Now that we’ve discussed the characters themselves, it’s time to dive into how Chinese is pronounced. Since characters do not contain direct indication of their pronunciation, Chinese adopted a Romanized system called pinyin (拼音 pīnyīn) to express the pronunciation of individual characters using the Latin alphabet. The word “pīnyīn” is a great example of pinyin because you can see from this example how the latin alphabet is used to sound out the Chinese characters, which literally mean “spell sound.”
Pinyin was first developed as an initiative to improve literacy across China, and I understand that it is also the first thing that Chinese children study in school when learning to associate words they already know with written Chinese. Also, pinyin is used to type Chinese on your phone or computer, which we will discuss more in depth later in this course.
The most important thing you should know about pinyin is that you should never assume a pinyin is pronounced as it would be in English. Pinyin is only a set of approximations of actual sounds, so you cannot trust the Romanized version to be exact. It’s really important that you start out with an understanding of how pinyin is pronounced because you don’t want to enforce bad habits from the beginning.
Side note: Because I was self-teaching, I started out with many mistakes in my pronunciation. I often used Google Translate and other electronically generated audio samples to check my pronunciation. I’ve found that if you listen to these types of pronunciations, it can be easy to nudge yourself into mishearing them if you are already expecting to hear the incorrect sound. However, the same pronunciations can sometimes seem pretty accurate if you go into it with the correct expectations. I will discuss some tips in the next few posts of this course that can help you see the differences between the pinyin sounds.
Now that we’ve introduced pinyin in general, we will discuss the actual pronunciations in depth in the following post.