Chinese characters can be a major stumbling block for students of Mandarin. There are thousands of characters and the only way to learn their meaning and pronunciation is by rote.
Fortunately, there are phonetic systems that aid in the study of Chinese characters. The phonetics are used in textbooks and dictionaries, so that students can begin associating sounds and meanings with specific characters.
The most common phonetic system is Pinyin. It is used to teach Mainland Chinese school children, and it is also widely used by foreigners learning Mandarin as a second language.
Pinyin is a Romanization system. It uses the Roman alphabet to represent the sounds of spoken Mandarin. The familiar letters make Pinyin look easy.
However, many of the Pinyin pronunciations are quite different from the English alphabet. For example, the Pinyin c is pronounced with a ts sound.
Pinyin is certainly not the only phonetic system for Mandarin. There are other Romanization systems, and then there is Zhuyin Fuhao, otherwise known as Bopomofo.
Zhuyin Fuhao uses symbols which are based on Chinese characters to represent the sounds of spoken Mandarin. These are the same sounds which are represented by Pinyin, and in fact there is a one-to-one correspondence between Pinyin and Zhuyin.
The first four symbols of Zhuyin are bo po mo fo (pronounced buh puh muh fuh), which gives the common name Bopomofo – sometimes shortened to bopomo.
Bopomofo is used in Taiwan to teach school children, and it is also a popular input method for writing Chinese characters on computers and handheld devices such as cell phones.
Children’s books and teaching materials in Taiwan almost always have Zhuyin symbols printed next to the Chinese characters. It is also used in dictionaries.
Advantages of Bopomofo
Zhuyin Fuhao symbols are based on Chinese characters, and in some cases they are identical. Learning Bopomofo, therefore, gives Mandarin students a head start to reading and writing Chinese.
Another important advantage to Zhuyin Fuhao is its status as an independent phonetic system. Unlike Pinyin or other Romanization systems, Bopomofo symbols cannot be confused with other pronunciations.
The main disadvantage to Romanization is that students often have preconceived ideas about the pronunciation of the Roman alphabet. For example, the Pinyin letter “q” has a “ch” sound, and it can take some effort to make this association. On the other hand, the Zhuyin symbol ㄑ is not associated with any other sound than its Mandarin pronunciation.
Computer keyboards are available which have Zhuyin symbols. This makes it fast and efficient to input Chinese characters using a Chinese Character IME (Input Method Editor) like the one included with Windows XP.
The Zhuyin input method can be used with or without tone marks. Characters are input by spelling the sound, followed by either the tone mark or the space bar. A list of candidate characters appears. Once a character is selected from this list another list of commonly used characters may pop up.
Only In Taiwan
Zhuyin Fuhao was developed in the early 20th century. In the 1950s, Mainland China switched over to Pinyin as its official phonetic system, although some dictionaries from the Mainland still include Zhuyin symbols.
Taiwan continues to use Bopomofo for teaching school children. Taiwanese teaching material aimed at foreigners usually uses Pinyin, but there are a few publications for adults which use Zhuyin. Zhuyin is also used for some of Taiwan's Aboriginal languages.
Zhuyin and Pinyin Comparison Table