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?