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What is the utility of the Chinese alphabet for 外國人?

I never had the need to learn “bo-po-mo-fa” until I visited the local library to check out some children’s books for my daughter. More than half of the books, particularly those published in Taiwan use this character set alongside classical characters (see excerpts from children’s books Figs 1 & 2 below). I would have been happy to ignore them altogether except that these phonetic symbols confuse the google translate app, making the books unreadable to me if I didn’t know the characters! :frowning: Thus, I was forced to the learn the archaic Chinese alphabet. Below are some thoughts on “bo-po-mo-fa”. What are yours?

  1. It is intuitive. It maps the seemingly infinite character set to a simple pronunciation key that even a child can learn. And if you made it past childhood, you can learn it too!

  2. It may be easier to teach. If you are trying to get a 14-month old child to start speaking Chinese, they are quick to pick up on the first several character sounds “b”, “p”, “m”. (“爸爸 媽媽!”)

  3. It may advance your reading. If you run into childrens or young adult books like the ones below and know the alphabet, it’s liberating to launch right into reading. No taking pics of the page and translating - no looking up characters. There’s an interesting thing that happens with your brain when you are able to say the characters aloud. It seems to leverage your speaking and listening vocabulary simultaneously, giving way to instant character comprehension, not just recognition.

  4. It is the “raw dataset”. If you’re a purist, perhaps there is something to be learned by going to the roots of the language.

  5. It’s online presence and resources are elusive. I searched for basic flashcards for my daughter and alas, discontinued. One thing I found was this wall chart (Fig 3 below) but it was the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps I needed to search on Alibaba.

All of this is moot if you’ve already developed your speaking and reading via pinyin, but I have found it to be a simple tool that pays off in unexpected ways. What are your thoughts on this? Is “bo-po-mo-fa” alive and well in Chinese speaking countries? Should 外國人 like myself make use of it even if we know pinyin? If you are starting from scratch with your child, which would you choose?

Have fun everybody!

Fig 1.

Fig 2.

Fig 3.

1 Like

I’d also add that there’s a “bo-po-mo-fa” keyboard which scared the heck out of me the first time I saw it. I thought my phone had been hacked :smile: But turned out to be another great resource.

The problem of chinese character is that you cannot guess how to pronounce it if you don’t know it. A lot of people from various countries tried to developpe phonetic languages to fixe this problem. I will give you some elements on the chronology of these phonetic languages.

The first attempts were done by foreigners who want to learn or teach chinese

Wade-Giles (English 1867,1912)
EFEO Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient (French 1902)
Yale (US 1960)

For teaching chinese in elementary school Taiwan developped in 1910 the bopomofo (also refered as Zhuyin 注音).This phonetic language was not developped for foreigners but for chinese children.

After the characters’ simplification by the communist party in mainland in 1952 the pinyin 汉语拼音 was created in 1958 and adopted by the chinese governement in 1982.The pinyin was developped by the chinese governement to reduce iliteracy in China.

From 2002 to 2008 Taiwan developped its own pinyin (called 通用拼音) but finally gave up and adopted the 汉语拼音 pinyin in 2009.

In 1886 the french and the english developped the IPA (International Phonetic Association) which is used to describe the phonetic [fəʊˈnɛtɪk] of european languages (english, french, german, italian …) but so far as I know was never used for chinese.

Wade EFEO and Yale are nowadays obsolete.

So it seems that today the most widespread and the official phonetic language is the pinyin 汉语拼音 both in mainland and in Taiwan (it is not clear to me if bopomofo remains an official phonetic language in Taiwan in addition to pinyin).

Now I am curious to know what is the real situation in Taiwan, maybe Chinesepod team @fiona @yuqincai @constance_fang could comment on that issue.

As a foreigner I think we don’t need to learn any other phonetic language than pinyin.

Also pronunciation expert Frederic with recitation of the bopomofo alphabet at timestamp 11:05 from

In Taiwanese education system we use Zhuyin. Today, most signs in Taiwan are updated to Pinyin but still, some places aren’t updated yet so it’s confusing for tourists.