Taiwanese politician triggers linguistic debate on the merits of pinyin vs. zhuyin

Yeh Yi-jin, a DPP candidate running for Tainan Mayor, said Taiwan should scrap the 'BoPoMoFo' system, a nationwide debate ensued

Yeh Yi-jin campaign poster,modified

Yeh Yi-jin campaign poster,modified (Taiwan News photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – A DPP politician running for mayor of Tainan in southern Taiwan has been causing a stir for her recent remarks about primary language education in Taiwan.

Last week during a primary debate between DPP mayoral hopefuls in Tainan, Yeh Yi-jin (葉宜津) remarked that the best way to improve reading scores and literacy development among children in Taiwan, would be to do away with the phonetic system currently used to teach reading and writing, known as zhuyin (注音), in favor of the system of Romanization called pinyin (拼音).

Zhuyin, also known colloquially as “Bo Po Mo Fo” (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ), is a phonetic system used for remedial Chinese instruction, and a feature distinct to language education in Taiwan. Other Chinese speaking societies across the world have mostly opted for the phonetic system using the Latin alphabet to write out the pronunciation of Chinese characters.

Yeh has suggested that the zhuyin system serves no practical purpose, and that young learners in Taiwan would be better served if basic phonics were taught using the pinyin system instead, arguing that early practice with the Latin alphabet would serve the dual purpose of prepping them to study foreign languages which use the alphabet later on.

According to UDN, Yeh believes if the practice is first implemented in Tainan schools, that other counties and cities will follow suit, and that by doing so, Taiwan will raise its overall competitiveness, not only in terms of domestic literacy, but also in terms of attracting foreigners studying Chinese.

For students that have already been exposed to pinyin, learning another phonetic writing system may seem daunting. Yeh suggests that by adopting pinyin, Taiwan would simply be meeting with international standards that have already been established.

Another point the politician argues, is that in the current age of IT, with standardized keyboards and keypads, pinyin and Latin letters make for a more practical system, and faster input.

Somewhat unexpectedly, online discussions over the last week have indicated that the politician struck a nerve in Taiwanese society, and the topic has now turned into a national conversation, with many expressing dismay at the idea of scrapping the zhuyin system in favor of pinyin.

Many people argue, especially Mandarin language instructors, that the zhuyin system provides for a greater degree of accuracy in representing the underlying phonetic system of Mandarin Chinese and other languages in the Sinic language family.

Many in Taiwanese society view the zhuyin system through a cultural or political lens, and consider it a mark of tradition that Taiwan has maintained the phonetic writing system originally developed for the instruction of Chinese in the early 1900s.

They also consider the use of zhuyin alongside Taiwan’s use of traditional characters, in contrast to the adoption of pinyin and simplified characters in China from the 1950s, which many purists would claim reflects a debasement of the language proper.

One netizen’s sarcastic response to Yeh’s proposal was to say, that if the western writing system and pinyin are so great, “Maybe Taiwan should get rid of Chinese altogether, and everyone can just learn English instead!”

The response, while humorous, reflects a bit of the consternation many in Taiwan feel towards the often overzealous emphasis parents and schools place on English education in the country.

Other netizens remarked that “Fortunately, the mayor of Tainan isn’t in any position to change educational policy across the country.”

Despite the criticism following her remarks, Yeh has remained resolute in her stance, claiming that “In the future, … the facts will prove me right.” Curiously, the seemingly curt and honest statements on primary language education from the politician appear to have inadvertently become a major platform for her mayoral campaign.

Updated : 2021-01-27 06:00 GMT+08:00