Traditional vs. Simplified; Pinyin vs. BoPoMo

In the 1950's the People's Republic of China (PRC) began systematically changing many of the Chinese characters.  The process of simplification is still going on today. Simplification was begun in order to reduce the number of strokes required to form many of the characters.  This was done to promote literacy among it's citizens and to encourage foreigners to learn to read/write Chinese.  An example of this simplification can be seen below:
媽 (traditional) --> 妈 (simplified)

On this page, I'm going to discuss some of the reasons you may choose to teach either traditional or simplified characters.  For a more in depth discussion, please conduct an internet search on "traditional vs. simplified."  Wikipedia, the last time I check, had a very nice synopsis of the situation.  If after reading the information I have presented below, you are unsure whether to teach the simplified or the traditional characters, I would encourage you to use the simplified characters if only because it is easier to find teaching materials that use the simplified characters.  I would also recommend the pinyin pronunciation system since this is the system that is used in the public school system in America where they provide Chinese as a Second Language classes.

Things to consider:
  • Where will you be using reading/writing?  If your family is from Taiwan, Macau or Hong Kong, you may want to think about learning the traditional forms of Chinese characters since that is what is used in those regions.  If you will be primarily traveling to mainland China, literacy in simplified characters will probably suffice.
    • The simplified character set is the mostly widely spread Chinese writing system.  For this reason, it is easy to find textbooks, children's books, and other examples of writing in the simplified character set.  Books teaching this set or children's books using this set typically also use the mainland Chinese pinyin pronunciation guide (see below).
    • The traditional character set is used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.  I'm not sure how the traditional characters are taught in Hong Kong or Macau.  In Taiwan, they use a phonetic system called 注音符號 (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ); although there has been some pressure for Taiwan to adopt the pinyin system as its official pronunciation system.  See below for a discussion of the two systems.
  • Do I need to learn both sets?  As for the question of whether you need to learn both characters sets . . .
    • If you choose to learn the traditional characters, you will find that you will definitely need to be able to recognize the simplified set as well.  Many goods are imported from mainland China where simplified characters are used and if you want to be able to read the labels, you will need to be able to read simplified characters. Not to mention, you will most likely make friends with people who primarily know the simplified characters and that may be how they choose to write to you.  If they write to you on the computer, you can probably fairly reliably use something like Google Translate to help you convert to the traditional characters, but if they send you a birthday card by snail-mail you're going to need to be able to read it yourself.
    • If you choose to learn the simplified characters, you will probably do just fine.  However, at some point you may run into a situation where it would be helpful to know a little bit about the rules used to create the simplified characters from the traditional set.
  • How easy is it to learn one system of writing after learning the first? 
    • Converting one system to another is not a simple substitution task.  For example, a simplified character may be used in substitution for more than one traditional character.  For converting computer documents, there are ways of mass converting from one system to the other; however, a human being is necessary to proof-read for errors.
    • However, the above being said, there are some standard rules that generally apply when converting between simplified characters to traditional characters and visa versa.  This is why many educated Taiwanese people may only be taught to write traditional characters, but can easily recognize many simplified characters.  For example, 馬 is always converted to 马.
  • What pronunciation system do you want to use?  Since Chinese characters are not phonetic (i.e. there is no way to look at a character and know its pronunciation), students are first taught a phonetic system that accompanies the characters until the character's pronunciation is memorized.  There are two common systems:
    • Pinyin (AKA New Phonetic System)- is the official system to transcribe Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet.  
      • Some parents are concerned that using the same alphabet (as English uses) to teach a foreign language will confuse a child about what sound the letter may represent.  However, this may not need to be something you worry about.  I have several friends who speak Spanish and English in the home and the children are bilingual.  When asked if their children had any great difficulties in understanding how the letters correlate to each of the two languages, they did not report any trouble.  As long as you are clear about what language you are teaching when you are giving your child direction, there does not seem to be a great risk in high levels of confusion.  Keep in mind, as you proceed, that sometimes children do become confused.  A child learning only one language will  sometimes even confuse letters (ex. saying "B" says "duh").
      • There are advantages to using the Roman alphabet to teach the Chinese sound system.  Very often the letters used to represent a sound in Chinese is the same letter used in other languages (such as English).  For example, the sound most closely resembling "bee" in Chinese is represented by the letter "B," just as it is in English.  This means that if your child is already familiar with writing in English, there are fewer novel letters for him/her to learn before he/she can use the pinyin system to sound out Chinese characters.  Compare this to the 注音符號 (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ) system below.
    • 注音符號 (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ)- Also known as Bo Po Mo, this system requires a learner to first master 36 new "letters" before being able to use the system to sound out Chinese characters.  Here is a link to the 注音符號 (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ) "letters" with their sounds.
      • The advantage is that a child who can speak two languages fluently will not inadvertently substitute a English "bee" sound for a Chinese "bee" sound because the representation (the written letter) of the two sounds is very different.
      • The disadvantage is that a student cannot graft the Romanized alphabet used in English onto the Chinese pronunciation.  Depending on the child, it can take quite a while to learn this initial pronunciation system.  As an example, my 3-year old and 4-year old were introduced to these 36 sounds 3 at a time at 2 week intervals.  It took approximately 1 year for them to master the sounds.  However, keep in mind that as you work on this sound system you can also be working on vocabulary (ex. ㄅ is for 杯子 (ㄅㄟ ㄗ)) so that you are reinforcing the sound system along with improving vocabulary so that for children who are learning Chinese as a second language there is not a significant amount of time lost in the first year (vocabulary is being taught in the first year alongside the pronunciation system).