First of all, what is pinyin?
Pinyin (Simplified / Traditional Chinese), or more formally Hanyu pinyin, is currently the most commonly used romanization system (phonemic notation and transcription to Roman script) for Standard Mandarin. Hanyu means the Chinese language, and pinyin means “phonetics”, or more literally, “spelling sound” or “spelled sound”.
This system approximates Chinese mandarin pronunciation with Roman letters and informs the user at which pitch to pronounce a word. It was developed by a government committee in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and approved by the Chinese government on February 11, 1958.
This system is now used in mainland China (and Hong Kong, Macau, and parts of Taiwan) to teach Mandarin Chinese to schoolchildren. It has become a tool for many foreigners to learn the Mandarin pronunciation, and is used to explain the grammar and spoken Mandarin together with hanzi (Chinese characters).
Therefore, pinyin is fairly important for Chinese-language learning, natives-speakers and foreigners.
Why I advocate not to teach babies pinyin as a start to acquire Chinese? (To learn the difference of acquiring and learning a second language,Â see How children acquire second languages?)
Because for babies, Chinese language, as any other natural language consists of particular distributional, rhythmical, and temporal patterns, attaches to the subjects it represents and is part of the sound/meaning relationship. It is a powerful tool for understanding the social-cultural world around them (Clark, B. A., 200, p182). It also helps babies to make themselves comprehensible, empowering them a way to express their feelings and needs.
As one of the oldest languages in the world, Chinese language symbols and structures have been taught to children for thousands of years, while pinyin was just invented 51 years ago.
One of the primary purposes to invent pinyin was to promote a national language, Standard Mandarin (Putonghua / Guoyu / Huayu), since China has 56 nationalities speaking seven different languages and over 400 dialects.
Besides political convenience, pinyin was invented to establish a phonetic way to connect with Chinese characters, a more semantic written system. In addition, pinyin indicates the exact tone with additional punctuation, making it simpler to understand highly tonal and homophonic Chinese words.
Nevertheless, all these benefits are of little use to babies who just start to learn language. To babies, the first and the most important thing is to establish the linkage between language symbols and actual subjects they represent (e.g., mom, dog, chair, table, etc). This early language experience is personal, direct and related to the present. As their language understanding grows, children can relate to ever more expanding situations and are able to use language symbols apart from actual subjects and situations (Clark, B. A., 200, p182).
While starting from pinyin to learn Chinese may intervene or even interrupt the linkage-establishing process babies need for their future language acquisition, which is the most significant milestone in childrenâ€™ s cognitive development (Berk & Winsler, 1995, p. 12).
Think about how native English speakers teach their babies English. Do you teach your baby 26 letters alphabetically before introducing yourself as â€œI am mommy/daddyâ€? Do you show him/her the letters a, p, l and e first or do you simply point to an apple and say â€œthis is an appleâ€?
With no doubt, you would introduce yourself directly as mommy/daddy, and tell your child directly that â€œthis is an apple.â€ After repeated practice, baby would gradually relate you to the language symbol mommy/daddy and that red round thing to the word apple.
After babies build up enough background to relate language to the sound/meaning relationship and to the purpose it represents (Clark, B. A., 200, p181), it is time for parents to bring in the alphabet to help them read and spell later.
In like manner, pinyin should be taught to children only after the interactive relationship between Chinese language and their cognitive growth has been inaugurated.
However, the benefits of pinyin should not be ignored, especially for people who have already established their reservoir of language knowledge, such as concept formation, subject knowledge, literacy development, academic skills, learning strategies and etc (Clark, B. A., 200, p185).
For school-age children, pinyin actually works as an excellent tool to correct their pronunciations. For foreigners who want to learn Chinese as a second language (to learn the difference of acquiring and learning a second language,Â see How children acquire second languages?), pinyin provides an easy way to associate Chinese characters with what they should sound like when said.
As a result, my suggestion is not to teach babies pinyin when they just start to learn language. Wait until they are around five or six at school-age and have already accumulated enough knowledge about Chinese language.
Berk, L., & Winsler, A. (1995). Scaffolding children’s learning: Vygotsky and early childhood education. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children. (ERIC Document No. ED384443)
Clark, Beverly A. (2000). First- and Second-Language Acquisition in Early Childhood, Issues in Early Childhood Education: Curriculum, Teacher Education, & Dissemination of Information. Proceedings of the Lilian Katz Symposium (Champaign, IL, November 5-7, 2000), 181-188.
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