Author’s Note: If you’re looking for a Chinese alphabet that resembles English, check out our article explaining Pinyin.
We’ve heard parents ask about a “Chinese alphabet for kids” a lot, and each time we have to clarify that Chinese traditionally doesn’t really have an alphabet. But while Chinese people don’t really use an alphabet, there are two predominant phonetic systems that are basically alphabets, but Chinese people never use these to communicate — they’re seen as a learning aid for foreign people and small children. Instead, Chinese people read and write using Chinese characters, which are often comprised of shared base elements known as “radicals”.
Before we go on, keep in mind that our Chinese game app Chinese Fridge teaches kids the Pinyin phonetic system, simplified Chinese characters and traditional Chinese characters. We’ve also put together a guide to explaining Chinese characters for kids that you might find useful.
Here’s what you need to know about finding a Chinese alphabet for kids:
The Misconception and Myth
The term “Chinese alphabet” is searched for on Google alone about 74,000 each month, while “Chinese alphabet for kids” is searched for 1,000 times. In addition, “Chinese alphabet symbols” is searched for 27,100 times and “Chinese letter alphabet” is searched for 27,100 times per month.
I could go on with other search terms, but the point is, it seems that many people might not realize that Chinese people use a system of characters that is not an alphabet and does not have letters. In this sense, it is very different from Western languages because each character does not indicate or represent a sound, the way English letters tend to. In fact, many characters share the exact same sound. We’ll explain more later in this post.
Is there a Chinese alphabet for kids?
Yes and no. You could say there are phonetic systems that can make it easier for kids to learn basic Chinese, but you should think of these as like training wheels — at some point they really need to learn characters, because no one writes with the phonetic systems and they are more ambiguous because they leave out a lot of the details that Chinese characters are able to convey.
The main phonetic system used in Mainland China is known as Pinyin (拼音). More recently, Taiwan and Singapore started moving towards it as a system to transcribe Chinese into a Latin script, to help people who are more used to Western alphabets. This system is also used in classrooms in countries outside of China, including the United States, at introductory levels of Chinese classes for all ages. Pinyin helps students the sounds of words, which they would otherwise have to memorize per each character. If you’re looking for a Chinese alphabet for kids to help your child get started with the basic sounds of Chinese, this is generally the best starting point.
There is another phonetic system commonly used in Taiwan (formally known as the Republic of China) called Zhuyin Fuhao (注音符號), or “bo po mo fo”, but this is generally more aimed towards Taiwanese kids and is a little less comfortable for foreigners to learn since it doesn’t use Latin alphabet symbols.
There are some other phonetic systems out there, but these are probably the two most prominent ones.
So how do Chinese people read and write?
Like I alluded to earlier, Chinese people use Chinese characters to read and write — the oldest continuously used system of writing in the world (although it’s usage has changed a bit over time). In fact, Chinese characters have such a long place in history that many nearby East Asian countries like Japan, Korea and Vietnam all used Chinese characters to write their languages at one point, and even now strong influences remain.
Chinese characters are a very complex system to explain, so we’ll have to explain this subject in a later post.
Feel free to leave comments below or write to us if you have any questions or comments!