How to Make Learning Chinese Impossible: Taiwan's Got It Down

Photo: TdG
By Trista di Genova, The Wild East

Hapless Chinese learners agree: the Taiwan-only useless system of ‘Bopomofo’ ought to be immediately phased out, and the agreed-upon phonetic system of Hanyu pinyin used to teach Chinese if Taiwan wants competency and credibility as a Mandarin-language training center.

The first time I enrolled in a Chinese class was at the Chinese Language Institute in Taipei, about 6 years ago. In that first week, we were expected to learn a strange animal called “Bopomofo”. Derived from the first four letters of the system (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ; zhùyīn fúhào is its formal name), it’s a phonetic system only used in Taiwan to teach children to pronounce Chinese – it takes 10 weeks for 1st graders to learn, and is printed alongside Chinese in their books. ‘Bo-po-mo-fo’ effectively serves the same function as pinyin – a way to be able to pronounce (not necessarily understand) Chinese characters.

In my one-week crash course, I managed to learn Bopomofo and the four tones, but was also expected to be able to read, write and understand written Mandarin, or traditional Chinese, and was tested on all these areas — all within the first week of an elementary Chinese class. In comparison in the U.S., instruction in writing and reading Chinese characters does not even start until the second year.

My Chinese teacher at CLI spoke absolutely no English, so even if I managed to figure out how to ask a question, her answer would be completely incomprehensible. I relied for the most part on piecing together what I could with my fellow, often bemused foreign students, a hodgepodge of nationalities.

But I only lasted a week, crashing and burning in my Chinese crash course. The pace was too blistering even for me, a seasoned student of languages. Fluent in French after studying it for a decade, I’d also studied several other languages, including Russian. Further, I did possess a genuine interest in the Chinese language, and came to Taiwan with the priority of mastering it — although I’ve long since admitted this will take at least three or four times the time and effort as another language would. It might take a lifetime.

The first missionaries in China didn’t call it ‘the devil’s language’ for nothing. Chinese is considered the most difficult language in the world to learn. Cantonese uses written Mandarin but its pronunciation is even more complicated, putting it at the top of the list, according to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State. With Chinese, every word is a different symbol, and it’s not phonetic, giving no clues as to how it is pronounced. In Taiwan, every child is customarily forced to memorize each character by writing each of them one hundred times.

My conclusion of why learning Chinese is so hard is that it’s “teacher-centric”. The student, partly due to a dearth of ‘smart’ learning materials, must rely heavily on closely watching and mimicking the instructor’s tone and pronunciation. If one’s ‘tone’ is in the least bit off, the resulting character could have numerous, even hundreds of other meanings, as well as written forms of each ‘morpheme’. The sound “shi”, for example, in different tones, can mean ‘business’, ‘is’, ‘snake’, ‘poetry’, ‘shit’ and so on, in some cases nearly ad infinitum.

Once I asked a vendor “Duo xiao chien”, intending to ask “How much?” but because I used the fourth tone on ‘chien’ she heard “How much do you owe ME?” And for some reason, she wasn’t able to draw upon key contextual clues, such as, what else would I be trying to ask a vendor, while pointing at one of her wares? Incidentally, the Taiwan pronunciation of ‘xiao’ often would come out sounding like ‘sao’; and many other words are differently pronounced from one instance to the next — mountain, which is phoneticized as ‘shan’ (‘mountain’) is actually commonly pronounced in Taiwan as ‘san’. There are many other differences in the Taiwan accent, too many to go into detail here. But briefly, one Taiwanese friend summed up the difference between Mainland and Taiwan accents as comparable between American and English accents, respectively; the Taiwanese Mandarin accent is considered more formal, even ‘hip’ thanks to the success of many Taiwan pop stars and music there.

As one American observer here put it, “I get the impression that even native Chinese speakers have a hard time understanding each other.” Taiwan is not alone, of course. With the hundreds of dialects spoken in China, a population of 1.3 billion people, it is estimated that nearly half of Mainland Chinese cannot read, speak or understand the national Putonghua (“common”) language, Mandarin Chinese. Did you get that?! Half of Chinese people can’t speak Chinese! There are at least 250 dialects spoken within its massive boundaries, often incomprehensible to each other, with 75% of the population living outside urban areas, in the countryside. According to People’s Daily, only a little over half of Chinese surveyed can speak Mandarin (this is spoken, where the written form is much harder); another (unconfirmed) source says less than 10% speak it at home.

Beijing’s customary overestimation of the population’s literacy rate is examined fairly well here. In an attempt to improve literacy in the 1950s and 60s by implementing ‘simplified’ Chinese (Singapore also adopted it), the new characters used fewer strokes in its written form. However, the simplification process ironically complicated matters, rendering it practically illegible to both their Taiwanese cousins (and foreign learners of traditional Mandarin language), across the Taiwan Strait. To all intensive purposes, Simplified Chinese is yet another language for Chinese learners to learn. Nevertheless, through China’s hegemonic influence in the world, Mandarin language instruction internationally is taught 1) using pinyin, (部首; bùshǒu, lit. ‘phonetic’ in Chinese) a Romanized form of phoneticization, and 2) in its simplified written form.

Now, after being here for 8 years, I have been enrolled over a year in a practically free class for spouses of Taiwanese, called the “New Immigrant” courses, at a community college held on the campus of a junior high school in Taipei. There are almost as many teachers in the class as students, one of its excellent features, as students can get a one-on-one experience as necessary without having to interrupt the rest of the class. A few teachers speak a bit of English, enough to provide key assistance at this level. It should be noted that my now-husband, through two years of semi-intensive private tutoring and then off-and-on language exchange, has helped me get through a few standard Far East textbooks to this point of intermediate Chinese ability.

This week in class, I waited for Teacher Lilly to finish her 45 minutes of drilling us on Bopomofo, and they handed out a notebook for us to practice writing it — an additional language to learn in order to learn Chinese. She is a lovely teacher, always helpful and kind, but I had to address this one burning issue. Raising my hand I asked (in Chinese), “A few years ago, the Taiwan government decided to use Hanyu Pinyin. Taiwan is alone in the world to use Bopomofo, and pinyin is used to teach Chinese in other countries. Most of the other students, mostly Vietnamese but a Spaniard as well as myself, use a language that looks much like pinyin. So why do you (plural) insist on teaching us using Bopomofo? It is useless and a waste of time.” One of the Vietnamese students was staring at me in surprise, nodding slightly in agreement. Teacher Lilly spoke quickly in response, but I gathered that some of the Vietnamese in the class were mothers, and when their children came home they needed to help them with their Bopomofo. “But we’re adults,” I insisted. Not that I expect to change or have any impact on the system of Chinese teaching in Taiwan at all, and fully acknowledge that usually, nothing ever gets done or changes. But why is this system so entrenched and resistant to change?

One teacher in the class, Michael, is fluent in English. I recounted this situation after class, and after thinking about it, he gave me some key insight to the crux of the problem. “It’s hard for people to change their way of thinking,” he said. “The Chinese teachers don’t want to take the time – an hour at the library — to learn something new. It is an extra effort to learn to write pinyin so they can teach Chinese better.” The Chinese teachers here grew up using Bopomofo to learn Chinese, so this is the only way they know how to teach it.

Never mind that this system makes the world’s hardest language well-nigh impossible. Sure, I know and have admired the odd individual who has buckled down, studied Chinese intensively, at least four hours every day, and by the end of a year they can be fairly conversant and competent in spoken and even fairly good in written Chinese. It’s very rare, and it’s superhard, but it is possible — for that handful of usually brilliant, extremely hard-working people. For the rest of us, though, it’s like the old song says: you can keep on knockin’ but you can’t come in.

But it doesn’t help that every obstacle possible is thrown in the tortuous path of the poor Chinese language learner. I am convinced that if an attempt was made to devise a more convoluted way to learn a language, it’d be hard to beat the way that Taiwan teaches Chinese to foreigners. Not only are the teachers apparently clueless about making it as painless as possible, the textbooks are dry and dispirited. Far East textbooks phase out pinyin, English and even Bopomofo translations of its longer passages (often a page or two in length) in its intermediate-level texts, presuming learners should already know character pronunciation.

Unlike other Romanized languages, ‘looking it up in the dictionary’ is a laborious, painstaking and extremely prohibitive process for Chinese. There are a few ways to look characters up — by number of strokes, by its radical, and so on, but this takes (me) about 10-20 minutes. A few times I’ve asked Chinese speakers out of curiosity, “When was the last time you looked up a Chinese character in the dictionary?” The answer is typically “in grade school.” Even they avoid doing it if they can. Then, few dictionaries for foreigners are both Chinese-English and English-Chinese, when it is frequently necessary to go between the two. Besides, that dictionary would be huge; there are 80,000 characters in the Chinese language, with an estimated 3,000 most commonly used.

Out of the half-dozen times I have asked a Chinese native speaker to write down something in Chinese, two or three of those people were uncertain how to write the character, forgot how many strokes were necessary, and had to actually ask another Chinese speaker. Unsurprisingly to me, Chinese speakers who read for pleasure are a rarity, whereas in France, for example, the population is made up of avid readers.

One magazine estimated that 70 percent of Chinese high school students wear glasses or have poor vision; China Today claims that half of Chinese teens are near-sighted. It is very likely, in my opinion, that the reason – besides heavy studying, diet and little outdoor exercise — is because Chinese characters are so hard to read that it strains the eyes. I can make out English signs at almost twice the distance of Chinese signs. Reading Chinese does employ both sides of the brain, scientific study has proved, but this could be interpreted to mean it takes exponentially more effort to do so.

Years ago it occurred to me that to learn Chinese, one must learn several languages. To wit, there is the insanely difficult to memorize written Chinese (stroke order, the 214 radicals), the spoken (overall pronunciation, distinguishing the four tones), Bopomofo (only in Taiwan, China phased it out in the 1950s) and learning to recognize, write and pronounce Bopomofo’s 37 characters; idioms and proverbs dating back a few thousand years; how to type it (there are several ways of doing this, based on radicals, pinyin etc).

Then there is Chinese grammar, to me a critical aspect of Chinese learning. It is often said that “Chinese has no grammar”. But every language has a grammar. Grammar is a universal constant of language. Noam Chomsky argued this, and it is true for Chinese as well: grammar is inherent in all language, there is a universal grammar inherent in all language. So propagating the fallacy that Chinese ‘has no grammar’ clearly only stifles analysis, interpretation and categorization of Chinese grammar, and in turn therefore impairs its presentation/instruction, and ultimately its ability to be mastered. Inbuilt in this argument of “No Grammar in Chinese” is the seemingly ironclad excuse not to learn how to present/teach Chinese grammar. Thus, there are no books available on the treatment of learning Chinese grammar. Anyone trying to learn Chinese grammar is effectively forced to reinvent the wheel. From this intermediate learner’s perspective, I can tell you that Chinese grammatical structure seems in many ways the polar opposite of English. There are many, many rules in Chinese grammar, but they must be first presented to be learned.

I seriously doubt that Chinese will ever be Romanized, such as in the case of the Turkish language, for example, over a hundred years ago. It’d be problematic and the Chinese people have far too much pride in it, considering the written language intrinsically connected their ancient heritage — a view which is truly understandable. Written Chinese is a beautiful, often mysterious with a fascinating history of developing from ideograms, pictographs. But learning Chinese could be made easier and more accessible by the way it is taught — if that was the objective — drawing us all closer in cultural understanding. For sure, it’d be a step in the right direction.

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49 thoughts on “How to Make Learning Chinese Impossible: Taiwan's Got It Down”

  1. This is good rant for the beer talk, but about as useful as suggesting English changes spelling to IPA.

    By the way, even Mao back in the day was pro-reform, suggesting Chinese should be written using some spelling system, but some time after second simplification wave, they have given up (and even reverted most of it). If such a totalitarian government couldn’t do anything about the huge language momentum, then what about foreigners, who are always wrong by definition?

    P.S., 部首 is a radical. I guess it should have been 拼音/ㄆㄧㄣ ㄧㄣ/pīnyīn?

  2. That’s a great article that many old time learners can sympathize with. When I learnt in Taiwan in the 1980s at ShiDa they tried to make us learn the equally perverse ‘Yale system’ just to avoid admitiing that the pinyin was more effective and international. Bt there’s one point that you don’t mention – the bopomofo keyboard for typing. I can’t use it but my wife, a writer, does and it reallly seems more efficient, in reducing ambiguities, than the pinyin keyboard which is the only one I can manage, which of course doesn’t require re-learning the keys. I hundred percent agree with your feelings about linguistically ignorant native speakers insisting ‘there is no grammar in Chinese’. Almost as bad are those who pretend that Chinese grammar can be mapped onto the English parts of speech and syntax. Nobody should be allowed to inflict themselves on foreigh learners without an good grounding in general linguistics. (Yet, I have to admit, how many casual foreigners are teaching English here without a clue on English grammar, which is hardly taught anymore in the Europe and the States …?)

    Mike Hoare

    1. I actually liked the Yale system. It was a little more logical for people used to the sounds assigned to the Roman alphabet by most Western European languages. And it had less of those annoying exceptions in pinyin (like dropping vowels). But when the rest of the world is pinyin . . .

  3. 1. Learning BPMF is important provided you have Taiwanese friends. When you ask your friends “How do you say this?” and they answer “Such this that and the other…” and then you say “Well, how the hell do you write that?” and they scrawl out something that looks like Japanese and is in the same phonetic order as Sanskrit and you’ve not a clue how to pronounce it, yet you want to learn it, well that there is the old school phonetic symbols necessary to learn their Chinese. Good enough in my opinion.

    2. There are quite a few very good Chinese grammars. Just as there are quite a few very good English grammars. Can you name those English grammars? Probably not. Just as the Chinese speakers with whom you speak cannot name them off either. Don’t mean they don’t exist. They do. I’ve read them Chinese grammars.

    3. Please double check your romanized Chinese. If you’re gonna piss and moan about how the Taiwanese are screwing you over with their funky romanization, please get the mainlander romanization correct. With respect, “Duo xiao chien” in pinyin, should read “duoshao qian” (leaving aside tone marks). Otherwise it comes out reading something like “A lot of small french dogs”. Although damned funny, I assume your points about the difficulties of learning Chinese has nothing to do with “les chiens” or anything else French.

    keep up the columns.


    1. Jack, always the lively debater. :-)

      1) Good enough to explain amongst Taiwanese who’ve been brought up learning that infernal system.
      2) Parts of speech is a good place to start, in Engrish…nouns, verbs, adj., prepositions, conjunctions, etc. then move on to the more complicated stuff: word order, clauses and so on.
      3) point taken. though if you’ve had to master them all, makes ye master of none. And if they employ the whole myriad of bastardized pinyinizations, then why can’t we? Language is specific to the individual…
      keep on keepin’ it lively, friend.

  4. Learning Mandarin reading and writing as a foreign language is a huge and time consuming endeavor. Why are you bemoaning the relatively small investment it takes to learn bopomofo? It’s a very efficient system, well designed, and once you learn it you no longer have to worry about it. I think it’s a great system and I disagree with the premise that it makes learning Chinese “harder.”

    Taiwan also uses the traditional form of Chinese characters. By the same logic, one could argue they should abandon traditional characters in favor of the simplified characters since they could be easier to learn?

    In fact, if there is romanization which is more universally understood, why not abandon the Characters and simply use the romanization?

  5. I am bemoaning the extra effort to learn BoPoMoFo, because it would be a wholly unnecessary extra level of language-learning if Taiwan used the HanYu pinyin system it finally decided upon for official use. The Taiwan decision to implement BoPoMoFo was primarily a politically motivated one — they didn’t want to follow the lead of Mainland China. Further, learning pinyin romanization would ease Taiwanese into learning other foreign languages. BoPoMoFo on its own is a USELESS language and convoluted crutch for learning Mandarin as a Second Language.
    As for total romanization, as I wrote in the article that would be immensely useful –although problematic since there are so many similar phonemes in Mandarin that often can only be distinguished by how they are written. However, it’s highly unlikely to happen, as I discussed.
    Did China perhaps make a mistake in simplifying Chinese characters, and this is a good topic for inquiry: has simplification actually improved literacy, as it was intended? Who decided on the simplification process, and how were the changes decided upon?
    Something to think about.

    1. As a linguist whose first language is English, I can nevertheless say with utmost confidence that Zhuyinfuhao is more suitable for representing the sounds of Mandarin than is Pinyin, for the same reason that Kana is more suitable for representing the sounds of Japanese, and Hangeul for Korean. The use of the Latin alphabet to represent the sounds of an Oriental language contaminates it with unnecessary Occidental influence. In order to maintain the integrity of the language and culture, I believe that Mandarin should be phoneticized using a purely Chinese system (that being said, I do believe that romanization is well-suited for introductory foreign education, just not domestic). Thus, I believe pinyin should serve the same purpose as Romaji for Japanese and Romaja for Korean: for new foreign learners of the language to get a basic foothold, and for street signs, maps, and tourist reading material. Zhuyinfuhao is easier to learn than Kana and even Hangeul, and thus poses no more of a significant obstacle to learning Mandarin (and for me, among many others, it even provides greater clarity).

      1. As a European native and fluent speaker of Chinese, I can tell you with utmost confidence that cross-contamination of pronunciations is not a problem. If you’ve seen how mainlanders pronounce English, you probably understand that having *any* form of analogy, be it tainted, false, convoluted or absconse, is better than no analogy at all.

        Pronouncing Pinyin (or English or Romaji) wrong is the first step in learning to pronounce it right, and I would go as far as saying, good enought for most speakers anyways. Not being able to verbalize Bopomofo is the first step in nothing at all. And no adult can ever acquire perfect pronunciation of a foreing language anyway. Moreover, I cannot see how one side of a bijection can be clearer that the other.

  6. It takes heaven and earth to move culture in big continental societies. You can’t even get Americans to switch to the Metric system,so good luck with Chinese adopting an alphabetic system. And by the way, it can be done. Vietnamese is a
    “monosyllabic” tonal language just like Chinese, and the Portuguese and French were able to replace the Chinese and native characters Vietnamese was once written in with the Roman alphabet (and a heck of a lotta diacritic marks).

  7. bpmf can be learned in a day or two. I know, because I learned it in a day or two. It is harder to pronounce the sounds correctly, however, if you use pinyin, you will never pronounce the sounds in the right way, because the pinyin simply doesn’t correlate with the actual sounds people make.

    Examples can be found just by saying the pinyin of the following MRT stops:


    Say these words to any Taiwanese. I promise, in a year of saying ‘Yongchun’, not one Taiwanese has recognised it, because the Pinyin simply doesn’t sound anything like it. Similarly, there’s no ‘h’ at all in Shilin, or the ‘shan’ of Zhongshan.

    The problem with your course, as described, was not bpmf, it was that it was trying to cram a lot into a short space of time. However, why was this? The course was not created in a vacuum, clearly, the organisers felt they were giving students what they wanted. It’s called a dialectic, you can look it up.

    So, sure, learn Pinyin, and the ‘benefit’ will be that the learning curve is shallower, but that nobody understands most of what you say. Result.

    The stuff about looking up characters taking 10-20 minutes has been effaced by Google Translate or, where you can draw the characters and get them translated, similarly there is the Peperakun plugin for firefox for instant translation pop-ups. But why am I bothering to say all this, when clearly, you figure a rant is the thing.

    (If my tone annoys, good)

  8. I disagree King Felix. The correct pronunciation of Pinyin needs to be learned, just as the pronunciation of bpfm needs to be learned. If you apply the phonetic rules of English, American, French or any other specific language that uses the alphabet to pinyin, then your pronunciation will be way off.

    And there is an ‘h’ in Shilin and Zhongshan as long as you pronounce it in correct mandarin. The only people I meet who don’t put the h in Shilin are Taiwanese taxi drivers who speak Chinese as a second language and pronounce it as ‘Sir Lin’.

    1. Well, if I may ask, why didn’t you 1) use a cantonese based input stseym2) use a character based input stseym (5 corners, or whatever)3) use any other writing pad for mac should have worked too, I think?!And doesn’t it take ages to write every single character out by hand?

  9. Yes, Felix, there IS an ‘sh’ sound that’s supposed to be in ‘shan’.
    The ‘dialectic’ you allude to is supposed to engage the student, ideally employing the most effective strategy — to learn Mandarin pronunciation.
    As an interesting footnote, there’s been a development in my Chinese class. After only teaching with BoPoMoFo for years, we had a discussion in class. Half the class – usually mothers of children in Taiwan, whom they must help with their homework — preferred Bopomofo. The other half preferred romanized pinyin, usually because their own languages were romanized and it’s therefore easier. This was hard for the older teachers to deal with, but a few of the younger, new teachers stepped forward and offered to put class materials into pinyin as well. So from now on, we’ll have both. Progress at last.

  10. And, it was interesting to note the few diehard Bopomofo fans who like you, just couldn’t for the life of them understand the point of view of the other half of the class.

  11. I stopped reading this when I got to the complaint about the teacher not being able to speak English. I thought was one of the great thigns about my Chinese class at the old Guoyu Ribao in Taipei 28 years ago. My head would ache after every class because everything was in Chinese. It made me want to work hard

    I’ve always felt learning Bopomofo was the best way to learn pronunciation, becuase you learnt the sounds as distinctive Chinese sounds with no connection whatsoever to Anglo European sounds.

    Plus bopomofo uniquely among all Chinese learnign systems enables you to read the sound and meaning of a character as you read. For kids in particular it’s a great way to learn the language.

    Honestly, this post would be better headed ‘I went to Taiwan and found lots to complain about’.

  12. I agree with KB.The writer of this article found lots to complain about here.She also made some pretty bizarre statements.That half a billion mainland Chinese cannot speak Mandarin is ludicrous.School attendance is compulsory for Chinese children. Chinese is romanized on the mainland.What does she think pin yin is ?

  13. I think Ms de Genova’s main problem is her defeatist attitude.If you decide anything is impossible then it is.That applies to anything in life,not just learning Mandarin. One of her silly anecdotes is the one about a street vendor not understanding her when she asked “How much is it?”in Chinese.How about the hundreds of times street vendors have understood her perfectly? It could, however,have been her {Italian?} accent…By the way ,are you “Scoopstar”, “” or both? With reference to the free Mandarin lessons for spouses in Taiwan,the last time I looked that only applied to foreign women married to Taiwanese men.Foreign men married to local ladies do not get this.Sex discrimination is alive and well here !It appears that Ms de Genova enjoys being controversial and or sensational.During the last 2 decades I have spent here I have known many people who have learned to read,write and speak Mandarin fluently.It’s not impossible,just challenging.

  14. E. Star and Scoopstar are different writers. ScoopStar scoops, and I.E etc.

    Scoopstar scooped the poop again and you are all here to argue about the nitty-gritty of it.

    There is much to chew upon in both article and comments. Linguistic gristle and bones to chew on.

    Good for everybody. Grit your teeth, spit invective: Enjoy.

  15. I studied 4 hours a day at Fengchia Uni in Taichung many years ago. I was grateful to have the Bo Po Mo Fo system as it really is useful for learning correct pronunciation and tones so that even if I have an accent people can understand what I am saying.

    If Ms Genova wants to learn Pin Yin then take a short plane trip across the strait.

    Steve you are wrong, I know of foreign men married to Taiwanese who also get the free classes it is no restricted to women. Who ever told you it was only for women?

  16. Hi Alien,That’s good to hear that it’s now available for male spouses, too.In my comment I said “The last time I looked”, which was quite a few years ago.At that time only foreign women married to Taiwanese men could get the free Mandarin classes.I was told the reason for this was that in Chinese culture when a Chinese woman marries she leaves her family and joins the man’s family.So if a Chinese man marries a foreign woman, the woman joins the man’s [Chinese] family,and if the Chinese woman marries a foreigner she joins the foreign family…Pretty convoluted logic…I’m glad they changed that.

  17. This is not defeatist to take the mick out of making Chinese-learning more difficult than it should be.
    Sure we all learn Chinese differently, and have different motivations.
    If you already learned Chinese by learning BoPoMoFo first to pronounce it(I *did* learn it in a week, although it was soon forgotten), then you’ll defend it. Yes, it gives you the exact pronunciation. Pinyin gives you the pronunciation (and tone), and because you hear it several times you can just as easily learn to speak Chinese with it – but FASTER.
    let me give you an example. Last night the teacher’s material was translated both in pinyin/Bopomofo. The last half she’d lost somehow, so there was just BoPoMoFo.
    Now when students repeated what she said in CHinese, if there was pinyin, EVERYBODY quickly was able to repeat it. If you didn’t hear a character well, you still had the pinyin.
    For the last half without pinyin, people stumbled a lot more. Why? Because you have to translate the bloody BoPoMoFo. It slows you down.
    But I’m grateful I don’t have to cross the Strait to get a proper pinyin mandarin lesson, as someone suggested. The teachers in this class have finally realized that the best way is to half both, to cater to how the majority wants to learn Mandarin.
    And the Chinese classes for spouses are now open to men AND women, although it may look like it’s for women. In fact, please do join one — it’s much better when there’s diversity in backgrounds and culture. And it’s practically free!! Yay! Just talk to the teacher beforehand; I know mine is supercool and welcoming about any foreigners at all who want to take the class. In fact, if you want contact info for the class in WanHua, jet me an email. It’s not as intensive as the uni programs, but there are no tests / grading either! And 7 or 8 teachers per class, to help give individual tutoring in class.

  18. Scoopstar/Ms di Genova,Backtracking now I see.You stated that [1]Taiwan is “making it impossible for foreigners to learn Mandarin”,[2]”every possible obstacle is thrown in the path of the poor Chinese learner” [3]”the teachers are apparently clueless”and [4]that you “seriously doubt Chinese will ever be romanized”Not exactly taking the mick…

  19. I agree that for foreigners, Hanyu Pinyin is easier than bopomofo because most foreigners are already used to the Roman alphabet. However for Taiwan’s own citizens the opposite might be true – I don’t know. Anyway isn’t bopomofo supposed to be phased out as a teaching tool and replaced with Hanyu Pinyin, or is Hanyu Pinyin primarily just for names of roads, villages, cities, and some companies?

  20. I wasn’t going to comment on this, because when I read this nonsensical phrase “To all intensive purposes,” I thought that maybe you are also struggling with English. However, there was too much in here to leave without having commented on it.

    Compared to the ABCs, Bopomofo is at least practical. If you can learn to say all the sounds, you can theoretically say any Chinese word in the whole language, right?

    Think about the practicality of teaching the names of the ABCs, as opposed to the sounds. Why do we need to know that “w” sounds like “double-you,” or that “h” sounds like “ay-ch?” To me, that’s more like learning another language, with the added annoyances of seeing a word like ‘fish’ and not saying it like “eff”-ish because you know f = “eff.”

    Granted, bopomofo does not help reading at all once it is removed (a lot like KK Phonics in English). Memorizing a bunch of characters that give no phonetic clue is hard, for sure.

    But compare again to English. Our so-called “phonetic” language is full of misleading clues. How do you explain these words- tough, though, thought, through? You can’t. Just like Chinese characters, you have to memorize their pronunciation.

    What kind of dictionaries are you referring to? I’m sure it’s much easier to look up a character online than in the actual book. Excluding and the red squiggly underline in Microsoft Word, why don’t you ask native English speakers when the last time they used a dictionary was? Without comparing it to anything, the point you tried to make about Chinese dictionaries means nothing.

    Thank you for pointing out 1. That “It might take a lifetime” to “master” Chinese, or any language, and 2. That grammar rules “must be first presented to be learned.”

  21. “Bopomofo” appears to be better than pinyin, because you are starting from scratch and can’t follow the phonology of your own language. This might help some people. If I remember correctly, not much time is spent on this in the schools, but after all you hear the language all around you, so this makes the phonology lessons less important (again, for some people).
    Nevertheless, the languages with non-latin scripts need transcription alphabets to communicate with the world, even if it was only to transcribe their names. And for Chinese, pinyin is good enough (once learned the rules of pronunciation). It’s not perfect, but it certainly serves it’s purpose much better than “bopomofo”.
    The argument that Chinese couldn’t do without the characters is wrong. There’s nothing about any language that would bind it with a specific script. Sure, it would have to change quite a bit, add more morphology and such, but that would be only for good and kids wouldn’t have to spend so many years learning it.
    (just to set things straight: I enjoyed learning the language, including the classical, and the characters are beautiful and all that. But I just feel sorry for the poor children who instead of playing out have to stare into the books all day)

  22. You think “hapless Chinese learners agree”? Really?

    Right before I began studying Mandarin in Taiwan many years ago, I was fortunate enough to have a friend teach me the “bo-po-mo-fo,” which took me a few days to memorize, and it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. With that knowledge I was able to immediately decipher almost every form of romanization I encountered, almost effortlessly.

    Trista, I find it difficult to believe you consider Chinese “the most difficult language,” and moreover that you’ve been in Taiwan for six years and still find yourself at the intermediate level. Spoken Mandarin, once you get the tones down, is one of the simplest languages around. Yes, the characters are pretty tough, but in my case I was cutting my teeth on the newspapers after a year or two.

    I have since learned to speak and read Japanese, a language which might leave you shaking in your boots as it has not one, but two, written syllabaries, in addition to all its Chinese characters. Sure, it’s tough, but you just keep at it and, Bob’s your uncle, you get it.

    I would suggest you stop wasting your own and class time resisting and acting the malcontent and take the good from what your teachers are trying to impart.

    Oh, and, if it takes you ten minutes to look up a character in a Chinese dictionary, you surely need more practice.

    1. Translator: Yes, really. As for sources, it was the US State Dept that claims Chinese is among the hardest languages in the world to learn.
      I consider myself lucky to have reached an intermediate level, and that was after working hard on it for a few years. After all, it is common to run into an old hand such as yourself in Taiwan, who despite being here for decades nevertheless speaks No Mandarin… sad but true.
      As for looking something up in the dictionary, even Taiwanese don’t do it, it’s so prohibitively time-consuming. So I’ll read it instead. Let you know when I’m through!

  23. It’s easy to be patronizing if one has personally put in all that hard work to master Chinese. After all, one might reason, if *you* did the time, why should others shirk that hard slog?
    On the other hand, currently, much of the Chinese learning process is cumbersome and, I’d argue unnecessarily complicated, in desperate need of streamlining to be student-centered. I’d agree with Petr that since Chinese phonology requires sounds that don’t exist in English, for that reason Bopomofo can help to clarify those sounds. But once you have learned them, you can just as easily cipher all pinyin systems, Translator. But thereafter, the continued process of having to translate from Bopomofo into pinyin is unecessarily labor-intensive.
    You can defend it all you like, but when it comes down to it, if two laowai are reading each system, the one reading pinyin will leave the bopomofo reader IN THE DUST.

  24. Sorry, patronizing isn’t what I was going for. It just seemed to me that your time might be better spent going along with the program than resisting it. I found the bpmf a great tool in learning Mandarin pronunciation. And as for leaving people in the dust, the purpose of either system, bpmf or romanization, is like a mother’s teat: to wean you as quickly as possible and make you independent of it. As for bpmf reading speed, I bet I could give you a run for your money.

  25. bopomofo *is* pin yin (literally: phonetic spelling).

    “hanyu pinyin” (what you meant when you said pinyin) is more convenient for typing, but 注音符號 is much better at clearly spelling out the pronunciation of mandarin chinese (拼音)

  26. Zhuyinfuhao is the best system I’ve ever seen because after learning this unique system, one doesn’t have as much interference from their first language while studying Chinese.

  27. If zhuyin fuhao is so great, why did the mainlanders dump it in favor of pinyin? If it works just fine for 1.2 billion Chinese, it would work in Taiwan. But that would lead to a lot of red faces on this side of the Taiwan Strait, wouldn’t it?
    The real question is: does zhuyin have some mystical higher power or have Taiwanese scholars and some ornery foreign nerds been talking out of their asses for years?

  28. I learnt and studied using pinyin for a few years, then i learnt and have now switched to using bopomofo. I find that using romanced characters does create interference with english.

    Chinese might be hard for US citizens, but its not hard for everyone. There is such a concept as language families, and I think you will find that japanese and korean speakers will learn chinese much easier than english or french. its a matter of perspective.

    You sound very bitter. I hope you can resolve whatever issues are going on in your life

  29. Letter written to ‘Cheng Chung Book’ company:

    Dear Sir or Madame,
    I have been trying to learn Mandarin Chinese using your series of textbooks.
    The problem is they are not only boring, but completely useless in the essay portions of these books.
    I am annoyed that after the first book, you don’t give any translation or even clues to reading these long passages of CHINESE ONLY text.
    And you stop using pinyin, too, for these impossibly difficult parts. WHY????
    I can tell you honestly, I hate your books and I would never buy them except that UNFORTUNATELY they are REQUIRED for every Chinese class I have ever taken.
    I have been in Taiwan for almost 9 years, and I blame YOUR textbooks for the lamentable and pathetic state of my Chinese.
    I have studied 5 languages for a total period of 18 years (and speak one of them fluently), and never has there been a more frustrating experience with trying to master a language as with your goddamn books.
    If you really wanted to provide a service to your captive readers, you would make these changes IMMEDIATELY.
    But I doubt you will.
    Fed up with your garbage,

  30. That doesn’t make any sense to me. Chinese have a completely different set of pronounciations. It’s just as stupid as a chinese person saying that English is too hard to learn because they don’t use chinese pronounciation, but alphabets.

  31. True, Zhuyin fuhao is really useful when someone asks “…but how to you write that (a certain chinese character)”. These fuhao/symbols are components of chinese words. I grew up learning both Zhuyin fuhao and Hanyu Pinyin and have fondness for zhuyin. I witness that frustration with rote memorization and repetition have caused many to hate zhuyin fuhao. So, I created mnemonic worksheets to make it easy for my children to learn zhuyin fuhao, using approaches from Waldorf education. Simply put, to memorize zhuyin with pictures:

  32. You guys should stop attacking the poster for making some valid complaints about learning Mandarin in Taiwan. She’s probably not the only one who feels frustrated with how Mandarin is taught. I learned BPMF in first grade, but haven’t used it in decades since I live overseas. BPMF is one of those things that you start to lose the hang of, once you don’t use it often. Now I use pinyin, self-taught, and yes the romanization makes it so much easier for an English-speaker to read. Actually, I am not completely satisfied with either BMPF or pinyin, or any of the previous romanization systems. Someone should cobble the best parts of all these systems together into a more ideal system. To those who argue that pinyin does not help you pronounce Mandarin accurately, I have to disagree. Having also learned German, with its completely different pronunciation, yet using the same alphabet as English, you get used to the differences eventually. You pick up on how to pronounce certain letters in a German way. Your brain naturally adapts to reading the same alphabet in two different ways for English and German. So I believe the same phenomenon can happen for Mandarin learners who use pinyin. When you see “Chun” (spring) you don’t pronounce it as “Chun”, but as the Chinese pronounce it, which is more like “Chwen”.

  33. I studied Taiwan and in the PRC.

    I know both pin yin and zhu yin fu hao.

    The latter is very helpful for me since there are hundreds of books intended for actual Chinese speakers which can be used. They everything from detective stories to biographies of the founders of Google. All in Chinese characters with zhu yin fu hao. So I can immediately read Chinese.

    Not so for pin yin as I found in the PRC by searching bookstores.

    Also, pin yin was created by the Russians to help the Chinese. Zhu yin fu hao was created by Chinese for Chinese and was widely used before the communists took power in 1949.

    You can say what you want but I have found zhu yin fu hao to be immensely useful in learning Chinese and would recommend it to anyone.

  34. Yes, bopofomo is limited to Taiwan but I can’t imagine it being any harder to learn than kana (either one), or hangul.

  35. I can very much relate to you example where slightly mispronounced “how much is it?” to the vendor and they completely could not understand what you were saying, even though the situation would make it quite obvious as to what you were asking.

    Actually, from my experiences, people in Taiwan can most times understand mispronounced Chinese as spoken by other Chinese whose main language is not Mandarin (e.g. those from Chinese provinces who are used to speaking their provincial Chinese dialects).

    But, often, Taiwanese have a very difficult time understanding mispronounced Chinese as spoken by non-Chinese foreigners. I think this is just mostly due to the fact that Taiwan is not a very international country. What I mean is they have a lot less contact with non-Chinese foreigners, so their ear is just not trained/adjusted to hear/interpret mispronounced Mandarin spoken in non-Chinese inflected accents. At least that is my take on the matter.

    For example, in the U.S., I have noticed that in larger cities, more people can understand non-native English speakers’ broken English than can those living in less cosmopolitan areas of the country. I think that is due to the fact that in larger cities, you will have more frequent contact with immigrants/foreigners.

    Maybe, maybe not.

  36. If you are writing “duo xiao chien” for “how much” instead of “duō shǎo qián”, you are not at an intermediate level.

    Pinyin is a system of associating sounds with symbols, just like bopomofo, except that it uses the roman alphabet as the symbols. Some symbols, for example the letter “q”, is assigned a sound that has nothing to do with how it’s pronounced in English, so it’s a matter of learning to associate sounds with symbols. If you can’t correctly associate sounds with symbols, even using a recognizable symbol set, (i.e., the alphabet,) it’s no wonder you found bopomofo to be so difficult.

    As others have stated here, bopomofo takes a few days to learn, but it is more accurate in rendering the correct pronunciation of Mandarin words. Perhaps it is best to start with pinyin as a crutch to quickly grasp basic pronunciation, then learn bopomofo if you are interested in improving pronunciation, and also to take advantage of the numerous resources available for learning Mandarin in bopomofo.

    Why denounce a very useful system of learning simply because you found it to be hard? Millions upon millions people have learned it and you can too, if you are truly interested. Keep at it my friend.

  37. Bopomofo was designed specifically for Mandarin. It has only 37 symbols, which is hardly a chore, and shouldn’t take any student more than a week to learn. Students of Japanese have to learn nearly 100 phonetic symbols, not including over 2000 Chinese Characters that must be learnt. Mandarin is difficult, but most of that difficulty lies in the tones and thousands of complex characters, not in a tiny phonetic script.

    Bopomofo is better for foreigners BECAUSE it is different from their native scripts, not in spite of it! It forces them to learn the phonology ALONG with the symbols. Pinyin acquaints foreigners with Mandarin Phonology through inaccurate approximations that have to be improved (fighting instincts).

    By the way, to correct the most glaring of your errors, Bopomofo was created in 1913 on the Chinese mainland, well before Hanyu Pinyin.

    1. Couldn’t agree more. Having studied Chinese in Taiwan and having been in a classroom full of people with the same complaints the author makes, I can only say that their Chinese suffered because they constantly tried to “westernize” it, and as such lost so much of what it was about. Learning Bopomofo broke that connection to English pronunciation that held many people back in being understood by locals. Also, your reference to Taiwanese pronunciation is unfathomable. Why would you want everyone in the world to sound the same!? Half of the charm in being in Taiwan is slowly integrating into their way of interacting and then living, and that doesn’t happen when you resist their way of learning (one of the cornerstones of their way of life, haha).

      You could argue that Pinyin is a more efficient way of learning, but more efficient does not mean better, (effectively) it just means faster. And why lose a chunk of culture just to satisfy the impatience of the few?

  38. I studied Mandarin at Tai Da ICLP. I was the only one using bopomofo. I did it because , in my experience, it is much more accurate than pin yin in presenting the sounds of Mandarin. It was designed by Chinese for Chinese, unlike pin yin which had Soviet “friends” directing things.

    When in Taiwan I was able to purchase many excellent books on all subjects with bopomofo alongside the Traditional characters. Since the bookshops and publishers are happy to send material to the US, I can still get whatever I want.

    Try finding 10 much less 100 fascinating books in pin yin. Pin yin is for foreigners. Bopomofo is aimed at Chinese-speaking kids and teens and the reading material including a real newspaper , Mandarin Daily News, can be really interesting and help you rapidly become more comfortable in reading material meant for native speakers.

    You can use bopomofo to look up characters and, as pointed out, to ask Taiwanese to write down the phonetics of anything you want.

    It is quickly learned and once learned a tremendous resource.

    Sorry that you found it unhelpful.

    Harold Goodman
    Michel Thomas Speak Mandarin Chinese series

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