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Pinyin is a Romanization system used to learn Mandarin. It transcribes the sounds of Mandarin using the Western (Roman) alphabet. Pinyin is most commonly used in Mainland China for teaching school children to read and it is also widely used in teaching materials designed for Westerners who wish to learn Mandarin.
Pinyin was developed in the 1950's in Mainland China and is now the official Romanization system of China, Singapore, the US Library of Congress, and the American Library Association. Library standards allow for easier access to documents by making it easier to locate Chinese language materials. A worldwide standard also facilitates the exchange of data between institutions in various countries.
Learning Pinyin is important. It provides a way to read and write Chinese without using Chinese characters - a major hurdle for most people who want to learn Mandarin.
Pinyin provides a comfortable base for anyone trying to learn Mandarin: it looks familiar. Be careful though! The individual sounds of Pinyin are not always the same as English. For example, 'c' in Pinyin is pronounced like the 'ts' in 'bits'.
Here's an example of Pinyin: Ni hao. This means “hello” and is the sound of these two Chinese characters: 你好
It is essential to learn all the sounds of Pinyin. This will provide the foundation for proper Mandarin pronunciation and will allow you to learn Mandarin more easily.
The four Mandarin tones are used for clarifying the meaning of words. They are indicated in Pinyin with either numbers or tone marks:
- ma1 or mā (high-level tone)
- ma2 or má (rising tone)
- ma3 or mǎ (falling-rising tone)
- ma4 or mà (falling tone)
Tones are important in Mandarin because there are many words with the same sound. Pinyin should be written with tone marks to make the meaning of the words clear. Unfortunately, when Pinyin is used in public places (like on street signs or store displays) it usually does not include the tone marks.
Here is the Mandarin version of “hello” written with tons marks: nǐ hǎo or ni3 hao3.
Pinyin is not perfect. It uses many letter combinations which are unknown in English and other Western languages. Anyone who has not studied Pinyin is likely to mispronounce the spellings.
Despite its shortcomings, it's best to have a single system of Romanization for the Mandarin language. Before the official adoption of Pinyin, the differing Romanization systems created confusion about the pronunciation of Chinese words.