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Zhuyin vs. Pinyin

Shu-ning Sciban, professor in the Department of Germanic, Slavic and East Asian Studies, and John Archibald, director of the U of C’s Language Research Centre, are working with the Edmonton Public School Board to find which phonetic representation of Mandarin results in a better accent for school children.

There are two major phonetic systems for representing Mandarin. Zhuyin (a syllabic script) is the system currently used in Taiwan, while Pinyin (a latin script) is used in mainland China.

Pinyin, created by China’s communist government in the late 1950s, is used in conjunction with simplified characters, while Zhuyin commonly uses traditional characters. There have been arguments for years about which system should be used.

Proponents of Zhuyin say that if Mandarin is taught using the Pinyin system, students will be confused because of the letters’ proximity to English, and as a result, will speak with an English accent.

Those from Taiwan are proponents of Zhuyin, while those pushing for Pinyin are often from Mainland China. Because Pinyin was introduced by China’s communist government, political and social issues come into play.

The Edmonton School Board approached Archibald and the Language Research Centre to conduct the project in their desire to develop a complete Mandarin curriculum and to put the debate to rest.

"We will no longer have to guess, we’ll just look at the comparative results and get a very objective view," says Sciban.
"I think because of the linguistic and political issues combined, they wanted an outside party to do an unbiased research procedure," adds Archibald.

The two-year project entered its planning stages in January. Researchers will test students in the Mandarin immersion programs in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary.

In Vancouver, immersion students begin using the Pinyin style in Grade 1, while Calgary students begin with Pinyin in Grade 4. In Edmonton, Zhuyin is used in Grade 1 and Pinyin is brought in from Grade 4 on.

Random samples of students will be taken from all three cities, and they will be taped speaking Mandarin. Subsets of those tapes will then be given to native speakers where they will be graded on their accent.

"What we can do is analyze that data to see if there are any differences between the groups," says Archibald.
"We can see how maturation affects things," he adds, noting Calgary begins its Mandarin immersion program with older students.

At the end of the two-year period, the researchers should be able to see statistically which written style produces the most native-like accent.

Sciban believes that this project is a beneficial one for society. Her goal is to find the system that will produce the best accent amongst Mandarin speakers.

In a province with increasing numbers of migrants, Archibald suggests that this type of research is necessary. "This research has a bearing on real world problems, and we have the resources to deal with these questions," he says.


News from: University of Calgary

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