Yeh Yi-jin (葉宜津), who is running for the DPP mayoral position in Tainan, sparked a debate over the phonetic system used in Taiwan during a primary debate a week ago. Yeh proposed scrapping the zhuyin (注音) system, often referred to as “Bo Po Mo Fo” (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ), in favor of the pinyin (拼音) system, which uses the Latin alphabet. She argued that this would be the best way to improve literacy in Taiwan.
Taiwan is the only place that uses zhuyin. Other Mandarin speaking countries all use pinyin or some other system that is based on the Latin alphabet. Students learn this list of 37 characters that represent phonetic sounds, very early in their education. Usually they study this very early on before they have learned any characters. It is a way for them to read Chinese without actually having to recognize the Mandarin characters, since they can’t be read phonetically.
Yeh argues that using zhuyin serves almost no purpose other than to learn zhuyin itself. She purports that if students were to learn pinyin however, they would not only gain the benefit of learning how to pronounce Mandarin, but also how to use the Latin alphabet for later study of secondary languages. Yeh thinks that if she could first introduce this system in Tainan, that other cities and counties would soon follow suit.
The politician also argues that with the world’s ever-increasing use of technology, using pinyin is easier. This being due to the fact that most keyboards use the Latin system. She thinks that this will create faster and easier input.
She also argues that this will attract more foreigners to study Mandarin in Taiwan. This is my main point of contention with Yeh.
As a foreigner who studies Mandarin in Taiwan, I have always used the pinyin system. In fact, every foreigner I know has always studied the pinyin system. To be fair, she may be referring to foreigners who wish to come to study before their college years.
A fair amount of Mandarin instructors argue that zhuyin is a more accurate way to learn pronunciation, and it is certainly the most classical way to learn. Pinyin came into fashion in the 1950s with simplified characters from the mainland While I am no expert, the pronunciation of the letters used in Chinese pinyin, differ a lot from how we pronounce the sounds in English. This should be expected as both languages have sounds that are unique to their respective languages.
I am certainly not enough of an expert to weigh in totally on this issue. Though some Taiwanese netizens did. They said they were happy that the mayoral hopeful had no real sway over the educational standards on the island. They also questioned why they don’t just give up on Mandarin all together and learn English as their first language, almost certainly a tongue in cheek remark.
Whether Yeh’s strategy is best for the island or not is really up to the experts. I am certainly not sure. In my opinion, it was easier to study pinyin because I already knew the characters, however maybe that would translate to her strategy for students learning foreign languages in Taiwan. I would love to hear the opinions of Taiwanese individuals on this idea and those of native Mandarin speakers in general. We will see if this debate has any lasting effects on Taiwan or Mandarin learning in general, either way I’m interested.