The BoPoMoFo

Bopomofo isn’t just some crazy sounds that we can make to entertain our guests at a party. No! Much more than that it is a way of studying the pronunciation of Chinese characters. A cautionary note: this is not the typical way of studying in Mainland China and USA. Taiwan is the primary place to pick up this system, and I personally feel it has much more potential than learning pinyin, a romanization of the sounds made in Chinese. While pinyin is a wildly popular system with wide spread use, this form of spelling comes with drawbacks. Pinyin keeps the student working with English letters. Take for example: You want to learn how to greet people in Chinese. Well, the characters for that are 你好. But how would you know what sound these characters make, granted you probably already know. The pinyin system spells it out for you like this: Ni hao. It will also have tone markings on top of certain vowels, which are considered finals in Chinese grammar.

As a side note Chinese sounds, if I have this right, are monosyllabic, but one can divide each sound into two pieces, the initial and final. Initials=consonants; Finals=vowels, normally. Thus, English speakers generally pick up the sound system very quickly. The letters zh, q, x, and r throw people for a loop, as they are not pronounced in a normal way. Zh is said more like a J, the book Integrated Chinese gives a good example of the J in Jeep. Oh but wait there is another j as well…hmmm. Even with these minor hang ups pinyin looks great. However, I feel that it is a flawed way of learning.

Good pronunciation in Chinese is hard to come by for Westerners. They tend to stumble a lot in this area, and clear distinct words are absolutely vital in communicating with Chinese, not even touching the idea of misuse of tones. Pinyin keeps the English speaker still in the English system of letters. In my Chinese classes, if I hadn’t studied my characters well enough I could always rely on the other side of the page from such and such dialogue to have the pinyin that I could fumble my way through. That’s the key issue here, fumbling. We have to stop fumbling through pronunciation and get a good handle on how to speak properly. Spelling is also the other issue at work here. For instance the capital city of Taiwan is Taipei (台北). The second character does not have a “p” sound but a “b” one, as it is the character for the word “north” as we also see in the city named Beijing. How do we spell and say things 100% accurately?

While here in Taiwan I’ve heard from several native speakers that their system of learning characters provides a much better foundation for speaking. It’s called the bopomofo system or sometimes will be shorted to MPS for Mandarin Phonetic System. As children we all learned English through phonetics. Who can forget the cheesy ads “Hooked on Phonics worked for me!” But all jokes aside, learning the characters phonetically seems like a great option that should at least be introduced to students taking a Chinese course, although most courses are geared towards traveling to/doing business with Beijing. Over the past few days I have been working really hard at getting this system down. What they do is create another set of symbols each representing a sound. The first set is for consonants (initials), and each have a final that goes with it. That might sound weird but think about how we represent the second letter of the English alphabet “B” well it isn’t just “B” now is it? It is actually pronounced “Be”. Same thing here. So while people might say “Oh them Chinese don’t be havin’ no alphabet.” Well, yes and no. So what do these symbols look like, and how are they used to teach character pronunciation? Wonderful questions. Toujia Elementary School provides a wonderful sample photo for us to work from:

BopomofoOkay so the photo isn’t huge, but I didn’t have a large size and the full size will just take up the entire screen. I don’t like that, so there! Alright, in this picture we have large characters in black. To the right of each character are some pink symbols. The pink symbols stand for the individual sounds made by that character. The top left in the pinyin would be spelt zhi with a U shape on top of the i it means paper. The one below that is wen. Bopomofo gives you ever individual sound so there is absolutely no mistaking how it should sound. It takes a bit of practice, but after a while you get the hang of the spelling system and can not rely on pinyin so much. The first symbol will almost always be an initial, unless it has the symbol for “w” and “i” which is pronounced like an “e”. Next it will have a symbol for a final vowel or set of vowels. Finally you will see a tone marking which lets us know which tone is used for the character. TONES ARE IMPORTANT!! I can’t stress enough how important correct tones are. If you want a good example of how messing up tones completely changes the meaning, please see a youtube video entitled, cao ni ma.

I personally feel like pinyin with its english looking letters can be a bit of a crutch for beginning students. The only problem now is that many people use pinyin on the computer to type characters online. I have seen plenty of computers around Taiwan that have the phonetic symbols on the keys, not to mention that they are on the majority of cell phones for texting. Regardless of whether you are using pinyin or MPS, the real trick is getting off either system by memorizing the sounds are relying on your memory of the character. Everyone in Taiwan seems able to do it! If pinyin is so easy, why don’t the Chinese just discard the characters? It could happen, but I highly doubt it. The usage of characters is absolutely essential, and a wealth of meaning as well as history would be tossed into the gutter with their disuse.

If you want to try out the MPS (bopomofo or zhuyin) check out this website. It has each of the initials, all of which are clickable to listen to an accompanying audio file. Go technology!

The Panda Learned a Good Lesson.

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One Response to “The BoPoMoFo”

  1. Barbara says:

    You have said well about what I tried to say to my students: why to learn ㄅㄆㄇㄈ? The simple truth of being able to pronounce accurately.