Pronunciation With Bopomofo



The Zhuyin Alphabet Song

Zhuyin Fuhao, known by the Taiwanese as Bopomofo, is the phonetic alphabet used to teach children Chinese Characters in Taiwan.  It is also the most common method of data entry in that country.  It was developed in 1912 by a special commission of the newly established Republic of China (R.O.C.), which had just overthrown the Qing dynasty the previous year.  Among the many reforms proposed upon the end of the dynasty, raising literacy was considered to be a national priority.

The symbols are based on the shorthand of Zhāng Bĭnglín (章炳麟); a prominent philologist and philosopher of the time.  He had created his own system of phonetic characters to help facilitate his study of ancient texts, which contained many thousands of characters that were no longer in use.

Why Zhuyin?

People often ask, why not just learn Pinyin, since it’s the system used in China?  My answer is that I learned Pinyin first, but eventually realized; although knowing Pinyin can help you read signs and communicate with people in China; it’s not actually the best phonetic system for learning Chinese pronunciation in the beginning.  Allow me to lay out my reasons for using Zhuyin instead.

Reason #1: English Spelling is Confusing and Ridiculous

There’s no way around it–ALL phonetic alphabets that use Roman characters for the Chinese language are more confusing than Zhuyin.  This is because all the languages that use Roman characters have different spelling conventions than Chinese, and from each other.  In addition, many of those languages, including English, French, and German, have complicated histories; as well as far more vowel sounds than characters to express them; causing a lot of crossover.  Here is one comparison of Zhuyin to English.


(The “English” spelling is my own interpretation of how to pronounce the characters, using spellings that would make sense to a native English speaker.)

In English, we think of the “ooh” sound and the “w” sound as being different, but they are actually almost the same.  Chinese simply uses the same character (ㄨ) for both situations.  So whenever you see ㄨ, just make an “O” face.  Simple.

And if wan – w = an, shouldn’t that “an” have the same vowel sound as “wan”?  Yet it doesn’t.  In English, “wan” rhymes with “on”, not “an”.  Why can’t English be as consistent in its spelling as Chinese?

An even stronger example is in the English letter “y”, which is used in all Romanization systems.  In English, the letter “y” is used for several, NON-EXCLUSIVE purposes. In every single case, there is another word where the same sound is made without the “y”:

The “ee” sound, as in “yard” and “bay”.  Could also be represented by “e”, as in “be”.

The “ü” sound, as in “you”.  Could also be completely invisible, as in “few”.

The “ai” sound, as in “by”.  Could also be represented by “ie”, as in “tie”.

The “ñ” sound, as in “canyon”.  Could also be represented by “nio”, as in “onion”.

So we’ve just learned that “y” can make the “ee” sound; what are some other letters that can make that sound?

In English, the long “ee” sound is represented…

…as “e” in words like “be” and “me”…

…as “ee” in words like “bee” and “cheese”…

…as “ea” in words like “tea” and “sea”…

…as “i” in words like “associate” and “appreciate”…

…and finally, as “y” in words like “yellow” and “yard”.

Finally, all of the letters above are also used for other sounds that have nothing to do with the long “ee” sound.  When trying to use these same crazy English spelling conventions to Romanize Chinese, the inconsistencies of not only English spelling, but of Pinyin as well, create a sort of Venn diagram of confusion.

English Spelling

Zhuyin in blue, Pinyin in red, English in black.

Yes, this is really how English spelling works!  Why would anyone in their right mind choose to use it for their own language!?  While Pinyin doesn’t always use English spelling conventions (it actually adds it’s own inconsistancies), all the popular Romanization systems mirror this confusion in one way or another.

Zhuyin, on the other hand, always uses ㄧ to represent the long “ee” sound, and ㄩ to represent the “ü” sound.  Simple, simple.

Reason #2: Zhuyin Teaches Pronunciation at the Right Pace

My learning philosophy is “Do it once, do it right.”  A Romanized version of Chinese leads the learner to speed through pronunciation too quickly, glossing over the finer points, and making incorrect assumptions about pronunciation that will have to be corrected in the future.  The fact is, Chinese pronunction is an acquired skill; a skill that will take you at least a few weeks to really get the hang of.  So if you’re learning Chinese pronunciation in under an hour, you’re doing it wrong.

Zhuyin, on the other hand, can be learned at the same pace as Chinese pronunciation; both take a couple weeks to master, and can be done at the same time.  By taking the time to learn Zhuyin, you are actually forcing yourself to master pronunciation before moving on.  This is the way you are supposed to learn a language!

Reason #3: Zhuyin Is More Immersive

What I mean is, Zhuyin makes it easier for you to leave English behind, and get closer to complete immersion.  Chinese has several sounds that are not in English, and many that are slightly different.  Romanized letters are more likely to keep you pronouncing words the way you did in English, whereas Zhuyin dissassociates you from all your old ways of speaking.

Take for instance, ㄓ.  The best way to write it with English spelling is probably “jrr”, but the exact pronunciation is something like a fully aspirated “shrr” (like the “-sure” in “pleasure”).  Why get hung up on English spelling conventions when Zhuyin gives you the opportunity to completely forget them?

Another red herring can be found in the word “Beijing”.  Most English speakers would pronounce the word with a soft “j”, like in “Raj”, when actually it’s supposed to be a hard “j”, like in “Jim”.  Do you really want to sound any more like a foreigner than you have to?

Finally, Roman letters can be a distraction when you’re trying to read Chinese characters (Hanzi).  It’s common for beginner material to have the sound words (ruby characters) next to the Hanzi, in case you forget how to say them.  But Romanized words have a way of catching your eye and giving away the answer, before you have the chance to recall the character by itself.  (This is a small gripe, as you can always use a cover sheet, or do your reading in an app or program where it’s possible to toggle the romanized words on and off; but it’s still a nice feature of Zhuyin.)

A Parting Shot at Pinyin

Romanized systems tend to be more complicated than they initially seem.  Remember, if you are typing Chinese on a keyboard, you will have to spell the word correctly in order for the character to show up on screen.  A lot of people who think they know Hanyu Pinyin (the most popular way to romanize Chinese), find that they have more to learn when they actually try typing it into a data entry system.  Take a look at this “simple” explanation of when to write the umlaut (¨) over the “u” in Pinyin.

An umlaut is placed over the letter u when it occurs after the initials l and n in order to represent the sound [y]. This is necessary in order to distinguish the front high rounded vowel in (e.g. 驴; 驢; "donkey") from the back high rounded vowel in lu (e.g. 炉; 爐; "oven"). Tonal markers are added on top of the umlaut, as in .

However, the ü is not used in the other contexts where it could represent a front high rounded vowel, namely after the letters j, q, x and y. For example, the sound of the word 鱼/魚 (fish) is transcribed in pinyin simply as , not as . This practice is opposed to Wade-Giles, which always uses ü, and Tongyong Pinyin, which always uses yu. Whereas Wade-Giles needs to use the umlaut to distinguish between chü (pinyin ju) and chu (pinyin zhu), this ambiguity cannot arise with pinyin, so the more convenient form ju is used instead of . Genuine ambiguities only happen with nu/nü and lu/lü, which are then distinguished by an umlaut.

Although nüe written as nue, and lüe written as lue are not ambiguous, nue or lue are not correct according to the rules; nüe and lüe should be used instead. However, some Chinese input methods (e.g. Microsoft Pinyin IME) support both nve/lve (typing v for ü) and nue/lue.

-- Wikipedia, 2015

What’s the rule for the “ü” sound in Zhuyin?  Simple.  Always write ㄩ.

Studying with Flashcards Deluxe

To download my flashcards, go to Decks and press the “+” sign, then Shared Library >> Search and type “DLB Chinese” into the search bar.  For now, all you need is the one that says “DLB Chinese Phase I: Bopomofo”.

Once downloaded, lets change some settings.  Using the Back button in the top left, go back to the main screen.  Select the deck you just downloaded (DLB Chinese Phase I: Bopomofo), and then select the gear icon in the top right.  From there, select:

Card Order Spaced Repetition

Spaced Repetition Settings Cards Become New In Order

Back Back Back

Show Side First Random


Cards to Study Category 1

You will now see a list of the 10 categories that the cards are broken into.  I have divided the characters themselves into 5 sections, and added an additional section for each of the 5 Special Rules listed above.  Double-click one of the check boxes to deselect all, then click on the first box to study cards from Part 1 only.


And now you’re ready to study Bopomofo!  Try to commit both the song and the chart to memory.  Every day, go through all the cards until there are no more “New” or “Due” cards left.  Whenever you think you’re ready to add another batch of characters, just click on the gear icon, then Cards to Study Category 1, and check the box to add the new section to your review pile.

Today’s Quest

On paper, copy the Zhuyin chart a few times.  As you write each character, say it out loud as if you are singing the “Bopomofo Song”.  Use the click-able chart if you have to, but otherwise try to do as much as you can from memory.  Now take a look at the flashcards.  Try to memorize the first 5 sections; which comprise all 37 individual Zhuyin characters.

Good job!  Today you’ve been introduced to Bopomofo for the first time, and tomorrow, you’re going to master it!  The next lesson will cover the “Five Special Rules” of Bopomofo.  Once you complete it, you’ll be able to correctly pronounce any Chinese word you come across!

03 hawaii

Next: The Rules of Bopomofo