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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. :)


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 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.


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).


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


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.


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.


You're describing Skritter.

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