Whether children are native or non-native Mandarin speakers, the best time for kids to learn Pinyin or Chinese alphabets is around 5 years old.
I know this is an endless debate about when is the right time for kids to learn Mandarin, particularly in the non-native Chinese parents’ circle.
In this post, I’m going to share my view with you and the way that’s working for us.
1. Learning Pinyin as a second phonetic system WILL NOT confuse children!
It doesn’t matter if your children are learning English phonics at school.
Children’s brains are like a sponge. They can naturally distinguish the sounds of each language and copy to speak when they have sufficient exposure in a particular language environment.
In fact, the earlier you soak your children in the dual or multi-language environment, the better.
In our family, I’ve always maintained speaking Mandarin with my daughter. Well, for the most part anyway. When my husband Mak is around, we speak English.
Also, children are not afraid of making mistakes or being laughed at like us grown-ups. They are more willing to learn the ‘funny’ sounds.
My daughter is learning two languages at the moment: English and Mandarin Chinese.
The local primary school she goes to teaches in English. Once a week, it teaches Chinese.
If you’ve been reading my posts, you know I teach my daughter in the mornings from Mondays – Fridays about 30 minutes a day.
There wasn’t once that I saw her being confused with the sounds!
Because we’re in Perth, an English-speaking environment, I have to grab every opportunity for my daughter to soak in the Mandarin-speaking environment.
Attending the weekend Chinese school is one of those Mandarin environments I use for my daughter to interact with other similar age kids who are learning Chinese.
In that school, they don’t teach Pinyin until year 3! The reason is that kids might get confused!
Personally, I don’t understand it. Why?
* Pinyin helps children to perfect the pronunciation of authentic Mandarin.
* Delaying Pinyin to year 3 means children have to work a lot harder to re-learn, adjust or correct the pronunciation of Mandarin that they’ve been speaking before that age.
Why not set the ‘right tone’ at the beginning stage?
So PLEASE, don’t delay your children from learning Pinyin just because they are learning another language.
The earlier, the better.
2. So, how do children learn Pinyin effectively?
Pinyin goes hand-in-hand with learning Chinese characters.
In fact, once children can identify individual sounds of each Pinyin, it’s a good idea to teach them blending Pinyin ( i.g. the Initials + Finals + Tones).
It’s quite useful to attach the corresponding Chinese characters underneath as well.
Why? It’s because just looking at the Pinyin alone is not enough to tell a child precisely which Chinese character that Pinyin is for.
It’s important to note that one Pinyin can be used for multiple Chinese characters, and one character can have two Pinyin ( heteronym 多音字).
Yes, even for a native-speaker like me would need to ask further clues to pinpoint the exact Chinese word sometimes.
Let me explain in following two examples:
As you can see, the example on the left has one Pinyin. But it’s used for multiple Chinese characters hence meanings are all different.
The example on the right shows one Chinese character can have two Pinyin (heteronym 多音字).
The point I’m trying to make is that when teaching children Pinyin, it’s always a good idea to attach a corresponding Chinese character to reinforce children’s learning.
In terms of writing Pinyin, you might have noticed that Pinyin looks similar to English alphabets.
You are right. Pinyin is mostly derived from Latin alphabets.
A lot of English letters overlaps with Chinese Pinyin in written format. They just sound different.
Bonus: The way Chinese write Pinyin alphabets is the EXACT WAY that we write in English alphabets in LOWERCASE.
If your children have completed pre-primary (5 years old in Australia) as my daughter, they would have learnt how to write LOWERCASE English letters in school.
This will save you a bit of time teaching them how to write Pinyin.
Generally, I’d recommend you follow the steps below when teaching Pinyin at home:
Step 1. Identify each Pinyin alphabet and the sounds on the Pinyin List.
There are a total of 47 Pinyin alphabets ( 23 Initials 声母 + 24 Finals 韵母), plus 16 Sight Pinyin (整体认读拼音).
Here are the Pinyin list and the Five Tones format sheets we use at home. You can download it for FREE below.
This Pinyin List is super handy whenever we need a quick reference. I highly recommend it.
Step 2. Blend the initials, Finals + Tones.
Also, remember to attach a Chinese character underneath the Pinyin as I’ve explained before.
If you don’t know what Chinese Pinyin Initials, Finals and the five Tones, check out this post What Forms Chinese phonetics or Pinyin.
In short, teaching Pinyin is similar to teaching English phonics.
That is, IDEANTIFY alphabets and sounds>> >> BLEND initials, finals with tones>> ASSOCIATE the Pinyin with the corresponding Chinese words.
Teaching Pinyin doesn’t have to be boring
I’m super duper PASSIONATE about teaching my daughter Mandarin Chinese while having FUN with her.
I believe having fun in doing something is the best way to achieve something.
For us, Chinese learning time is our bonding time and we’re having lots of fun.
At the time of writing this post (Nov 2019), my daughter is only five and a half.
I’ve only started teaching her Pinyin after she had her 5th birthday a half year ago.
Fast forward 6 months later, my daughter can now identify each Pinyin sound and pronounce the tones correctly 95% of the time.
We are still working on the rest of 5% because I’m a painful perfectionist.
I’ve also started teaching her writing Chinese with simple strokes as well.
But, that’s primarily to assist her learning Pinyin.
I’m in no hurry to count the number of words my daughter can read and write because that will come later.
My focus until she reaches six is mainly on her Pinyin because it is the solid foundation she must have to achieve Mandarin fluency.
For some, taking 12 months to teach Pinyin might be too slow.
But, for busy parents with other work commitments, 12 months on average 20-30 minutes a day during the school terms will do.
If you plan ahead for what you are going to teach on that day, 30 minutes are all you need to achieve a great result. Use other time to read, speak and sing using Mandarin Chinese if you are a native Chinese speaker.
If you don’t speak Mandarin, no worries. I’ve prepared and would continue to add more video tutorials to my YouTube channel so that you and your child can learn to speak Mandarin.
3. My suggestion
Let children learn Pinyin as early as possible. Around age 5 is a good start.
Before age 5, if you speak Mandarin or read Chinese, please speak and read as much as possible to your child.
If you don’t speak Mandarin or read Chinese, or not as fluent, you will need to create the Chinese language environment (e.g. help your child to make friends with Mandarin-speaking kids, watch my tutorials, watch Chinese cartoons, try to learn Chinese yourself, or hire a tutor if you could afford it).
Please don’t rush and take as much time as you need to help your children master Pinyin before moving on to something else.
At the same time, you can teach some simple Chinese characters to aid the Pinyin learning.
Go slower if your children reject sometimes and go faster if they are in a good mood.
The whole idea of homeschooling is to customise the learning to suit your child.
The goal is to help children enjoying learning Pinyin and Mandarin Chinese.
Some set back is inevitable. When that happens, encourage children to play with something else, or take a break and get back another day.
You know your children more than anyone else. I have no doubt you will figure out the best way for you and your child.
More related readings.
I’m continually researching, discovering and creating FUN materials for my daughter and promise I will share with you as soon as they are ready.
So please check out and keep an eye on my blog for Fun resources.
Also, consider to visit, like and join my Facebook community.
There, you can interact with other like-minded parents and myself who are on a similar journey with you.
Until next time. Thanks for visiting my blog.
Are you a busy parent who is juggling with work and teaching your child Pinyin or Mandarin Chinese? What are your challenges? Leave your comments below or share it in our Facebook community.