This month’s research question was posed by Angela Xu and Abby Brody.
Unlike an alphabet, Chinese characters do not tell you how to pronounce the word. Take, for instance, the similar characters 王 and 玉. These two are in fact pronounced quite differently: wáng and yù, respectively. To help address this challenge, the romanization system of pinyin was invented in the 1950s as a way of writing character pronunciations using the Roman alphabet and tonal markers. Adding pinyin to Mandarin language instruction raises questions about its influence on the learning of Chinese characters and on language learning in general.
Young English native-speakers in Chinese immersion programs are most influenced by these questions. Teaching pinyin to young learners who have not yet mastered English phonics could potentially interfere and cause confusion. After all, it is not at all obvious why the same letter would be pronounced differently. Fearing such interference, many immersion programs adopt the practice of waiting to introduce pinyin until grade 2. This practice contrasts with that of elementary schools in China, and secondary schools and colleges in the U.S., which do not delay the introduction of pinyin, and which in fact occasionally adopt the opposite practice of starting with pinyin and later introducing characters. Is delaying the introduction of pinyin for young native-English speakers supported by the research literature?
While research is scarce on whether pinyin benefits mandarin literacy in lower elementary immersion programs, there is a body of research that addresses closely related questions. This research can inform our current practice and subsequent research.
For young native-English speakers, how does pinyin impact English literacy?
Since pinyin uses the same alphabet as other foreign languages, more general bi-literacy research is relevant. While the research shows different results depending on learners’ native and target languages, overall no compelling evidence exists supporting the concern of interference when learning two spelling systems at the same time. In the case of Chinese, one study compared the spelling of sounds between Mandarin-English bilingual 5-6 year-olds who had a primary language (L1) of either Mandarin or English. Results: Mandarin L1 learners showed difficulty with English-only sounds, but not those of Mandarin. This suggests that learning pinyin and English simultaneously does not harm one’s native language.
How does learning pinyin influence Mandarin phonological awareness?
Phonological awareness is the ability to distinguish and combine a language’s sound units, such as syllables, rhyming, and alliteration. Phonological awareness is considered a reliable predictor of early reading success across languages. Multiple studies have found that for native Chinese children, pinyin instruction improves phonological awareness in Mandarin. Does pinyin benefit the phonological awareness of Mandarin for native English learners? The jury is still out, though currently unpublished research by Caihua Xu and colleagues from Beijing Normal University and The University of Hong Kong suggest positive effects. Results: for K-1 Chinese students learning Mandarin, pinyin instruction improves phonological awareness of Mandarin. For K-1 English students learning Mandarin, the effects of pinyin on phonological awareness of Mandarin are yet to be determined, though unpublished research suggests it may be beneficial.
How does learning pinyin influence pronunciation?
Some theories of language acquisition suggest that showing students pinyin and characters simultaneously strains working memory and results in poorer pronunciation recall. To test this, students aged 13-14 were quizzed using vocabulary cards showing only a Chinese character or showing a character with English and pinyin. A card was selected randomly and students were asked how to pronounce the character. If they pronounced it incorrectly then one of two methods of correction were tested: they were either shown the pinyin or told to listen closely to the pronunciation and repeat. Students were evaluated based on the number of correct responses and number of attempts until correct pronunciation. Results: students achieved better pronunciation when seeing Chinese characters alone followed with pinyin feedback. Best results were achieved with visual feedback versus verbal-only feedback.
How does learning pinyin before characters influence learning characters?
College students in an introductory Mandarin course were split into two groups. Group 1 began learning Chinese characters and pinyin simultaneously. Group 2 first began by learning pinyin and only began learning characters after three weeks. The two groups were compared with the same tests in terms of listening comprehension, phonetic discrimination, grammar, and oral fluency in conversation. Results: after one semester group 2 scored higher on pinyin transcription, and after one year scored higher in oral fluency.
How does pinyin fluency influence learning characters?
Given the tool of pinyin, educators may worry that learners will use pinyin as a crutch that will hinder their motivation and ability to learn characters. To evaluate this concern, beginning students of Mandarin aged 12-14 were randomly selected and given tasks evaluating their level of ability in character recognition, pinyin, and listening. They also completed surveys about how much time they spent learning pinyin and practicing characters. Results: pinyin ability and time spent studying pinyin were not correlated with character recognition.
No credible evidence exists suggesting that pinyin detracts from the learning of characters or other areas of the language, or that delaying pinyin instruction for K-1 learners is beneficial to learning Mandarin. However, more research is needed with regard to early native English learners. To this end, Angela Xu, Immersion Coordinator for Avenues ELC/LS, has initiated a potential collaboration between the Tiger Works R&D group and Professor Caihua Xu from Beijing Normal University to conduct such research. This longitudinal study will be led by Angela and will explore the effects of introducing pinyin to first graders in 2016–17.
- “Effects of Pinyin and First Language Words in Learning of Chinese Characters as a Second Language” by Kevin Chung, Journal of Behavioral Education, 2003,12(3), 207–223.
- “Effects of Pinyin Learning on Development of Phonological Awareness in Kindergarten” by Ren Ping, Xu Fen, and Zhang Ruiping, Acta Psychologica Sinica, 2006, 38(1), 41–46.
- “Effects of Time Lag in the Introduction of Characters Into the Chinese Language Curriculum” by Jerome Packard, The Modern Language Journal, 1990, 74(2), 167–175.
- “The Relation Between Children’s Phonological Awareness and Ability of Pinyin in Primary School” by Xu Fen and Ren Ping, Chinese Journal of Applied Psychology, 2004, 10(4), 22–27.
- “The Role of Pinyin Proficiency in the Acquisition of L2 Vocabulary Among English-Speaking Secondary School Learners of Chinese” by Andy Castro, Doctoral Dissertation at University of Sheffield, 2014.
- “Shared Orthography: Do Shared Written Symbols Influence the Perception of L2 Sounds?” by Carolyn Pytlyk, The Modern Language Journal, 2011, 95(4), 541-557.
- “Phonemic Representation and Early Spelling Errors in Bilingual Children” by Stephanie H. M. Yeong and Susan J. Rickard Liow, Scientific Studies of Reading, 2010, 14(5), 387-406.