I have created a set of Hanyu Pinyin flashcards which I am making available for all to download. The cards are meant to be big. If it seems like a waste of paper, hear me out. Originally, I created the flashcard for two purposes :
1. For me to teach #3
2. For use in our Hanyu Pinyin class.
Last year, after our Chinese Writing Camp, we had several enquiries about Hanyu Pinyin class. At first, we were reluctant to consider having such a class because, honestly, we thought Hanyu Pinyin was really not difficult and there were already plenty of classes teaching Hanyu Pinyin. However, because there were quite a number of enquiries, and two of us had preschoolers due for Primary 1 next year and were about to start learning Hanyu Pinyin, we thought we might as well conduct a class “on the way”.
So I created some simple materials for the class, including these flashcards. Made them big so that they would be appropriate for a group setting. The other reason was that even though the basic phonograms are short, like “a”, “o” and “i”. There are also longer ones, like “uang“, “ian“, and they take up more space.
Here are some tips on teaching Hanyu Pinyin :
1. Make sure the child knows all the phonograms very well.
From the newer Hanyu Pinyin books I bought, I noticed that these days, the emphasis seems to be on the basic phonograms. I think the expectation is that the child will learn the basics and form the more complex sounds using the basic sounds. However, it does not always work! For example, if you know the “a” sound (ah), you can certainly figure out how “an” sounds like (ah-n). But “ian” is certainly not ee-ah-n but ee-eh-n.
When I was a student learning Hanyu Pinyin, we learned every single possible phonogram and were drilled extensively. I know because I still keep my old primary school Hanyu Pinyin textbook and can now make comparison with the newer books! There are exceptions here and there in pronunciation so best is to drill and recognise each one individually.
I do not know how much school teachers drill the kids these days. For #1 and #2, I basically left Hanyu Pinyin for the school teachers to teach. #1 had no issues at all. #2 is a little bit iffy at Hanyu Pinyin and I realised that sometimes he does not know how to put the sounds together and blend. Likewise when he has to do it the other way round of breaking up the sound for a character to get the spelling of the Hanyu Pinyin. Thinking back on how I learned, I realised that all the drilling made it almost a second nature for me to break sounds into components, such that if you said a word, I could immediately break it into the correct consonant+vowel combination and give you the correct Hanyu Pinyin for the character. This is precisely what #2 has problem doing sometimes.
How did the teachers drill us? Here’s a page from my old textbook. We would chant all these like so :
bo-an-ban, bān bán bǎn bàn
po-an-pan, pān pán pǎn pàn
Do it long enough, it gets into your heard and the next time you hear the word bǎn, it comes out naturally bo-an-ban. And you know bo is written as ‘b’, an is written as ‘an’. Hence, the Hanyu Pinyin for it is spelled “ban“.
Likewise for the four tones. I noticed that kids these days sometimes have problem pronouncing the 4 tones precisely, especially the ones that speak like a caucasian speaking mandarin. In Chinese, the tones are very important. Mispronounce and you will end up saying something else. Therefore, all the drilling will also help to drill in the pronunciation of the 4 tones.
3. Getting the Hang of the 4 Tones
As I said, some kids have problem getting the 4 tones. One way to put it across is using a music stave. If you know how to read music notes, you know that as the notes go up, the tone goes up too. Like this scale :
If you know how to sing do re mi fa sol la ti do, you know how it sounds like and this is the graphic representation of it.
This is how the 4 tones are represented on the stave :
The first tone is a high note staying constant. The second tone starts low and goes up. The third tone is a bit tricky but if you listen carefully, it sounds like a up-down-up. The fourth tone is from high to low.
4. The Tone Markers Chant
I do not know if they are still teaching this chant in school but this was what I learned about where exactly to put the tone markers. Yes, there is a specific place to place the tone markers and this little chant will remind you where :
有 a 不放过 (yǒu a bú fàng guò)
无 a 找 o, e (wú a zhǎo o, e )
i, u 并例标在后 ( i, u bìng liè biāo zài hòu )
English Translation :
If you see ‘a’, don’t let it off – place the tone marker over the ‘a’
If there is no ‘a’, look for ‘o’ and ‘e’
If “i” and “u” are side by side, place it [ the tone marker] on the last one.
Do it both ways : translate Chinese characters into Hanyu Pinyin and translate Hanyu Pinyin into Chinese. You can easily find these exercises in assessment books sold in Popular if you have no time to set your own exercise.
Up for a bigger challenge? When I was in Primary 3 or 4 – I cannot remember which year it was now – my Chinese teacher wrote out the lyrics of a whole song in Hanyu Pinyin on the blackboard, made us copy it, and then made us translate it into Chinese Characters. We had no idea that
a. it was the lyrics of a song
b. even if we knew, we didn’t know what song it was, having not heard of it
c. even if we knew what song it was, how were we supposed to know what characters made up the song? Remember that each sound can represent many characters. So unless you know the context, you will have no idea what characters to use.
The song was not a children song that we were familiar with. In fact, the song was what is known as a 文艺歌曲 (wén yì gē qǔ ). An old song which was written in very poetic expressions. We were just 9 or 10 year olds and even if we were given the lyrics in chinese characters, we would not know most of the meaning of the song. But we stuck to it and tried our best to translate. If I remember correctly, it took us quite a while to finish translating the song. I think most of us did not know what we were doing. We most likely made a whole lot of mistakes but our teacher did not reprimand us at all. At the end of the exercise, he gave us the correct lyrics and taught us the song. I think he loved to sing because he made us sing it every day.
Here is the song in Chinese characters :
kàn yǔ hòu qīng tiān bái yún piāo, shān ào niǎo tí jiào
kàn mò shàng cūn gū chú yé cǎo, zuǐ biān guà zhe xiào
kàn yuán lǐ cài huā fàn jīn cháo, zhī tóu chán shēng zào
kàn tián lǐ lǎo nóng gē zǎo dào, huī hàn chuí zhè yāo
wǒ yuàn cháng liú zài nóng cūn dè huái bào
zhè lǐ jué méi yǒu dū shì dè fán rǎo
dà shù xià chéng liáng bǎ shàn yáo, dī shàng niú shuì jiào
kàn guáng chǎng mù tóng qún xī nào, cuī yān rào shù shāo
If you are interested, you can listen to it here. Pay attention to the lyrics. The lines are highlighted as the song progresses, like karaoke.
If this were to happen in today’s classroom, I think the parents would be up in arms against this teacher. But I always believe parents should sometimes let their kids suffer some ‘unreasonableness’ no matter how hard it is. It will not kill them. Even though it was a really hard exercise, as you can see, this learning experience is still etched in my mind in a positive way. I think besides Hanyu Pinyin, the exercise also sharpened our language skill.
So if you are up for a challenge, if you are up for setting up a challenge for your kid, find a nice song and make him translate the Hanyu Pinyin to characters. It’s going to be hard, so approach it in a light hearted manner. If you need help translating the lyrics into Hanyu Pinyin, feel free to drop me a note.
6. Some rule and exceptions
(a) Some sounds have no characters. In other words, characters with that pronunciation do not exist. Hence, when drilling, be sure to skip those.
(b) “i” and “u” cannot be at the start of the word. Replace with “y” and “w” respectively. E.g. “ian” 烟((smoke) would be spelled “yan“. “yi” 一 (one) has an extra ‘y’ to keep “i’ from becoming the first alphabet. Likewise ‘wu‘ 五 (five).
(c) If the tone marker is above “i”, remove the dot and replace with the tone marker.
(d) “q” is written without the “tail”. In other words, a circle with a straight line down on the right.
(e) Why is “ye” pronounced as “yeh” and not ‘yuh‘ when ‘e‘ is ‘uh‘? When I was a student, there was actually an extra vowel tone “ê” that is pronounced as ‘eh‘ (sounds like “air”). To differentiate it from ‘e’, it wears a ‘hat’ on top. Hence, ‘ye‘ is actually “yê” and pronounced as ‘i-eh‘. I don’t know why they drop that differentiation. But when you spell ‘ye‘, the tone marker would have replaced that ‘hat’. Hence, you actually seldom see ‘ê’ with the ‘hat’ on it, and I guess, that makes it look exactly like ‘e’ and over time, they do not specially differentiate it anymore. Confusing?
(f) Although the tone marker removes the dot from the “i” and the ‘hat’ from “ê”, it does not remove the two dots on top of “ü“. This is because consonants “n” and “l” can be combined with “ü” and “u“. Therefore, if the two dots were removed, we will not know exactly which sound the “u” stands for. However, if “ü” is used together with consonants “j“, “q” and “x“, the dots are removed regardless of where the tone marker is. This is because “j“, “q” and “x” cannot be combined with “u“, so if you see “u” you know it must mean “ü”.
(g) When two characters of the third tone are put together, when pronouncing, always change the first character into the second tone. The most common example is the word ‘tiger’ (老虎). lǎo hǔ is pronounced as ‘láo hǔ‘. When writing the Hanyu Pinyin, I have not figure out whether the convention is to write it with the change, ie, láo hǔ, or stick to the original pronunciation, ie. lǎo hǔ. Sometimes I see it written one way and other times I see it written the other way. The safest bet for schoolwork is to ask the teacher. If your child’s teacher says to write it with the changed tone, then follow his instruction. Other teachers may do the opposite but what is important is that your child’s teacher will be marking his work, so follow his teacher’s instruction!
(h) If you see Hanyu Pinyin like “nàr” 那儿, “zhèr” 这儿, “yíhuìr” 一会儿, etc, how do you pronounce them? Strange to see just the “r” at the back. You can say that it is like the English contractions except without the apostrophe, e.g “I’m” is “I am”. In this case, the “r” at the end is actually “er” without the “e“. Hence, “nàr” is “na-er“, “zhèr” is “zhe er” and “yíhuìr” is “yi hui er“. This is because verbally, the correct way to say them is to join them and kind of mesh them up so that they sound like one word instead of two or three words. Conversely, if you are spelling the Hanyu Pinyin of words with the “er” ending, you have to spell it in the contracted form without the “e”.
(i) Every consonant, on its own, comes with a vowel. We do not pronounce the consonants like in English phonics where ‘b’ makes the ‘buh’ sound and ‘s’ makes the ‘sss’ sound. Hence, in Hanyu Pinyin, ‘s’ is not pronounced as ‘sss’ even though it makes the same sound as in English. In Hanyu Pinyin, ‘s’ is pronounced as ‘si‘. Here, the ‘i’ does not make the ‘ee‘ sound. It’s confusing. That’s why I said it is best to drill until the child knows each phonogram by memory instead of trying to blend sounds.
Suppose I want to break the sound of the character “three” in chinese, which is “sān” 三, I would say “si-an, san“. But when I write it out, I only use the consonant letter “s” in front of “an” and not “sian“. If I want to write the Hanyu Pinyin for “four”, which is “sì” 四, then I cannot just write “s” because it must come with a vowel. Since “four” is pronounced exactly like the sound of the “s” consonant, it is spelled in Pinyin as “si”.
I do not know if this makes things easier to understand but it is something like this : There are many consonants in Hanyu Pinyin, e.g. “b”,”d”, “g”, “zh”, “x”, etc. They each have their own name with a prescribed vowel (“bo”, “de”, “ge”, “zhi”, “xi”). When referring to the consonants, you always pronounce using their names. So if you see “b”, you would say “this is ‘bo’.” When you use them in combination with vowels, you do not have to include the vowels that come with the name sound of the consonants. You only spell the consonants with their own prescribed vowels if they do not come together with other vowels.
I know all these rules and exceptions sound very confusing and very difficult to learn. Don’t worry. Hanyu Pinyin itself is really not difficult. All these rules and exception you will soon get used to them as you encounter them more. If you are not sure how to pronounce the phonograms, there are many Youtube videos teaching you Hanyu Pinyin you can refer to. They are also good for the kids to watch and learn.