I'm designing a curriculum to teach middle school students elementary Chinese. When I started learning, I began with Traditional Chinese characters and pinyin together on day one. I'm not so sure the typical student would like getting thrown into having to remember both pinyin and characters.

That being said, I was going to start off teaching basic grammatical structures and vocabulary using pinyin only. Have them practice those words and get used to pinyin as its own entity. Once they're very familiar with pronunciation of pinyin along with the tones, I will later introduce characters (which would force me to reintroduce the pinyin as they learn the basic characters).

But I'm debating if it would be better to just start off with both?

What are your thoughts on learning? Did any of you start off learning pinyin, then phase in to characters later on?


5 Answers 5


When I was first learning Chinese, we were using the New Practical Chinese Reader series of books. In them:

  • Dialogues and vocabulary are presented with both characters and pinyin.

  • You were only expected to memorize a subset of the characters used in a given chapter (e.g., in the first dialogue, you only had to learn how to write 你, 好, and 吗 or something like that).

  • Eventually you get weaned off pinyin for the dialogues and in some of the vocabulary parts.

  • Uh... I had them as well. They were awful. The problem is that they tried teaching chinese by letting the student memorize phrases and static constructs, which is not a good way to learn a language IMHO. One should focus on teaching ways to compose sentences with context and flexibility and not cardboard-cutouts.
    – FUZxxl
    Oct 17, 2013 at 19:07
  • 1
    @商榮沛 IMHO, it's useful to get to "I can have a conversation" as quickly as possible, even if you have to memorize a bunch of stuff to get there. Of course you need a comprehensive approach to grammar and vocabulary to get beyond the basics, but I see it as best to start from both ends (phrase-book approach and building-block approach) and meet in the middle. Oct 17, 2013 at 19:57
  • They are also very useful for understanding Chinese. I feel that way too much time is spent trying to make sure that students can say and write words they have actually never seen or heard. If understanding is also a goal, fixed patterns make more sense, at least in the beginning.
    – Olle Linge
    Oct 19, 2013 at 0:43

May this help you: As a member from a non-english spoken country, we start to learn english by words, not by phonetic transcription, because the phonetic transcription is less funny but more difficult to remember. in my opinion, you should start with characters.

  • 1
    This comparison is quite flawed, I think. The distance between written and spoken English is so much shorter than between written and spoken Chinese.
    – Olle Linge
    Oct 18, 2013 at 2:28
  • Actually, people in China won't learn how to pronounce all characters, like English spoken people. Most of characters can be tried to pronounce by a part of them. Some are not, like in English there are words like "island", should be remembered separately. Oct 19, 2013 at 6:48
  • When teaching people who already speak any Chinese language or dialect, pinyin first. (These days literacy in China is so close to 100% this is likely only with children or elderly rural people.)

  • When teaching people who do not speak any Chinese language or dialect teach pronunciation first. Introducing pinyin too early leads to pronunciation based on English spelling rules and is extremely difficult to unlearn. (Or similar the students speak some other language that uses a Latin alphabet.)

  • If you are teaching in Taiwan or with Taiwanese materials or with motivated students, consider teaching Zhuyin Fuhao at the same time as pronunciation. Zhuyin is more phonetic than pinyin and doesn't look like English so doesn't lead to English-like mispronunciation habits. In this case you can introduce either characters or pinyin next. Pinyin will not hurt after the students are already used to Chinese pronunciation and Zhuyin and it's good to know it. (Unmotivated students may be resistant to having to learn the Zhuyin letters.)

  • In the unlikely case that you are teaching people who only need to pass an exam with no oral test, or who insist they are only learning to read, and do not wish to learn spoken Chinese, then teach Pinyin and characters together.

  • In the unlikely case that you are teaching people who do not speak any Chinese language or dialect or any language that uses a Latin alphabet, then teach Pinyin and pronunciation together and then move on to characters.

• Learning a phonetic writing system is easier than learning a character-based system • Pinyin and Zhuyin fuhao are both much more phonetic than English spelling • Zhuyin is even more phonetic than Pinyin but is less well known, except in Taiwan where it is known and used by everybody • Pinyin spelling rules are very different to English spelling rules because Chinese pronunciation is very different to English pronunciation • For people who already speak Chinese, pinyin is a great fit. Even if standard Mandarin is not their native form of Chinese • For people who do not speak Chinese at all, pronunciation is of the utmost importance and the key to fluency. Much more than in English • For English speakers, Chinese pronunciation is very difficult but pinyin looks a lot like English. This leads to most of the bad pronunciation of Chinese by English speaking learners • Most literate native speakers of Chinese are unaware of the problems foreign learners run into when trying to learn pinyin before or along with pronunciation. Most English speakers who want to learn Chinese are also unaware of this.


Personal experience: I'm chinese, when i goto school, i could speak a lot of Chinese already, and i started with ping ying and characters together,ping ying helps to let me know how to pronounce a character and help me link the character with the "words" which i already know. I mean, when i see an egg, I know that thing is pronounced as "dan" and i just don't know how to write it. so they put 蛋 beside a picture of egg and ping ying "dan". so what i do is link them together, an egg=蛋, and both of them called "dan". This is little bit different from English.

when i start picking up my Japanese, as i was already at my 21, what teacher did is to ask me to study the Hiragana and Katakana. we learn these tool first, and later use it to study to pronounce these "words" in Japanese.

what i think is, if people already knows how to speak, just need to learn how to write, pingying and character together is a shorter cut, but if people don't know Chinese at all, better study pingying first.

the more important thing is to let ppl know how to study this language themselves.


I don't know if you still want answers, since this is so old. I start with PY only in their textbook (I wrote my own for first year). But you can put posters of things with characters around the room too. When I begin teaching characters, I first teach the strokes (find them in characters, write them), then radicals (about 60-70 starting with the pictograms, find them in characters, write them), then characters for things we can say.

Some students really appreciated the radical approach, others didn't. I believe it makes good pedagogical sense. Another option is to start introducing characters they are saying, but also teach the radicals for those.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.