It is important to know Hanyu Pinyin if you are learning Chinese. It is the romanised form of Chinese writing, which you need to know if you want to learn how to pronounce the characters. Every language in this world that has its own writing system probably has some kind of phonetic, romanised system developed to help learners learn the pronunciation of its writing. For example, “wa” tells you how to pronounce the Japanese hiragana わ; “an” tells you how to pronounce the hangul 안.
Chinese children in Singapore will spend the first 6 months of their Primary 1 year learning Hanyu Pinyin during their Mother Tongue lessons. Technically, Hanyu Pinyin is not supposed to be taught during the preschool years. This is an MOE directive but I am not sure if there has been any changes to this with the current review of preschool education framework. As far I know, some preschools still do not teach Hanyu Pinyin to their students, leaving the primary schools to do the job. I personally think that it is important for a child who is entering P1 to have a rudimentary knowledge of hanyu pinyin at least. This is because there are many other preschools that are teaching their kindergarteners Hanyu Pinyin. These children spend the first 6 months feeling rather bored during Mother Tongue lessons. If there is a significant number of these well-prepared kids in your child’s class, the teacher is going to speed up the lessons, which will mean your child have to learn very fast or end up having a very shaky foundation in Hanyu Pinyin. Hanyu Pinyin is not difficult at all, so it is not adding on to the stress of the preschooler if he is taught Hanyu Pinyin earlier.
Having said all that, there are parents who are overly fixated on Hanyu Pinyin. Perhaps they have their first child in primary school and during the first half of the year, all they see is Hanyu Pinyin, and therefore this gives them the perception that Hanyu Pinyin is very important.
I must clarify that here, I am trying to explain the importance of Hanyu Pinyin in relation to other aspects of learning Chinese. In itself, Hanyu Pinyin is important to learn because without it, you will have problem using the Chinese dictionary or learning how to read unknown characters. However, in the school system, in relation to other parts of the whole curriculum of Mother Tongue (Chinese), Hanyu Pinyin is really not that important. As I said earlier, the first half of the Primary 1 year is spent learning Hanyu Pinyin and the entire subject is taught in Hanyu Pinyin. You see very few characters. After that first 6 months, more and more characters will be introduced and very soon, Hanyu Pinyin is reduced to just one small section in the exam.
So what is my point? If you take a broad view and see learning Chinese as a subject in school (i.e. having to pass exams and all that) and as a useful language, what is much more important is character recognition, rather than Hanyu Pinyin. Remember that Hanyu Pinyin is only a phonetic system that tells you how to pronounce Chinese characters. In and of itself, it has no meaning. Hence, there is point doing very well in Hanyu Pinyin – which is really not difficult at all to master – and do very badly in character recognition. Nobody takes pain to learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (i.e. the strange characters you see in the dictionary, e.g . æ) in order to learn English. Likewise, learning how to read in Hanyu Pinyin very well is not going to help you master the language. During the early years, spend more time making sure that your kid can recognition many characters rather than spend a disproportionate amount of time on drilling Hanyu Pinyin. If your child is good at recognising characters, but just ok at Hanyu Pinyin, you are going to get a lot of more mileage out of the character recognition ability than to be superb at Hanyu Pinyin and poor at character recognition. Personally, I am only planning to spend no more than one month teaching Hanyu Pinyin to my #3 and be done with it.
I am only comparing between character recognition and hanyu pinyin here. To excel in Chinese, it takes much more than just character recognition of course. It is absolutely possible for a child to know how to read all the characters in a passage and have no idea what the passage is talking about. I know because my #1 was like that! Knowing the characters is important. Knowing the meaning of what you are reading is even more important. You can’t know the meaning unless you know the characters first. Therefore, putting things in perspective, Hanyu Pinyin is really not that important when it comes to learning the language well and doing well in exams.