Bopomofo - the Chinese ABC

When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg conducted his first interview in Mandarin, it drew gasps. Not just of surprise, but of pleasure. Chinese is so rarely spoken outside its ethnic base that those who make the effort to learn it as a second language are admired and encouraged. (Not least by immigrant parents of their second-gen offspring!)

So it seems churlish to criticise Mark’s pronunciation—as many Western sinologists did. But they did have a point. Chinese is a tonal language and it wasn’t always clear what Mark was saying. And guess what? It was through no fault of his own.

The fundamental problem is teaching methodology. Many instructors teach Mandarin using a phonetic notation system called “Pinyin”. It’s based on the Roman alphabet, so to an English speaker, it looks like a no-brainer—you can get started straight away, reading Chinese using the alphabet you’re familiar with.

Wrong! This is Pinyin’s BIGGEST and most CRITICAL failure. And it’s why I hate Pinyin.

As a native speaker of English, you’re conditioned to pronounce pinyin the way you are used to pronouncing words in your native tongue. But there’s a rather bad fit between pinyin notation and genuine spoken Mandarin. So if you’re learning Chinese using pinyin, you’re setting yourself up for bad pronunciation habits that’ll be difficult to shift.

Example: The Chinese character for yes is [ 是 ]. Pinyin spells it [shi], which an English speaker would pronounce “she”. Which is wrong. There’s no correct spelling which would accurately convey the right sound.

This is why pinyin is a rather bad at capturing the singsong tones of spoken Mandarin. And that’s important, because in Chinese, tones are everything.

Of course, tones exist in English. Really in a high-pitched tone signals surprise. Or—in a deep tone—frustration and doubt. But in Chinese, tones change the actual definition of the word. Words with different tones are as different as chalk and cheese. So you’ll say chalk when you mean cheese!

Here’s an example. The following four Chinese characters all share the same sound but the meaning will change based on the tone you say them with:

媽 (in a natural/light tone) = Mother

麻 (in a rising tone) = Numb

馬 (in a rising then falling tone) = Horse

罵 (In a falling tone) = Scold

So get the tone wrong and you could be saying “my horse” rather than “my mother”! The same problem exists for Western learners of Japanese and Korean. But as any occidental student soon finds out, teachers of those languages move you onto hiragana and hangul—phonetic scripts which represent the sounds of each language accurately—very quickly indeed. (As early as the second lesson.) Why? Because the language instructors of Tokyo and Seoul know how interruptive using the Roman alphabet can be to their efforts. (It’s called “L1 interference”.)

Pinyin is why, despite his best efforts, Mark’s Mandarin sounded a bit ropey!

But guess what? Unknown to most Mandarin students, Chinese has a native “alphabet” for pronunciation too.

It’s known colloquially as the “Bopomofo”, after its first four sounds (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ) in sequence. (Like referring to Roman letters as your ABC’s. Or the word “alphabet” itself, derived from Alpha and Beta, the first two Greek letters.) And it’s a much stronger basis for learning spoken Chinese Mandarin.

So what is Bopomofo?

Bopomofo’s official name is “Zhuyin Fuhao” —the Mandarin Phonetic Symbols. In contrast to the thousands of ideograms in written Chinese, the Bopomofo consists of just 37 simple symbols (see below) and five tone marks. Each symbol has a unique sound ascribed to it. Keen students can learn it in a day or two.

Click here for a website where you can listen to the sound for each symbol by clicking on them.  Note that these 37 symbols can transcribe any word in spoken Mandarin, whereas even the best pinyin is an approximation.

Now you know the thinking behind Bopomofo, let’s look into its history.

Who invented it?

Bopomofo is the brainchild of a Chinese scholar, Zhang Binglin (章炳麟 December 25, 1868 – June 14, 1936) who created it at the beginning of the 20th century. The symbols are based on ancient Chinese script. The 37 symbols are the 37 sounds found in spoken Mandarin in the capital, Beijing (the seat of the imperial court) rather than other parts of China. (The country’s vastness means there are many dialects of Chinese, some as different as English and French!)

It was the official phonetic system adopted in schools in China from 1928 until 1958 (yes, even Communist China used it for a while!) after which it was abandoned in favour of the Romanised system. Incidentally, Bopomofo was also adopted by pre-1975 Chinese schools in Vietnam. Bopomofo is still the official system used in Taiwan, and every Taiwanese (and those taught the system like my and parents and I) knows these 37 symbols by heart.

Why is it better?

The Bopomofo was specifically designed for Mandarin, based on its unique sounds. It stand alone and is not associated with any other language so no L1 interference. There is a 1:1 correlation of Bopomofo symbols to precise phonetic sounds in Mandarin.

There’s more. Every Chinese character can be sounded out in exactly THREE Bopomofo symbols or less, unlike pinyin with its varying lengths! Like hiragana in Japanese, it specifies the syllables which makes up the sound of the Chinese character. Unlike the “bad fit” of Romanised Pinyin, the Bopomofo is a “perfect fit” for Mandarin.

As a child learning Mandarin in the UK, I learned it long before China’s economic rise and the spread of pinyin.

How long does it take to learn the 37 symbols?

It is possible to teach yourself all the 37 sounds in about two-three days and then it’s just a matter of practice until you feel comfortable without them. Children in Taiwan learn the Bopomofo in infant school by immersion and all school text books will have these symbols printed along-side the Chinese characters until they reach the second year of junior school.

Before I was taught Bopomofo, I tried using the alphabet to spell out the Mandarin sound of each Chinese character. The end result was a mass of gibberish . . . and any English speaker trying to pronounce it would sound wrong. I was an eight-year-old child with an excuse—but official pinyin doesn’t fare much better, causing confusion for early learners of English.

Then the Indochinese community school I attended introduced Bopomofo. And from then on not a single word of gibberish English was written against a Chinese character. The simple symbols of Bopomofo represent spoken syllables . . . not a foreign alphabet.

So speaking from personal and practical experience, the best system for teaching Mandarin to children and adult beginners is Bopomofo. This is especially true if you are a native English speaker.

It should be remembered that Chinese and English are two very distinct languages. Treat them as such, starting with the Bopomofo, and you’ll have no problems being understood in Mandarin.

How do you use it?

In use, Bopomofo is closer to English than you think. Remember at primary school, you learned to speak and read using “synthetic phonics” sounding out the letters in CAT as kuh-ah-tuh? Bopomofo follows the same path.

The symbols are written next to Chinese ideograms as small annotative glosses, or “rubies”. They train your brain to associate the combination of sounds with that character, aiding memory. (That’s why Bopomofo gives you a head start!) When pinyin is used, you are reading and writing words in the Roman alphabet—and if you’re an English speaker, your eyes will be drawn to look at the pinyin rather than the Chinese characters.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at these characters for “my mother takes me to school”. 

Non-Chinese speakers always look at the pinyin below rather than Chinese characters and eventually, it becomes such a habit that if the pinyin is removed, the pupil forgets how it is pronounced! Thus for many, Chinese characters are an afterthought…defeating the point of learning Chinese, don’t you think? 

After memorising the 37 symbols, you are taught to pronounce each sound in the four tones of Mandarin Chinese and taught sample characters that follow each symbol in succession. It’s easy and fun—for examples, see

These 37 simple symbols are the building blocks of Chinese characters in modern Mandarin. They look Chinese, they’re written in the same stroke order, and (unlike pinyin) can be written both horizontally and vertically.

Speaking Mandarin, thinking Bopomofo: my experiences

These annotative symbols appeared in all my elementary Chinese schoolbooks, so my brain was trained to sound out the symbols for any Chinese character I didn’t know how to pronounce. After a while it took no effort at all.

My eyes were also drawn to the Chinese character itself, seeing those characters in its own context. Eventually, I recognised so many characters I didn’t need the Bopomofo as an aid. Today, I look at them once in a blue moon for unusual characters in a dictionary to discover pronunciation and meaning. Did I mentioned you can use them to look up characters in a Chinese dictionary?!

In today’s online world, another use has emerged for the Bopomofo. Since you can sound out any Mandarin word with them, you can use them to text and type Chinese on a phone, tablet or PC.

Typing with Bopomofo is easy and fast

Using the Bopomofo to type is far quicker than pinyin—some Chinese characters need just ONE symbol. You don’t even need to buy a special keyboard; Bopomofo is available in all Microsoft Word packages and uses the same keyboard as QWERTY. I bought some stickers for my keyboard showing the symbols for typing exercises…see below:

If you have a touch screen laptop, this is how it will look on your screen:

So that’s Bopomofo: fast, accurate, easy, and fun. Now the $64,000 (or 37-character) question . . .

 . . . why isn’t it widely used outside Taiwan?

That devilish duo, money and politics. China adopted pinyin in 1958 believing the Roman alphabet would make it easier for foreigners to learn Chinese. Unfortunately, too many teachers of Chinese still believe that.

Well, there’s a billion Chinese out there, and only a few million (at most) learning Chinese as a second language. Therefore what is best for the Mandarin Chinese language is a system that retains the integrity of Mandarin . . .  NOT what is best for an English speaker trying to learn Chinese.

After all, people in the UK and US don’t waste time thinking about how to redesign English or phonetics so that it will be easier for Chinese to learn English. When I was a child growing up in the UK, I was forced to learn the alphabet and the QWERTY keyboard. There weren’t any short cuts. And I’m very glad about it!

Growing up with the Bopomofo and the Roman alphabet taught me to pronounce both English and Chinese words correctly from the beginning—allowing me to appreciate the integrity and uniqueness of both languages. Both beautiful and expressive . . . but distinct and individual.

Need more evidence? For the last two years, I’ve taught a weekly Mandarin class at the same Chinese school to under-11s, of mixed abilities and ethnicities, using Bopomofo. And I taught it using as much spoken Mandarin as possible, to get my pupils used to its sounds. Initially it seems tough—but within weeks they adapt, and learn faster because of it.

And the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Two of my best students are a terrific 11-year-old Vietnamese boy and an amazing 7-year-old Afro-Caribbean guy. Both started reading a piece of Chinese prose full of unfamiliar characters . . . using Bopomofo to pronounce them correctly! It was a Eureka moment for them – everything suddenly clicked. Two years of weekly lessons had taught them the basis of recognising and blending the symbol together and applying the correct tone to make the right sound for the character.

One of them (who is also learning Chinese at his grammar school) told me he’s learnt more Chinese at a higher level than in classes at his mainstream school, taught by his Hanban Chinese teacher using pinyin. Hilariously, he even asked his Hanban teacher why he wasn’t using Bopomofo!

Next term, these two smart kids will learn to look up characters in a Chinese dictionary using Bopomofo so they can still learn in the absence of the teacher.

I know Bopomofo works…so do my students! It gets rid of the L1 interference and let’s a non-native Chinese speaker pronounce Mandarin correctly from the start. The Bopomofo is a little 37-symbol treasure chest, a reference tool they can use throughout their lives.

The only caveat?  Like any language, you need to practice, practice, and practice! If you ever run into Mark Zuckerberg, maybe give him a nudge?


Lynne Chang is a former student of the Indochinese Community School.