When I first started learning Mandarin Chinese 4 years ago back in Belgium, I was automatically introduced to Pinyin and simplified Chinese. My teacher at the time was originally from Beijing, China. With a quick google search I solved the Simplified Chinese characters issue, I found out about Traditional Characters used in Taiwan and Hong-Kong, and started using the later writing system which prettier to eyes.
However, I still learned Pinyin, but I always thought that something was odd. I struggled, my classmates struggled, and at the end of the first semester we all kinda invented our own personal versions of Pinyin, as the actual Pinyin didn’t make any sense to us. How can an alphabet originally invented to write Latin in Europe can accurately be used to write the pronunciation of a language from a completely different family, thousands of kilometers away? Was there truly no pronunciation teaching tool used in China prior to the 1950s? Those were the questions that I constantly asked myself, and since my teacher had no knowledge about the existence of Bopomofo, she never was able to answer them.
But everything changed when I met my first Taiwanese friend through a language exchange app. As I was practicing Chinese with her, I came across a character that I didn’t know, I asked her: “How do you write the pronunciation of this character in Pinyin?”, to that she replied “Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t know how to use Pinyin”. I continued: “What do you mean you don’t use Pinyin? How do you learn how to pronounce Chinese when you are little?”. She said: “Here in Taiwan we use a different phonetic alphabet called Bopomofo”. Shocked, I opened google, typed Bopomofo, and read the entire Wikipedia page. I was thrilled! Right away, I picked a pen and a few white papers, and learned and memorized the entire Bopomofo alphabet in a single evening. From that moment onwards, my Chinese learning experience changed for the better.
Following the same purpose of Pinyin, Bopomofo was created in the 1910s by the government of the Republic of China in order to make learning Chinese easier. But in this article I don’t want to talk about the history of Bopomofo, you can read all about it on Wikipedia. What I wanna talk about is why you should learn and use Bopomofo if you are a Mandarin Chinese learner.
So without further ado, here are 9 reasons why you should learn Bopomofo !
1. You will have a better pronunciation
The major problem with Pinyin is that, as it uses the Latin alphabet, if your own mother tongue also uses the Latin alphabet, you will most likely end up reading Pinyin the same way you read your own language. And even if you manage to pronounce things correctly, you’ll certainly keep a very thick accent.
On the other hand, Bopomofo uses its own unique alphabet. Meaning you will associate every sound with a new and unique letter. It is therefore impossible for you to be influenced by another language, as Bopomofo is only used for Chinese. It might take you a bit more time for you to learn it, but in exchange, you will have a better pronunciation.
2. You will see the clear distinction between Initials, Medials, and Finals
You might not be aware of it, but Chinese syllables are composed of initials, medials, and finals. In Pinyin, as the letters are all packed together, it’s very difficult, in some cases almost impossible, to distinguish them, especially because Pinyin tends to make some letters disappear or change with some initial/medial/final combination. On the other hand, each Bopomofo letter is either an initial, a medial, or a final, so you can instantly know what is what.
Here is an example:
If we take the word 說 (to speak), in Pinyin the word is written [Shuo], the initial is [Sh] (written “shi” when it is by itself), the medial is [u] (written “u” when it’s a medial or final, but “w” when its an initial), an the final is [o]. As you can see it’s not very intuitive. Now the same exercise in Bopomofo: 說 in Bopomofo is [ㄕㄨㄛ], the initial [ㄕ], the medial is [ㄨ], and the final is [ㄛ]. Bopomofo letters never ever change shapes, no matter their position in the syllable. Much easier, isn’t it?!
3. You will be all set up to master Chinese poetry
Rhymes in poetry are very important, and Chinese poetry is no exception. However, in some cases, it is difficult to distinguish a rhyme with Pinyin, for the same initial/ medial/ final issue mentioned above.
In classical Tang poetry for example, rhymes occur on the last character every 2 lines starting from the 2nd line. Take the poem below for example. The last character of the 2nd line is 紅, and the last character of the 4th line is 風, in pinyin this would be [hong] and [feng] respectively. Can you guess the rhyme? If you say [ng], then you are wrong. The right answer is actually [eng]. You’re probably confused, there is no [eng] in [hong]? Well actually there is, because [hong] is actually formed with the following parts [h – u – eng]. Now let’s look at the Bopomofo; 紅 is [ㄏㄨㄥ], and 風 is [ㄈㄥ]. Do you see the rhyme? It is [ㄥ], the Pinyin equivalence of [eng]. Much easier isn’t it?
4. You will discover the magic of the ruby characters
One of the main reasons why Chinese learners struggle so much in learning characters is because the brain is naturally lazy. If you study a list of vocabulary with the characters on one side and the Pinyin on the other side, with a big gap between the two, your brain will then unconsciously focus on the Pinyin, and neglect the characters.
When it comes to Bopomofo on the other hand, when it is written alongside characters, it takes the shape of what we call “ruby characters”. It is written in a smaller font and always placed on the right side of the character so that it is impossible for you to read the Bopomofo without looking at the character. Therefore when you study vocabulary lists for example, you will always have both the Bopomofo and the character in your visual field.
5. You could read entire books, newspapers, and more from the very beginning
In Taiwan, most children’s books come with ruby characters. Taiwan’s Mandarin Daily News (國語日報)’s paper version is also entirely written with ruby characters. Besides, if you live in Taiwan, you will realize that Bopomofo is also used in a lot of kid friendly places such as the Taipei Zoo, some MRT stations, Amusement Parks, etc.
This means that once you know Bopomofo, you will be able to read out loud a large variety of content without having to actually know a single Chinese character. Isn’t it amazing?
6. It will make typing Chinese on your phone smoother and faster
Typing in Chinese using Bopomofo is a lot faster than with Pinyin. One of the reasons is that typing a Chinese syllable in Bopomofo requires less letters (Maximum 3) than in Pinyin (Can go up to 6). But the main reason is the keyboard. While the Pinyin keyboard is simply a copy-paste of the QWERTY keyboard, which doesn’t make any sense since the QWERTY keyboard was invented specifically so that the English language would be faster to type, not Chinese.
On the other hand, the Bopomofo keyboard is extremely logical as each letter is ordered by initials, medials, and finals, making typing Chinese a lot faster.
7. You could write the pronunciation of all Sinitic languages
If one day you want to start learning another Sinitic language, such as Taiwanese or Cantonese, don’t even think that Mandarin Pinyin is going to help you. Each of those languages have their own version of Pinyin with their own specificities, meaning that for each Sinitic language that you want to learn, you will have to learn a new specific Pinyin.
On the other hand, Bopomofo has an extended version (注音符號擴展) that adds 32 letters to the original Bopomofo (so in total 69 letters, such a nice number). With that extended Bopomofo you will be able to write down the pronunciation of every single Sinitic language, such as Cantonese or Taiwanese Hokkien for example ! See it as a kind of international Sinitic phonetic alphabet.
8. You won’t be bothered by all the multiple romanization systems in Taiwan
Many foreigners living in Taiwan complain that the country is inconsistent with their romanization in street names, city names, etc. Have you ever wondered why that doesn’t bother the locals? That’s simply because they don’t use Pinyin, so they don’t care. Stop using Pinyin and switch to Bopomofo, and you’ll realize that Taipei, Taichung, Kaohsiung are just what they are … city names, and they don’t need any kind of “standardization”. I mean … Would you wanna call Los Angeles “The Angels”, or San Francisco “Saint Francis”?
9. You could use it as a secret language
Bopomofo is often used by Taiwanese netizens online to talk about China without having Chinese netizens understanding them (As China stopped teaching Bopomofo 70 years ago). Besides, As Bopomofo is a phonetic alphabet, that means that technically you could use it to write other languages. Therefore you could create your own secret language by writing down another language you know using Bopomofo. To illustrate, just read the following Bopomofo sentence. If you can’t … well, that’s your 10th reason to learn Bopomofo.