 year old spoke better Mandarin than her. That repect goes a long way towards batting down the natural Chiense - what would you call it? Superiority complex? Xenophobia? Racism? Something else, with elements of each? You know what I mean.

John the Scientist said...

This is what we've got, but ours doesn't have the abacus on top, and the pictures are nicer on the back.

John the Scientist said...

ARRGH. Our learning tools always present them in the horizontal LEFT to RIGHT order of a Chinese newspaper. Otherwise that comment makes no sense.

MWT said...

Right I know all that. But I don't see how using Zhuyin instead would make this better than how it is now. You'd still be taking away uniqueness in a written word, which would just add to the usual confusions, not subtract from them.

(an episode of Atlantis later, I see there are now three more comments)

Yes, the way I wrote it down in the original post is the order and arrangement I learned was "right." Recited, there's a singsong rhythm to it, too (kind of like singing the ABC song I suppose). But we didn't have fancy toys. We had pencils and paper.

The few Cantonese people I know (mostly in or from Hong Kong) aren't all that good with Mandarin, as it's just something they were required to learn in school but don't normally use in everyday life. Everyone in Hong Kong speaks Cantonese, not Mandarin. I expect it'd be the same no matter which Chinese province you're in; there's one older guy at the takeout who only speaks Fujian, for example (we can't communicate with each other at all :) ). So it isn't really unusual that your kids might be better at Mandarin than someone who was raised on Cantonese.

And yes, the Chinese do have their racial/ethnic superiority complex. My mother sure does. ;) Unfortunately, for the hardcore ones, no amount of accentless fluent Mandarin will overcome their notion that the kid is an unusually impressive clever outsider.

Michelle K said...

John the Scientist,

Most of my Chinese friends were very well educated, but there are one or two who fought for the educations. And the vast majority of them are permanent residents of either the US or Canada, and many plan to return to China eventually , so they want their kids *fluent* so they won't be lost when visit.

(As another aside, I think the most telling comment came from one of my very good friends, who said that she planned to return to China once the government had changed as she and all her friends were certain it would [this conversation was back in the late 90s BTW)

But I don't see the trend towards learning languages young just in my Chinese friends. My friend who learned Spanish by being sent to his grandparent's knowing only how to say "I am sick" has already started teaching his one-year old Spanish.

Another friend was very excited about one of the day care programs she was looking at for her baby, because not only will they teach the babies sign language, they will also have programs for many languages for the slightly older toddlers.

But of course I do live in a college town, so the attitudes towards languages and education are extremely different.

Me, I wish I could speak and read another language. I remember enough French that I can parse out some things, and I learned a tiny bit of Spanish (because I was tired to my friend talking in Spanish solely to annoy me) and I can sometimes even parse out Latin phrases, but nothing I know would help me if I were dumped into another country without a translator.

Oh, and other than names, I know one single Chinese word. zou yao (?)--lard--because of this picture.

John the Scientist said...

mwt - the language skills aren't so other people accept them. I'm a Southerner, I know exactly how certain minds are never going to change about race, and it's no good to even try. Even up here the Daughters of the American Revolution keep that kind of pedigree-minding that the Founders tried to eliminate by eliminating aristocracy. And as it turns out, my daughter is eligible for the DAR.

A Chinese-named girl is never going to be really accepted into the DAR no matter hwo good her English, and the boy will probably be the only member of Sons of Confederate Veterans with a Chinese first name, too (and Sons of Union Veterans for that matter, my family was just as split as many others).

The Chinese is so that they can say they were proud to talk to their GMD veteran grandfather in his own tongue, and internally they can brush off the taunts of others as empty jealousy.

Susan said...
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MWT said...


While your spam comment said something that I found interesting, and was even vaguely related to the topic, I'd like to suggest that you try obtaining permission from the hosts of the blogs before you spam them.

I would also like to suggest that you get your website into some semblance of working order, with clear contact information, before you put the info up anywhere else.

My email address is available in the sidebar. If you'd like to try again or have me undelete your comment, contact me there first.