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A Simple Solution to Teaching Chinese Characters Alongside Pinyin on Duolingo

The main problem with teaching Mandarin on Duolingo, I think, is teaching Pinyin alongside characters. Pinyin is a romanisation of Chinese that natives speakers use to type Chinese characters. It's useless if you want to read any Chinese (Chinese is NEVER written in Pinyin), but if you want to type it or be able to pronounce it, Pinyin goes a long way to helping with that.

This idea is largely based on a conversation I had with Rhythmialex yesterday. He/she explained why, in a Chinese course, learners would need to encounter characters right from the start and why doing a course in just Pinyin would be useless (ie. Pinyin is completely useless if you want to do any kind of reading, and if you just write in Pinyin native speakers struggle to understand what you've written), but also mentioned that Pinyin is used to type Chinese characters. It was his/her post that gave me this idea. I wrote about the idea briefly in that thread. Here's a link to the original discussion: https://www.duolingo.com/comment/7252937

It's possible to type characters without Pinyin (ex. using Cangjie or just drawing each character with your finger on your phone), but I think in the end it's much easier to write a character with Pinyin. That's how most native Chinese speakers do it too. Pinyin also tells you exactly how to pronounce a word. Since Chinese characters aren't phonetic, without some kind of alphabet you just have to memorise the pronunciation of each character as you learn it; I think just knowing the Pinyin is much easier in the end.

The problem is teaching both Pinyin and characters. In Duolingo's current format, a student translates a word or sentence into the language they're learning or vice-versa. That doesn't work so well when you have to know two things when translating into Chinese: you have to know what the characters looks like AND their Pinyin. That's two outputs you have to teach. I think I have a simple, yet effective solution.

Of course, pictures show a thousand words. As such, I've used paint to show what my idea would look like if it were implemented into Duolingo. I've put all the images into one big image. If it doesn't come out correctly when I make this topic, I'll edit my post afterwards and split it into smaller images:

Duo If you can't see the image, here's a link: http://i.imgur.com/L1UmDn8.png

February 28, 2015



Thank you Neptunium for your great work. The solution is exactly what I'd suggest. I hope the future English->Mandarin team will take it into consideration. :)

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    Well it hasn't even started, and the Klingon course has started hatching before a real course, so I think the next decade will be when the Chinese course happens. I applied for the Chinese incubator, but it doesn't seem to work.


    Wow, appreciate all the work you've put into this, and the clear, exhaustive explanation. I'm eager to see what others have to add, and would be eager to use a Duo course for Mandarin, when one eventually is released. One comment, I remember reading something from a news source within the past few months which stated that more and more young Chinese are not learning or are simply forgetting how to write some characters as they use Pinyin more and more on computers and phones to text, etc., so I somewhat disagree that learning just Pinyin would be "useless."


    This reminds me of a story my Chinese teacher once told me. She moved to the US shortly after graduating and wrote a letter back home to her parents (this was before the internet). After being in the US for a few years, she forgot how to write some characters and thus wrote Pinyin instead. She shortly got a furious call from her father, angry that she was forgetting her culture (or something along those lines)!

    Not being Chinese, I'm unsure how big of a problem this is, but I'd imagine it only applies to handwriting Chinese characters. If you know how to read a character and you know its Pinyin, you can type it. There are lots of characters I can recognise instantly without context, but when I'm not looking at them I have no idea how to begin drawing them. As long as I know the Pinyin, I can simply write it and then select the characters from a list (or spend a long time looking through the list if I don't see them!). I suspect that may be what's happening to native speakers.

    Just learning the Pinyin could actually be useful if you only intend to speak the language. You'd naturally need to do a lot more practise than JUST studying the Pinyin to do that, but when it comes to studying the grammar and memorising the vocab Pinyin could suffice. The FSI course actually ONLY teaches Pinyin (but it's modifed to be more accurate ex. "nei4" instead of "na4" for 那), and I reckon that's the best course for spoken Mandarin I've come across. Native speakers sometimes write to me in Pinyin just become I'm a foreigner (I have to remind myself they're trying to be helpful, not condescending!), but otherwise you're not likely to come across Pinyin in reading.


    I wouldn't say that "nèi" is a "more accurate" pronunciation for 那 than "nà". Most people I came across just said "nà", although I also often heard "nè", especially in 那个. I don't think I ever actually heard "nèi" (but I did hear people say "zhèi" instead of "zhè" for 这). Those are probably just dialectal or preferential differences anyway.


    Yes, they are dialectal varieties. Maybe FSI is targeted on the dialect used in and around Beijing, where nèi for 那 is widely practiced.


    I know lots of learners who just stuck to Pinyin because they maintained that they just wanted to be able to speak, but it freezes your language progress. I would argue for Chinese it is basically impossible for a non-native speaker to get to any functioning level just knowing pinyin. I'm seven years into the language, and I still am super grateful that all TV shows in China have subtitles (in Chinese) because even Chinese people will get a bit confused as to what's being said without the characters specifying which of the many homophones are being pronounced. Without characters, you can't read or communicate in any written form, which is where a huge part of our language exposure comes from nowadays.


    This is a good point: if you know how to recognize a character, and can correctly enter it by typing the pinyin into a pinyin-based input method and selecting the right alternative offered, would that be enough to qualify as literate in hanzi? The point is that the ability to passively recognize a character does not mean that you would be able to actively draw it from memory, just like the fact that you can recognize a face does not mean you would be able to draw or sculpt it. Not sure if there is a term for this (passive hanzi recognition without corresponding hand-writing skill), but would that be a goal that could be a valid language course target? In the past, it would have been less useful, but in a world where 99% of our text writing happens on a keyboard and screen, things may be different now.


    I hit a point in my Chinese learning where I decided I just needed to be able to recognize things so I could start to read as soon as possible, and I did a pretty decent job, but it's a weird quirk of Chinese that a ton of characters look very similar to each other but have completely different pronunciation and meanings. So I'm at the point now where I'm going back and actually learning how to write all of those characters I learned.


    As a native Chinese speaker, I would say the character is so indispensable for the reading, but for oral speaking, it's not that important. The literacy of Chinese people a little bit more than half a century ago was unbelievably low due to the complexity of the characters. At that time most Chinese people didn't know the characters in their whole lives, either. This has proved that without the help of character, people can communicate and live without big problems. However, if you hope to get information by reading, character is must. Compared with Pinyin, the character is much more efficient. It is even hard for native speakers to read a weird Pinyin-written article. The Chinese government had a plan to romanise the Chinese language but nowadays nobody talks about it any more. The reasons are: 1. Less efficiency and confusion due to huge amounts of characters with the totally same pronunciation. 2. The power of tradition. I think the first reason takes 95% of the account. Today, in the computer and smartphone era, for a Chinese language learner, my suggestion is to be able to pick up the correct character from the list when you type the Pinyin. It's somehow enough and cost-effective. I agree with Chaered.


    I completely agree with this. Putting the pinyin where the gender is already specified for most languages is a great idea.


    The thing is pinyin is not a perfect phonetic system, but your suggestion is excellent!


    Just out of curiosity, what do you dislike about pinyin? I mean yeah, no phonetic system I know of is perfect, but pinyin seems very straightforward to me. There are some rules that you need to remember but those exist in all lanugages (at least I don't know of a language that uses the Latin alphabet in a less confusing way).


    For me anyway some of the pinyin was extremely confusing, and not at all phonetic, specifically some of the vowel sounds.


    English spelling is much more confusing.


    Yeah, I've heard it's best to forget trying to actually learn Pinyin letters and just master all the initials and finals.


    I learned ㄅㄆㄇㄈ and never officially learned pinyin. For me, the vowel combinations are the trickiest part of pinyin. I am working on the English from Chinese reverse tree right now and use pinyin inputs, and I am running into trouble entering the pinyin for ㄩ, which corresponds to "ǚ". I get around it because the word that always comes up is 女, so I type the "n", switch to "structure" on Mac, and it is the first choice. I guess I can also use the 注音 function, but I don't know where they are on my keyboard.


    I've always found the vowel combinations for Pinyin really logical. If you make a dipthong of the two vowels you can usually approximate what the sound should be.

    Maybe it depends on the person. I'm having the same problem with Cantonese; I started learning it a few weeks ago and the written vowels for both the Yale and Jyutping systems (basically two versions of Pinyin for Cantonese) feel bizarre to me when I hear the sound they actually make.

    While I'd strongly recommend Pinyin for learners of Mandarin, it's ultimately up to the learner to choose an input method and activate it on their device or computer. I think the best way would be for Duolingo to give a brief overview of different methods and give instructions on how to use and/or install the different methods.

    By the way, you can use "v" to type "ü".


    Good to know about the "v"! I would try the normal way to input an umlaut (option + u), and it obviously never worked.


    That's awesome. I noticed you posted it on Luis' stream. Maybe you should try posting on some of the other employee's streams as well as those of the Manidarin team. Luis gets a lot of spam so he might never see it. Good luck.


    Thanks for the feedback, and sorry for the late reply! Do you know where I can find the pages of the other employees? I have no idea where to look haha


    I figured it out once and added them all as friends, but now I can't remember how. Maybe you can find it in the Duolingo Wiki. There are about 32 employees I believe. The Mandarin team you can find by pressing "add a new course" (press the icon to the left of your username in the blue strip at the top of any page), then going to Mandarin and selecting it. The next page will show you all the contributors. Surely they have some dialogue with the engineers. Good luck!


    We should also be able to correctly write the characters too. There are some rules to where,when and how to draw the strokes that are supposed to assist in memory of the characters and efficiency of writing. Duo needs a certain "drawing engine" that analyses and corrects every stroke. This might be difficult to develop though.


    That would definitely be a useful tool to have, but it would really only be necessary if you intend to draw characters by hand. Don't get me wrong, it's definitely a useful skill to have, especially if you want to take proficiency tests in Chinese or practise calligraphy, but it's not vital in the modern day and age. The only time I ever write stuff by hand in English is when I take notes in lectures or when I'm filling in a form.


    It doesn't really matter if it's vital or not, Chinese is a special case that require, for us who use alphabets etc., to go trough the process of learning characters in a similar (yet different) way that we learn new words. The tool mentioned would, as mentioned, help dramatically in remembering characters, which numbers up in the few thousands that one needs to know. There are >80K characters, FYI.


    I would actually rather Duo not try to focus on this. There are lots of sites you can look it up, and there's a service called Skritter that actually makes a decent amount of money just providing that one service. It would be so much work on Duo's end, and they don't have the time or resources for that.


    There are 80K characters, FYI

    Yes, that's true, but it's also a little misleading for new learners. No one knows 80 thousand characters. I've frequently heard that you need to know about 3000 characters to understand 99% of a normal newspaper (1000 for 80%, 2000 for 90%).


    Yah, with about 3000 you'll understand most things you read, but you'll still stumble on words you don't know how to say.


    Well, that's true for any number, right? :)


    Yeah, I specified that you only need to know a few thousands, about 3,000 - 4,000+. I just decided to include that fact because I think it's pretty insane myself.


    I once did a online test and it said I know about 3600 characters. However, characters are just part of the story. Built on top of them there are also many words and idioms, which do not always mean anything if they were broken down to characters. For example "东" means "east", "西" means "west", but "东西" means "a thing (or things)". After a quick googling, it seems the highest HSK (level 6) requires about 2600 characters and 5000 words.


    I agree completely. I used Rosetta Stone for Chinese for a bit, and they provide basically the solution that Neptunium describes. After a while, there was a big discrepancy in my various forms of retention. I could probably understand 150 different spoken characters, recognize 30 written characters, and write maybe 15 characters.

    Then, I took an actual Chinese I course (ye olde style, at a school). A required part of that class included practicing writing characters—not much, mind you; just ten times per character for practice, and then of course as part of any written assignments. We never wrote in Pinyin. In that class, I learned to write, recognize, and understand (spoken) a good 100–150 characters—all of the ones that we formally studied—and additionally understood (spoken) some additional phrases that we never wrote but were said a lot (e.g., 我可不可以去洗手间 "can I go to the bathroom").

    In my opinion, if you don't write the characters, it's a lot harder to recognize them.


    It's definitely true that handwriting characters greatly helps your retention of them. I think it largely depends on the learners' goals and time.

    A while ago I spent an hour on Anki just trying recognising new characters, then I spent an hour learning to write new characters. I can't remember the numbers, but from what I recall I learned characters 4-5 times quicker when I was only trying to recognise them and memorise their Pinyin and English translations than when I was trying to write them from scratch. Unfortunately I never tested to see how well I later retained the characters from those two methods (like you said, I very likely remembered a higher percentage of the characters I wrote out), but if someone doesn't intend to handwrite characters I reckon it will save them more time in the end to just focus on recognition. This is something we really need a proper study on to determine though.

    There's another use for handwriting character's I forgot to mention - when Chinese people don't understand a certain word the other person is saying, they draw the characters in the air with their finger. I think this largely comes from a time where most people in China could only speak dialects. I'm not sure how common it now is, if at all, among young Chinese speakers who now all speak Mandarin, but as a student of Chinese you might find yourself having to draw a character in the air to make yourself understood. Unfortunately when people do that to me, I can never visualise the shape they draw in the air!

    Ultimately, I think it should depend on the learner. Such software wouldn't be necessary to create a Chinese course, but if Duolingo were to develop it somewhere down the line, it would be very useful for those who wish to use it.


    You're describing Skritter.


    Thank you for putting together this post. This is such an efficient, elegant, and pedagogically-sound way for Duolingo to teach Chinese, and less cumbersome than anything I could have thought up. You also explained very well the reasons why pinyin and characters must be taught together. I really hope that Duolingo adopts your ideas. :)


    As for the writing part, I think that the students can use Skritter.


    This is exactly what's needed. Well done.


    I've actually been working on an idea of how Japanese would be taught here for about a week, and it's a bit similar to this. Really cool idea :D


    I'm really curious to see what would be done with Japanese. I've never learned Japanese, but from what I understand there are three writing systems (some of?) which are used interchangeably. Is that correct? My idea relies on the fact that (pretty much) all writing in Chinese is done in characters and Pinyin can be considered supplementary, and as such the only output you'd write in translations would be either characters or English. If there are several different types of outputs for Japanese, I think that would be much more difficult to implement! I'm really interested in seeing what you have planned.


    The three writing systems may sound hard. I'd like to show you that it is not that hard to type a Japanese sentence mixed with all them three. :)

    Here is the sentence: コーヒーを飲んでいます。(I am drinking coffee.) . コーヒー is in katakana, 飲 is Kanji, and the others are in hiragana. With Microsoft Office IME 2010, I type the sentence in Romaji: ko-hi-wononndeimasu. The output is like this:

    As you can see, all of them are in hiragana. Then I press space bar (once), they transformed into the proper form intended.

    This is a very simple example, because in other cases, a manual specification may be needed. But I think it is still helpful to understand how Japanese IME(s) works. :)


    I'm still working on it, and I think this method may also work with Japanese kanji. I'd mainly thought about how to use Hiragana and Katakana, but this method ties in pretty well with it!


    I look forward to seeing it! I hope to start Japanese in November or December, so hopefully Japanese will be on here by then.


    I can see this working!


    Great idea! I think this is totally the way to teach Chinese on Duolingo. I still think that a "choose the correct characters" feature could be very useful, especially on the mobile version...


    They should also do this with furigana/romaji for Japanese.

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    we really need pinyin in the Chinese course. I can't remember tones without it. they should at least have a setting where you can chose charactors or pinyin

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