The Pinyin Wall

A few people have asked me to comment on the “Pinyin Wall” that learners supposedly reach where it is no longer possible to function using pinyin alone and one must use hanzi characters.

My short answer is: I believe the reports of such a wall to be greatly exaggerated.

In my first year learning Chinese I had entire, ongoing email conversations with people who couldn’t speak a word of English, and I obviously didn’t know enough hanzi to carry a conversation. So we wrote emails in toneless pinyin. As you might expect, my pinyin was often better than theirs (one reason being they hadn’t used it since elementary school) but we didn’t have any major problems. Of course there were times when I’d have to ask what a certain word meant, at at that point they would include the hanzi for my reference in a online dictionary.

It was important to combine the compound words and put spaces in the right places, for example:

  • wo xihuan qi zixingche

Is much easier to read than:

  • wo xi huan qi zi xing che

But I suspect even beginners could read and understand that sentence to mean “I like to ride bikes” even without the tones.

There were plenty of times where toneless pinyin wouldn’t cut it, and one or the other of us had to add a tone number:

  • wo xiang duo lian4xi2 = I want to practice more
  • wo xiang duo lian2xi4 = I want to communicate more

Of course, for reading anything like newspapers and books, and for reading people’s Chinese names, you’ve got to know hanzi characters. But in my experience, pinyin (often even toneless pinyin) is perfectly sufficient for representing any spoken Chinese on paper. After all, the Chinese understand each other when they talk on the phone, and that’s just like listening to tonal pinyin in context without any other cues.

Anyone else like to comment on the Pinyin Wall?


  1. About Chinese understanding each other (hearing only tonal pinyin) I’ve observed that sometimes they don’t, and they ask “shenme _______?” Then the reply is to use the phrase in a defining sort of way… I’m not thinking of a good example right now (probably because I don’t know enough Chinese) but say the misunderstood pinyin is bei.
    “shenme bei?”
    “beijing de bei.”

    Or they resort to tracing the hanzi on one another’s palm’s or a windowpane or some handy surface, and then continue on with the conversation.

    I’ve had people try tracing the hanzi on my palm when I didn’t get something, but generally I’m still clueless.


  2. We chinese have little difficulty talking with each other in Pinyin,that’s, as Albert put is, just like listening to tonal pinyin in context without any other cues.
    However, we find reading a passage written in Pinyin a job assiduous, time-consuming and usually full of misunderstanding, especially when the writer tries to convey minute and deep ideas.

  3. Last year I was in China without knowing very many characters at all as I didn’t have any lessons and I picked up a lot of spoken Chinese. I do, however, think that there are severe limits of pinyin and that the problem with pinyin is you shouldn’t get too used to it. Learning characters, especially at the beginning, is a slow process so you need to spend time making sure that you spend enough time doing things like learning the radicals. In some ways now with the characters I know, I find it easier reading the character than the pinyin. And definitely for getting the meaning it’s better.

  4. I personally get a bit lost with pinyin, probably because I started learning characters before I started learning how to speak Chinese. I don’t like it when I see, for example “na shi wo mama” and then “ni shi na guoren?” and think “so, are those two ‘na’s the same just used in different contexts?” and then realise that they are in fact different characters… I can’t really explain it, but I feel on ‘surer footing’ using characters.

    However I sometimes feel very lazy and can’t be bothered to either load the internet interface or wrestle with the Microsoft hanzi typing system and so go back to good old pinyin ^_^

    However that is just the way my brain works… I don’t think there is such thing as a “pinyin wall” which blocks further progress for those not learning characters, though in my opinion they are missing out on the more interesting side of the language!


  5. Great last point! Precisely. It certainly is possible to learn perfectly fluent Chinese without ever being able to read a character. Here is the only difference: you’ve got to sort out the individual mopheme meanings without a visual aide. If you are blind and grow up in China, you have your entire life to figure out the differences between homophones by hearing them in context your entire life. If you are a foreigner learning Chinese, maybe you will eventually be able to accomplish the same, but I think a faster route is to simply learn the writing system. This will speed up your acquisition of vocabulary and hone your understanding of subtlety. So, for example, if you learn two homophones such as lì (力)and lì (立)in various 2-character combinations to form words such as “dynamism” (力度)or “legislation”(立法), you may never sort out that one means “power” and the other “upright”. Knowing the meaning of the individual mopheme, but particularly the actual written character, gives the student a mental flashcard to use when learning all the other combinations one fourth-tone li can form. Just look at how easy the rest of these words are to learning knowing what means:

    lì power / force / strength
    力度 lì dù dynamism / vigor
    力量 lì liang power / force / strength
    力气 lì qi strength
    力求 lì qiú make every effort to / do one’s best
    力图 lì tú try hard to / strive to
    力争 lì zhēng work hard for

    I think it is possible to not learn the characters and have someone explain each mopheme meaning, say someone writes a textbook and all new vocabulary is broken down into mopheme meanings, e.g.:
    lì qi (power + air)
    lì chǎng (stand + arena)

    But the problem here is you can’t list all the meanings of the mopheme, just one general one (so it is reconizable each time) that might not capture the full meaning.

    In sum, I don’t think there is a wall so much a a big white elephant in the room saying “If you learn me, I’ll help you out a lot in the future”.

  6. I think the wall is the lack of pinyin text to study from. Approx 20% on Chinese are not fully literate but many manage to converse to some degree in Putonghau.

    Like any language there is repetition of simple sounds that mean different things depending on the context. As the reader above points out it is important when studying pinyin that an understanding of where the vowels are derived from. With out this using the word correct context can be difficult to get right.

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