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Gwoyeu Romatzyh – better than pinyin?

gwoyeu / 國語

Gwoyeu Romatzyh. Have a guess what language that is. When I first saw it I guessed Mongolian, or maybe Korean for the first word. It’s actually Mandarin Chinese. More specifically, it’s the name of a romanisation system for Mandarin. A friend who also studies Chinese told me that when he started out, he used this ‘Gwoyeu Romatzyh’ system instead of pinyin. He reckons, and he’s got Tim Ferriss on his side for this, that using GR is better for learners, particularly when it comes to mastering tones.


What’s wrong with other systems?

There are countless systems for writing Chinese with the Roman alphabet. A big problem for any romanisation system is how to handle tones. They’re completely essential to the language, but Roman letters weren’t designed to encode information beyond vowels and consonants. The Wade-Giles system a number in each syllable, e.g. guo23, and pinyin uses tone-marks, e.g. guóyǔ.

The pinyin tone-marks system looks elegant and compact, and is ultra-consistent. However, a lot of devices display tone marks incorrectly, or not at all. Even worse, there’s a temptation to not even use the tone-marks in the first place, as they seem like a bit of an afterthought rather than something essential.

In an ideal world everyone would write Běijīng and Máo Zédōng and the tones would be preserved. But it’s so easy to just write Beijing and Mao Zedong (and argue that those are in fact the English spellings of those names), that a lot of Chinese words end up getting written without tones.

With the Wade-Giles number system, the tones are at least a bit more obvious (Pei3ching1, Mao2 Tse2tung1). Unfortunately, they’re a bit too obvious and look clumsy, suitable only for textbooks and detailed linguistic explanations. So again, they don’t get used as they were intended.


What does Gwoyeu Romatzyh do differently?

Gwoyeu Romatzyh’s solution to this problem is to actually incorporate the tone into the spelling of each syllable. Different letters for different tones. So the words above become Beirjing and Mau Tzerdong (yes, I found ‘Tzerdong‘ pretty funny as well). All of the information for each syllable is contained there: consonants, vowels and the tone. Pinyin.info has a more detailed comparison table.

There are some immediate advantages to this idea. The biggest is that you have to include the tone when writing. There’s no way to spell things without the tone. So you as a learner you wouldn’t have the frustration of seeing things written down but not knowing how to pronounce them properly (this happens all the time with Chinese people’s names written in pinyin).

The second advantage, and the one that’s most interesting here, is that Gwoyeu Romatzyh makes it easier to remember the tone for words you’ve learnt. Suddenly, remembering the tones for Chinese words is no harder than remembering the spelling of words in European languages. This really does work, according to the friend who told me about the system.


So is it better for learners?

Tim Ferriss, master of exaggerated headlines, recommends that people learning Mandarin use Gwoyeu Romatzyh and not pinyin:

“If you go after Mandarin, choose the somewhat uncommon GR over pinyin romanization if at all possible. It’s harder to learn at first, but I’ve never met a pinyin learner with tones even half as accurate as a decent GR user.”

How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour – Tim Ferriss

I would say that’s just because Tim Ferriss hasn’t met a lot of pinyin learners (also notice the no true Scotsman trickery with the addition of ‘decent’). The problem with this view is that it assumes the main way you learn tones is by remembering the spelling. This may be true in the very early stages, and if that’s what Ferriss is referring to then he may be right.

But if you’re learning a language for any real length of time, you just remember words by their sound. There are a lot of illiterate people in the world, but they still remember how to speak their language as well as anyone else. Once you’ve actually acquired a Chinese word, you do remember its tone because that’s just how the word sounds.

Romanisation systems are really just a crutch for people learning Mandarin. You use them almost constantly at first, then gradually less and less until the only time you need them is when you look up an unfamiliar character in a dictionary. By that point, it really doesn’t matter how the tone is indicated, so long as it’s there. You’ll remember it.

The Gwoyeu Romatzyh study, and its flaw

The potential benefit of Gwoyeu Romatzyh for learning tones was addressed specifically in a study at the University of Maryland in 1997 (The Modern Language Journal Vol. 81, No. 2 (Summer, 1997), pp. 228-236). They got a group of non-native speakers who were studying Mandarin, some from America and some from Japan, and had one half study with pinyin and one half with Gwoyeu Romatzyh.

After a year of study, they had the students take a pronunciation test and graded their tonal accuracy. The pinyin learners actually did better than the GR group. This would’ve been an interesting result, except for the fact that they tested them using romanised Chinese. I’m not at all surprised that people reading out pinyin, which has clear marks for each tone, would have less trouble remembering the tones.

What they should have tested was tonal accuracy when reading out Chinese characters. That would actually test whether Gwoyeu Romatzyh helps you to remember tones correctly. As it is, we’re still in the dark about this.


Even if GR is better, don’t use it

I seriously doubt that Gwoyeu Romatzyh is better in the longterm, for the reasons given above. But even if it were, I would still recommend that people use pinyin. The friend of mine who started out with GR actually ended up switching to pinyin anyway, despite believing that GR is better for learning.

He did this because pinyin is now the dominant standard for romanising Mandarin Chinese. It’s pretty much everywhere, and if you’re trying to use some other system it just gets confusing. Standards are good, and it’s worth sticking to them once they’re established.


Pinyin is actually better anyway

In any case, I’m almost certain pinyin is better. It’s better because it’s consistent. It’s a standard with standards. Once you know how to pronounce ei in Mandarin, you can consistently get that sound right wherever you read it in pinyin. It won’t get mangled into something else, and mislead you into thinking its a different vowel sound.

Because pinyin is set up like this, you can isolate the sounds of Mandarin and learn them in the shortest possible time. You can see the patterns in the pinyin table and use that to your advantage.


Further reading

  • http://www.chinesetolearn.com/ Shu

    Personally I don’t think pinyin or Gwoyue is good for tones accuracy. The best way to learn the tones and the pronunciation without much accent is to use 注音符号 the one that is commonly used in Taiwan. I saw a few Universities in the states used that in teaching beginning Chinese, and their result was good. Gwoyue this phrase itself is hard to pronounce, it seems to need a lot of tongue work. Y. R. Chao was creative though in designing this kind of Latin Alphabet Romanization.
    Thank you for the info.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      My view is that the phonetic writing system you use shouldn’t be the biggest influence on your tones. If you’re doing enough listening and speaking practice, they’ll come naturally. They’re acquired not learned.

      • http://www.chinesetolearn.com/ Shu

        Yes, Hugh, practice makes perfect. You are right on that.
        Effective tone drilling by using hand gesture or body movement will help mastering tones, and they are fun too:)

  • http://www.acidplanet.com/artist.asp?AID=509512 Sp3ctre18

    Reading this reminded me how the romanization for Hmong also uses letters to mark tones. There may be other systems for other languages that do the same thing.


    However, all it does is add a letter at the end to mark the tone. Gwoyeu Romatzyh actually changes spelling more drastically….that would bother me.

  • http://www.hackingchinese.com Olle Linge

    @Shu: I’m quite fond of Zhuyin myself, but I don’t understand your argument. Why would Zhuyin be better than Pinyin when it comes to tones? Zhuyin treats tones exactly the same way as Pinyin does, except that no mark means first tone rather than neutral tone.

    In general, I think it’s useful to learn more than one system. I will only use Pinyin myself because it’s so much more practical to type, but I still think that learning Zhuyin is a really good idea.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      I’m intrigued now. Why do you think learning zhuyin as well is a good idea?

    • http://www.chinesetolearn.com/ Shu

      Hi Olle,
      Zhuyin, has exactly one symbol for each sound, and all the Chinese words can be spelled by Zhuyin in exactly 3 characters or less. However, based on the alphabets, there are some cases in Pinyin where the same sound in Chinese must be spelled differently depending on whether the sound locates. Also, Pinyin has varied lengths. For example, ㄌㄧㄤ in Zhuyin it only has 3 symbols, liang in pinyin with five letters. For the beginners, if they start with pinyin, they tend to consider all those five letters and sound out those sounds and blend them, and that is why we can hear a lot of accents and the inaccuracy when they pronounce the third tone and fourth tone.
      The five tones seem as easy as we write 1, 2 , 3, 4, 5, but to pronounce them correctly is a big challenge for many beginners especially their native language is based on alphabets. If they learn Chinese through zhuyin, they can clarify the sound better, for one symbol is exactly one sound, and they don’t have to use their native phonetic skill to hinder their mandarin pronunciation or tone perfection.
      Have a good weekend there:)

      • http://www.hackingchinese.com Olle Linge

        I know and I agree, but you’re mostly talking about why Zhuyin might be better for pronunciation in general, which I can understand. I don’t understand how Zhuyin makes pronunciation of the tones any easier, though. It’s a pretty sweeping statement to say that people’s problems with tones comes from mixing tone symbols with letters. I could equally well claim that confusion comes from confuling Zhuyin symbols with (the same) tone marks.

        • http://www.chinesetolearn.com/ Shu


          Thank you for the respond:)
          Generally speaking, learning mandarin with Zhuyin is better than Pinyin or Gwoyeu or any alphabetical romanization methods. But, sadly, romanization is the trend, so not only Chinese romanization, we see Japanese romanization, Korean romanization …. Even the textbook our school uses is pinyin based, so is my website.

          So, start learning with Pinyin is an easy way to make the beginners feel learning Chinese is easy, so they would think Chinese can be managed with 26 letters. But, an easy way is not usually the best way, and a lot of problems come afterwards.The phonemes of alphabets and Chinese phonemes, some are the same, some are different. By using pinyin, it is very likely to get the learners loaded with a lot of accents and also with flat tones for many western Languages are not tonal languages.

          My statement in my first comment is : “Personally I don’t think pinyin or Gwoyue is good for tones accuracy. ” It is nothing to do with how the tone marks are marked, for it is really not important how linguists mark the tones. My point is by totally immersed in the sound the native speaker pronounce and try to mimic it the best we can and without the hindrance of a learner’s mother language. By using the Zhuyin, instead of those romanizations will be a better way to deliver better pronunciation and tone pitches.

          Also, when we type pinyin, it does not require to put the tone mark in order to find the character we search for; however, when we type Zhuyin, we are required to put the tone mark in order to find the right word. So, the manually typing in the tone marks will help the learners learn the tone for each character better.

          Have a nice new week there.

          • http://www.hackingchinese.com Olle Linge


            I already like and advocate the use of Zhuyin, so I don’t really need a sales pitch. :) I’m only interseted in why you think it would help with tones, because honestly, I don’t see any difference. Sure, you can say that using Zhuyin “will be a better way to deliver better pronunciation and tone pitches”, but that’s surely your opinion and isn’t based on research or anything? In case it is, I’d be very interested in hearing more.

            Since I agree about the pronunciation in general part, but not the tone part, you probably need to provide some kind of argument to convince me. So far, I can only see two arguments.

            1) Immersion into something completely Chinese is better than using the Latin alphabet for romanisation. This sounds logical, but very weak. Students are still not immersed when they start and I don’t think they should be. Teaching pronunciation to beginners without support of a common language usually leads to very bad results in my experience.

            2) Computer systems are limited, which isn’t really true, you can set most systems to do it both ways. In the systems I’ve used you can input Zhuyin with or without tones, you can also input Pinyin with and without tones. In any case, this isn’t really an intrinsic feature of the phonetic transcription system, but rather a limitation in the technology you’re using.

  • http://www.hackingchinese.com Olle Linge

    Because there were lots of things I missed when using only Pinyin. The systems describe some sounds differently and for foreigners, I think it’s useful to use more than one system. I will write something longer about this in the near future, but here’s one example:

    “qiong” (as in 窮 for instance) is written with an “i” in Pinyin, but with Zhuyin this is written “ㄩ”, which is “yu” or “y”. In reality, this is a y-sound, not an i-sound. I think I would never have noticed this in a hundred years if I someone hadn’t pointed out that I wrote 窮 incorrectly using Zhuyin.

    This is of course one, fairly limited example. There are many others. I’m not saying one system is better than the other, I’m saying ambitious students should learn both, not for practical use, but to understand pronunciation.

  • http://www.chinesetolearn.com/ Shu

    Here is something that you might find it interesting.

    Phonological interference between English and Chinese when learning Mandarin
    by Lin, Hsing-Yin Cynthia, Ed.D., University of Kansas, 2007, 72 pages; AAT 3266508
    Abstract (Summary)

    The Pinyin system, which is employed in China to teach native Chinese speakers how to read their own language, is also the most accessible and straightforward method currently used to learn Mandarin Chinese in the United States. Because Pinyin uses modified equivalent English letters to help learners to read Chinese characters, native English speakers consider it to be an efficient way of learning Mandarin. On the other hand, the Zhuyin Fuhao system, which is utilized in Taiwan, uses thirty-seven symbols to represent the pronunciation of Chinese characters. It is more difficult for other language speakers to understand, because it is another phonological method that is different from the Romanized Pinyin system. The Romanized system is more familiar to English and other Latin-based language speakers. Either way, the foreign language learners must learn a new phonological system before mastering the Chinese language. This research investigates the question of first language influence on native English speakers when they learn Chinese while they are utilizing either one of the above mentioned systems. Even though Pinyin uses Latin letters to indicate the pronunciation, its production method differs from English phonology. Therefore, an experiment was conducted to identify whether the interference of English phonological awareness affects native English speakers as they attempt to learn Mandarin Chinese language by using the Pinyin system or by using the Zhuyin Fuhao system. The participants are selected from the Chinese School of Great Kansas City. Six children formed the Pinyin group, and eight children are for the Zhuyin Fuhao group. Subjects from both groups recorded the same test content. According to the results, the Pinyin groups present English interference within their production even though the mean score of this group is slightly higher than that of the Zhuyin Fuhao group; on the other hand, the Zhuyin Fuhao groups did not show any interference in their production.


    • http://www.hackingchinese.com Olle Linge

      I can’t access the article, but I’ll try to check it out later if I can gain access via the university library. However, I don’t really understand why you keep trying to convince me of something I already believe is true. I’m not talking about pronunciation in general, I’m talking about tones. Sure, I haven’t read the article you refer to, but from what we can glean from the text you pasted, it doesn’t single out tones, which makes it sort of irrelevant in this case.

      Also, I find the sentence “the Zhuyin Fuhao groups did not show any interference in their production” very, very hard to believe. Is this supposed to mean that they somehow magically learnt to pronounce Chinese perfectly or what? Interference doesn’t only come from using imperfct transcription systems! This would mean that people who can’t write at all and have never seen the language written down would always have perfect pronunciation. This is obviously not the case. Still, I suppose this might be a problem with the wording in the text you pasted, perhaps it’s explained in the article itself.

      I think the main difference between the systems is both the main advantage of Pinyin and the main advantage of Zhuyin at the same time, namely that you can guess how Pinyin is pronounced, but you can’t guess how Zhuyin is pronounced. If you use Pinyin, it will be much, much quicker because we can associate what we learn to things we already know (our native language). This makes it easier to understand, use and remember.

      However, this is also the main curse of using Pinyin, because the feeling of safety we have is false. Of course, all sounds can be described accurately with any system, but since Pinyis uses letters familiar to the student, they will believe that they know how to pronounce something that they actually are pronouncing incorrectly. Pinyin in a shortcut that will lead to quick results, but if students aren’t diligent or don’t have a good teacher, their pronunciation will always be acceptable but not good. Zhuyin forces the student to walk the long way, to avoid the shortcut. Thus, I believe that if long-term pronunciation is the goal, Zhuyin is very useful.

      Personally, I use only Pinyin because I type ten times quicker using my normal keyboard layout, but I used Zhuyin for two years in Taiwan and I’m very happy I did.

  • http://www.chinesetolearn.com/ Shu

    If you are interested in intonation is somewhat ingrained and second-nature, please see http://pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html

    Anyways, have fun!

  • http://www.justlearnchinese.com Grace

    Very interesting discussion guys. Though my opinion towards Gwyeo, zhuyin or pinyin is: “Don’t rely on them too much, they only help you to recall the sound you’ve learned, they’ll never teach you how the new word sound.”

    The best and fastest way to learn Chinese pronunciation in my opinion is learning through listening and repeating, pinyin or not, it’s just a tool to help you remember. After all, there are only about 370 different sounds for each Chinese characters. Each sound is simply a combination of one consonant and one vowel, some of them is only composed of one vowel. Think about how many sound combinations an English word could have? (almost endless compared to Chinese characters)

    As for tones, when you’re learning a new character, you are learning it’s tone together with it’s pronunciation. Just like when you learn an English word, you learn which syllable to accent on as well. If you mess that up at the first time, you’ll pay more to fix that later. Same thing as tones here … never ever seperate the tone from it’s pronunciation when you’re learning a new character. They should be together the first time you learn
    it, then they’ll come to your lips naturally next time you see it.

    If I have to pick one for my reader to use as a tool to memorize or look up pronunciation, I’ll recommend pinyin. Simply because it’s the most widely used tool that most people will understand. You don’t need to add more obstacles to your learning path by picking up a less recognizable tool, even if it’s better in some aspect… my two cents…

    After all, my advice is try to read Chinese in Chinese itself, turn off pinyin if you could once you’ve build up a small solid vocabulary base.

  • http://www.chinesetolearn.com/ Shu


    I was not trying to convince you on anything. What I said is based on my personal teaching experiences. When I was a TA years ago when I was a graduate student, the professor that taught First Year Chinese, the textbooks he used were based on Zhuyin fuhao, and I worked as his TA for a few years. Now as a teacher who teaches Second year Chinese myself, I know how my students’ pronunciation or tones are. I did not teach them the First Year, it was done by other teacher, and our University uses pinyin. Thus, I was able to notice the differences on tones and on pronunciation between these two different kinds of systems. You might say it is your personal observation, not a research. Well, yes it is my personal observation, just like what I said at the beginning of my first comment.

    As for the researches, there were a few you can find online. But, are those reliable? Are those absolute true? They all are arguable, and it is good for us to have certain degree of doubts.

    Language is a living thing, so it offers researchers a lot of opportunity to study, and it also gives us a lot of things to learn. The discussion has been fun. You might want to write a post on this, I surely will check it out:) Have fun learning Chinese; I do too learn Chinese everyday:)

  • Anonymous

    Why would zhuyin be easier? It has a one-to-one mapping with pinyin (plus a few edge cases where vowels combine).