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The Ultimate Guide to Chinese Pronunciation

If you’re starting to learn Chinese, you’ve probably realized that there are a lot of differences in pronunciation.

Using a different tone or inflection can completely change what you are trying to say.  

Lucky for you, we have created a straightforward guide to make it even easier to learn those differences and achieve more confidence in your Chinese pronunciation!

Contents

The Basics of Mandarin Pronunciation

Pronunciation comes from a combination of three factors: mouth shape, tongue placement and air flow.

Most Chinese sounds require the same mouth shapes and tongue placements as English. When it comes to air flow, Chinese doesn’t use as much of the diaphragm and throat to make sounds. 

Mandarin syllables are broken down into initial sounds (initials), final sounds (finals) and tones.

The best way to catch on to these is to listen to native speakers. An immersive language learning program like FluentU can be a great resource for this.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

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By listening to native speakers, you will pick up on their tone and the sounds of the language!

Initial Sounds

The initial sound is the initial syllable of the word, and is usually only a consonant. If we look at 拼音 (pīnyīn) as an example, the initial sound of 拼 is p (like the “p” in “pot”).

Key Initial Sounds

SoundPronunciationExample
zhEnglish “j” with your tongue above the ridge (zhī) — to know
chEnglish “ch” with your tongue above the ridge (chī) — to eat
shEnglish “sh” with your tongue above the ridge (shí) — ten
rEnglish “r” with your tongue almost touching the roof of your mouth (rén) — person
xEnglish “sh” through your teeth 西 (shī) — West
qEnglish “ch” through your teeth (qī) — seven
z“Ds,” as in “kids” (zǔ) — group
c“Ts,” as in “kits” (cè) — book

Final Sounds

The final sound has one or more vowels. It is worth noting that sometimes a word may be only the initial or final sound.

Looking again at  “pīnyīn” (拼 — pīn) as our example, the final sound is “in” (like the “een” sound in “scene”).

Key Final Sounds

SoundPronunciationExample
ong“O” as in “home,” “ng” pronounced strong through the nose (hóng) — the color red
ing"Iing" as in "skiing," "ng" pronounced strong through the nose (yīng) — English
ü"Louie" without the "L," softening the ending 绿 (lǜ) — green

Key Combinations

When you put initial and final sounds together you get combinations. These are some of the key combinations that you should know:

SoundPronunciationExample
zhiEnglish "j" with your tongue above the ridge, finishing with a soft "r" sound; like "jerk" without the "k" (zhī) — to know
chiEnglish "ch" with your tongue above the ridge, finishing with a soft "r" sound; like "chirp" without the "p" (chī) — to eat
shiEnglish "sh" with your tongue above the ridge, finishing with a soft "r" sound; like "shirt" without the "t" (shí) — ten
zheEnglish "j" with your tongue above the ridge, finishing with an "uh" sound (zhè) — this
cheEnglish "ch" with your tongue above the ridge, finishing with an "uh" sound (chē) — car
sheEnglish "sh" with your tongue above the ridge, finishing with an "uh" sound (shè) — to design; to establish

Tones

Pinyin uses tone marks to signal the “shape” of the tone:

  • The first tone is long and straight (mā).
  • The second tone rises from its starting point (má).
  • The third tone drops down a bit, then rises (mǎ).
  • The fourth tone drops sharply (mà).
  • The neutral tone does absolutely nothing (ma).

To see how this looks in pinyin, we can see that in “pīn” the tone is indicated by the mark over the i that tells us the tone is long and straight. 

Pinyin

Chinese characters are basically hieroglyphs, a form of writing that gives no clues for pronunciation. Pinyin uses “English” letters to create new sounds and give you a hint for how things are pronounced.  ​

Although some Chinese learners feel that pinyin is too much of a crutch, most will say that it’s very helpful. Learning Chinese well without pinyin is possible, but highly improbable, and its uses go far beyond the training wheels of pronunciation. 

Key Pinyin Pronunciations

SoundPronunciationExample
juEnglish "j" plus the ü sound (jù) — sentence, as in phrase
xuEnglish "sh" through your teeth plus the ü soundsound; like "chirp" without the "p" (xū) — to need
quEnglish "ch" through your teeth plus the ü sound (qù) — to go
yuOnly the "ü" sound (yǔ) — language
yiOnly the "i" sound, pronounced "ee" (yī) — one
yingOnly the "ing" sound (yīng) — English
wuonly the "u" sound, pronounced "oo" as in "food" (wǔ) — five

 

Chinese pronunciation will come easier and easier with more practice. Don’t forget that your greatest Chinese language learning resources are actual Chinese-speaking humans!

And One More Thing...

If you want to continue learning Chinese with interactive and authentic Chinese content, then you'll love FluentU.

FluentU naturally eases you into learning Chinese language. Native Chinese content comes within reach, and you'll learn Chinese as it's spoken in real life.

FluentU has a wide range of contemporary videos—like dramas, TV shows, commercials and music videos.

FluentU brings these native Chinese videos within reach via interactive captions. You can tap on any word to instantly look it up. All words have carefully written definitions and examples that will help you understand how a word is used. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.

FluentU's Learn Mode turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you're learning.

The best part is that FluentU always keeps track of your vocabulary. It customizes quizzes to focus on areas that need attention and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a 100% personalized experience.

Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)

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