“WILL YOU TURN OFF THAT RACKET?!” is what my housemate said to me the other day after I repeated the same Cantonese audio bite for the umpteenth time.

But that’s how you win the language game.

My reading is now very impressive, such that I can rely enitrely on Chinese subs to understand TV shows, or read books written for kids of up to 12 years old without difficulty.  (My character count is now between 3000 and 3500, for reference.)

However, reliance on letters over sounds has not been too good for my speaking/listening ability.

F**k Pinyin?

I’ve come to the conclusion that Pinyin is a total distraction. It encourages one to zealously find the romanisation for each word and memorise it (as opposed to memorising the actual sound of the word*).

Basically, I noticed that Hongkongers don’t like memorising new English words unless you tell them the spelling at the same time. They go through the spelling and then excitedly say back the word with their Hong Kong accent.

My hypothesis is that they’ve got no faculty for memorising English sounds, both through a lack of exposure and a lack of practice. What they do have, however, is lots of practice at reading out words based on their spellings.

However, the brain is not properly wired for reconstructing sounds based off of graphical representations. It adds in a lot of extra steps for oral commuication: you have to hear the word, relate it to something you already know how to spell and then decode the meaning in the context of a sentence. If you want to learn a new word, you have to know the spelling first, which can be time-consuming to find. Surely it’s much more efficient to just listen to what people are saying memorise that directly?

As noted above, I had the same problem with Cantonese: until recently, I’ve been uneasy about new words unless I know the Jyutping and/or characters. I think it’s because, generally speaking, I’ve been memorising the Jyutping rather than the actual sound, severely handicapping my Cantonese.

By contrast, my Mandarin (and French before it) has been progressing at a ridiculously fast rate, just from watching Taiwan dramas. I’ve not really bothered looking up Pinyin at all, relying mostly on Canto>Mando sound-change rules and just listening to what’s being said. HOWEVER, I didn’t bother SRSing anything either, meaning that long-term progress towards native-level fluency was perhaps trickier thanks to everyone’s archnemesis, the forgetting curve, and hence sub-optimal revision of learnt material.


The fix for the problem was obvious. I’ve gone back to something I experimented with a looooooong time ago: using Audacity to splice up spoken dialogues for intensive SRSing.

Card Specifications

Task: Loop until you can repeat it perfectly, word-for-word, with identical intonation
Length: 1-15 seconds, depending on number of new words.

Audio, Optional Notes
Purpose: Nothing wrong with a little bit more listening practice; you might also like to type out some very brief notes (for example, noting down new words or whatever).

Final Word

I’m aware that I’ve apparently zig-zagged between Zeus knows how many SRS formats, but I think the most efficient language-learning method is… almost certainly… one that is primarily audio-based.

Comments are very welcome regarding SRS techniques (or not using them at all)!


3 thoughts on “F**k Pinyin, or: WILL YOU TURN OFF THAT RACKET?!

  1. I had an “ah ha!” moment reading this post. My co-workers are the same way — they won’t let me teach them a new word unless I write it down for them, but then when they say it, they are saying it WRONG based on how it seems like it sounds based on the written form. The nice thing is, the kid I tutor in English has the OPPOSITE problem — he can’t read for sh!t, but if I say something & have him repeat after me, he can replicate it PERFECTLY. I think he may be behind some of his peers now, but in the long run, he is going to shine.

  2. Glad to hear that you’ve noticed too! Your student will probably have decent pronunciation in the future, and I have a hunch he should learn to read relatively quickly too 🙂 good luck!

  3. Pingback: The Sound of Progress « Thousand Mile Journey

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