The short answer is you should learn both. Learning pinyin will help you to read quicker and you also need it to use a Chinese keyboard on your phone. And I know you can get by learning pinyin and how to speak, but you’re never going to master Chinese until you learn the characters. Let’s have a look at both.
How does the Chinese writing system work?
Chinese uses a system of characters.
So for those of you who are new to Chinese completely, it’s important to know that they don’t have an alphabet. I’m sure you already know that the Chinese use characters, but these do not form an alphabet.
Instead, each Chinese character represents a word or idea. Meaning to be able to read Chinese you have a lot of characters to learn, 3,000 if you want to learn a newspaper. Or 8,000 if you want to know the same amount as an average Chinese person. However, there are approximately 50,000 in existence, but don’t worry, no one knows this many and they’re really not in use anymore. It’s just not practical for people to remember that many separate characters.
Of course characters have their drawbacks. The Chinese can’t invent new characters because otherwise you would have a never ending supply of characters to learn for every new word. So instead they have to mash characters together, giving you ‘fire car’ for train, or ‘cat bear’ for panda.
Be aware of simplified or traditional
Within this writing system of characters, you will also come across simplified and traditional characters. Simplified characters are usually easier for foreigners to learn and are used on mainland China. Whereas traditional characters are often more complex and can be trickier for foreigners. Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Singapore use traditional characters.
To learn more about simplified vs. traditional characters take a look here.
Can all types of Chinese understand characters?
The answer to this question is kind of a yes and a no. In basic form yes, it doesn’t matter which type of Chinese you speak, you should be able to read characters, they’ll just make a different sound when you pronounce them.
All types of Chinese are able to read characters, however whether or not they use simplified or traditional characters is a different matter.
However, Cantonese is usually associated more with traditional characters because there are used on HongKong and simplified are used in mainland China. Saying this, people speak Cantonese in the south of China and they use simplified characters. And Taiwan speaks Mandarin but uses traditional. So there’s definitely a cross over.
Not all Chinese speakers can understand both simplified and traditional characters, but this is determined on geography and what your region uses rather than the type of Chinese you speak.
With this in mind, you need to decide whether you should you learn traditional or simplified characters. And that’s a whole other question that really depends on you, why you’re learning Chinese and where you intend to use your Chinese.
Should I learn Characters?
This really depends on you, why you’re learning Chinese and what your goals are. Here are some reasons why you should learn characters.
If you want to take the HSK exams to test and prove your Chinese proficiency then you have to learn characters. there’s no two ways about it. If you don’t learn the characters, you won’t be able to pass the higher levels of the exam.
For the first three HSK exams you can use pinyin alongside the characters but for HSK 4,5,6 you need to learn characters. So if this is your ultimate goal, I wouldn’t put off learning the characters and instead start learning them whenever you learn a new word. It’ll make everything so much easier for you in the long term.
If you want to work for a Chinese company (and you’re not an English teacher or an embassy worker). Then I would highly recommend learning Chinese characters. In fact, you may find you can’t work for a Chinese company unless you can understand some characters.
A lot of companies want you to prove your proficiency by having already passed one of the HSK exams, which you would’ve needed to learn characters for anyway.
To live in China
If you’re learning Chinese to live in China, then I would really recommend learning characters. Yes the subway system and maps use pinyin, but shops don’t. And characters are going to come up for everything. If you want to buy something, everything uses characters, if you want to pay your bills, everything uses characters. If you want to sign a contract for a flat, you’re going to need to read characters.
Basically, if your learning Chinese is for life in China, then I think you would be crazy not to learn characters.
What is pinyin?
First let’s get started with what is pinyin. For those of you who don’t know, pinyin is a phonetic writing system that uses the roman alphabet to show us how to produce Chinese words.
Pinyin was invented during Mao’s regime to help foreigners learn Chinese and to improve literacy skills in the country.
This is why we think you should learn pinyin:
You can learn pinyin in a day
Unlike characters, which take weeks if not months or years to learn, pinyin can be learnt within a day. It really takes no effort at all. Each letter matches a sound, the Chinese don’t have that many different phonemes due to them using a tonal language, and there are no irregular letters or rules breakers. So once you’ve learnt which letter corresponds to which sound you’re good to go.
Since it only takes you a day to learn, it seems silly not to bother. It doesn’t have the same cost that learning Chinese characters do, which will take hours and hours of your time. It’s really quite quick and easy.
It makes learning Chinese much easier
Pinyin acts as a bridge between our roman alphabet and the Chinese language. It can be very difficult to know how to pronounce words without pinyin due to Chinese having such a different phonetic system.
If you see a character, you don’t necessarily know how to say it, but with pinyin, you have a phonetic system that shows you immediately how the word is pronounced.
As you learn more characters and your Chinese improves, you’ll find you need pinyin less and less, but to start off, I would highly recommend learning it.
With technology, more and more Chinese people will use pinyin
Already, with phone keyboard, to type in Chinese, people will type in pinyin and then select the corresponding characters. Unless you wrote each character into your phone individually, which would take far too much time, it doesn’t make sense to type in characters. For modern technology, pinyin is necessary.
Therefore, even if you were just bothered about sticking as close to authentic Chinese as possible, you’re still going to need to learn pinyin if you want to use your Chinese in the modern world, or socialise. It’s just not something you’re going to be able to avoid.
We hope we’ve helped you with your decision on whether to learn Chinese characters or pinyin. Of course we think you should learn both, but if you’re not committing to Chinese in the long haul, we can understand why you might want to skip on the characters and just stick to pinyin.
Especially if you’re just learning a bit of Chinese to go on holiday but it’s not something you’re going to take up, or somewhere you want to live.
But I definitely wouldn’t miss learning pinyin. Because it takes such a short time to learn, but will be of so much help to you whilst you’re learning, it really is a must. Otherwise, you’re just making the learning process so much harder for yourself.
If you have anymore questions about the Chinese language then you should check out our common questions about Chinese.
If you’re learning Chinese and you’ve decided to only learn one of these writing systems, or even if you agree with us and want to learn both then please let us know about your experiences in the comments below.