"Was he reading Hanzi, or Hanyu Pinyin?"

A commenter to this post, "Matthew Pottinger's speech in Mandarin" (5/9/20) posed the questions in the title. These are interesting questions that raise important issues.

Since I don't know Matthew Pottinger, I am unable to say for sure what he was reading, whether it was Hanzi, Hanyu Pinyin, or something else.  The reason I say "something else" is because his teacher, Perry Link, was a strong advocate of Gwoyeu Romatzyh spelling, aka GR or the National Language Romanization system, so it may have been that.

For those who are not familiar with it, GR is a kind of tonal romanization in which the tones of words are spelled with letters.  It is difficult to learn (though much less difficult than characters, of course!), but it is very effective in imprinting the tones of words in the heads of learners.  Indeed, many of the best foreign speakers of Mandarin learned the language via GR, and they include Perry Link and Tom Bartlett.

GR was developed by the distinguished linguist, Y.  R. Chao.  It was used at Harvard and Princeton (it was the Cadillac of Romaniztions).  After Harvard switched over to Hanyu Pinyin (as the clout of the PRC grew), Princeton continued to use GR, and people who had started out using GR and later became established professors in various places, such as Perry Link at UCLA, continued to use it as well.  During the 70s, I actually wrote some of my early papers in GR.

Since Perry Link taught Matt Pottinger at Princeton in Beijing (PiB) in 1994, it is conceivable that he used GR for transcriptional purposes, and that would certainly help to account for Pottinger's crisp, clear tones.  On the other hand, C. P. Chou, the Director of PiB, is a strong proponent of character literacy, so he may have stressed that among the students.  I believe that 1994 would have been the third year of PiB, and I think that C. P. was director from the very beginning.  All of these questions can be answered by people are more familiar with PiB than I am.  One thing I do know for sure is that PiB is a premier program, and that students who attend it receive rigorous training.  Unfortunately, like so many other things, the summer program had to be cancelled this year because of the coronavirus.

There's another reason why I consider the question in the title to be significant. Namely, in terms of pedagogy, it does matter whether one uses Hanyu Pinyin, GR, Yale, Wade-Giles, Bopomofo / Zhuyinfuhao / Mandarin Phonetic Symbols, or other transcriptions, because they all have their strengths and weaknesses, and they all have cultural and political associations.  In terms of linguistics, however, it's conceivable that you don't have to learn any transcription system at all to learn a language, and learn it well.  You can just dive right in to the language learning experience purely through oral-aural means, without having to worry about a writing system at all.  That's the way I learned Nepali, and it's also the way most human beings learn their Mother Tongue, and often even second and third languages.  What really matters are the sounds and structures of the languages one learns, not the scripts or transcriptions that are used to record those sounds and structures.  Finally, Hanzi / Sinographs / Chinese characters are not essential for speaking and writing Sinitic languages.  You can use other scripts (e.g., Brahmi, Tibetan) and transcriptions for those purposes too.

1. Laura Morland said,

May 10, 2020 @ 6:34 pm

I remembered that question, and I was hoping that this post would provide the answer! (Interesting post anyway, as always.)

I'd like to make a comment about one statement you made above:

"You don't have to learn any transcription system at all to learn a language, and learn it well. You can just dive right in to the language learning experience purely through oral-aural means, without having to worry about a writing system at all."

Not true for me: I belong to a subset of what I believe are called "visual learners," and I am *completely unable* to learn a new word — whether it be in my native language (American English), my acquired language (French of France), or in the smattering of other languages I've studied — without seeing it written down. (This is also true for proper names that I've never heard before. I'll pronounce the name correctly immediately after hearing it, but five minutes later it's irretrievable.)

I taught myself to read at 3-1/2; perhaps that's why I'm so dependent on the written word? My extremely dyslexic godson was 17 before he could read a simple paragraph, and I told him once I thought he was brilliant, because I had no idea how he could keep his (ample) vocabulary in his head without knowing how words were spelled. I still cannot begin to imagine how that works.

2. Scott P. said,

May 10, 2020 @ 8:26 pm

Not true for me: I belong to a subset of what I believe are called "visual learners," and I am *completely unable* to learn a new word — whether it be in my native language (American English), my acquired language (French of France), or in the smattering of other languages I've studied — without seeing it written down. (This is also true for proper names that I've never heard before. I'll pronounce the name correctly immediately after hearing it, but five minutes later it's irretrievable.)

What I generally do is visualize the word spelled out when it is said to me, and then I read that — don't you do something similar?

3. Victor Mair said,

May 10, 2020 @ 10:13 pm

"Aphantasia — absence of the mind's eye" (3/24/17)

https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=31735

4. Neil Kubler said,

May 11, 2020 @ 1:26 am

We can't know for sure what kind of text Mr. Pottinger was reading from and it ultimately doesn't matter; all that matters is his impressive oral performance. I've known proficient non-native speakers of Mandarin who delivered talks from character texts and others who spoke from romanized texts, or some of each, and all these options can work well. Inspired by GR romanization, at Williams College we for many years successfully used “Tonal Pinyin”: no change for Tone 1, add y for Tone 2, double vowel for Tone 3, add h for Tone 4. Example: 三皇五帝 san huayng wuu dih. For visual learners, indicating tones in such a manner can provide a small benefit. However, we should recognize that no transcription is designed to be self-pronouncing; a transcription can only be a rough reminder of the sounds of the language, which must first exist in learners' brains, acquired through frequent hearing of live or recorded models. A transcription is nothing more than a code; without knowing the key to that code, the code is meaningless. Furthermore, no matter which transcription system is used, learners will still be influenced by the sounds of their native language imprinted on their brains; it is this, not printed symbols on a page, that is the crux of the problem. And this is true whether learners are speaking Chinese, reading characters out loud, or pronouncing the symbols of a transcription system.

5. Philip Taylor said,

May 11, 2020 @ 4:20 am

We are all, I am sure, heavily influenced by the first transcription model to which we were exposed, and for me, that is Hanyu Pinyin. And although I find some of the consonant/vowel choices sub-optimal (for a native speaker of British English, not necessarily for non-Chinese speakers as a whole), I nonetheless find the choice of tone markers far better than any of the other systems to which I have been exposed. Because I read from left to right, the chosens diacritics all create in my mind an immediate visual model of the way in which the pitch should vary, something that none of the other systems of transcription appear to achieve. For example, mā, má, mǎ, mà, ma each create a visual pitch contour in my mind which resembles (but is not identical to, especially in the case of ) the shape of the diacritic. Wade-Giles' ma${}^{1}$, ma${}^{2}$, ma${}^{3}$, ma${}^{4}$, ma does not achieve this, nor does Gwoyeu Romatzyh mha, ma, maa, mah, ?ₒma?. In other words, and solely in terms of tones, Hanyu Pinyin appears to me to be a genuinely mnemonic transcription system whilst all of the others appear to be purely arbitrary.

Apologies in advance if my attempts to embed sub- and supercripts have failed — "preview before submission" (or even "edit after submission") would be a wonderful addition to this forum's infrastructure.