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!
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. A language learning program like FluentU can be a great resource for this as it allows you to watch a wide range of authentic Chinese content like movie clips, music videos, etc. and provides you with subtitles and other language-learning tools to help solidify your understanding.
By listening to native speakers, you will pick up on their tone and the sounds of the language!
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
|zh||English “j” with your tongue above the ridge||知 (zhī) — to know|
|ch||English “ch” with your tongue above the ridge||吃 (chī) — to eat|
|sh||English “sh” with your tongue above the ridge||十 (shí) — ten|
|r||English “r” with your tongue almost touching the roof of your mouth||人 (rén) — person|
|x||English “sh” through your teeth||西 (shī) — West|
|q||English “ch” through your teeth||七 (qī) — seven|
|z||“Ds,” as in “kids”||组 (zǔ) — group|
|c||“Ts,” as in “kits”||册 (cè) — book|
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
|ong||“O” as in “home,” “ng” pronounced strong through the nose||红 (hóng) — the color red|
|ing||"Iing" as in "skiing," "ng" pronounced strong through the nose||英 (yīng) — English|
|ü||"Louie" without the "L," softening the ending||绿 (lǜ) — green|
When you put initial and final sounds together you get combinations. These are some of the key combinations that you should know:
|zhi||English "j" with your tongue above the ridge, finishing with a soft "r" sound; like "jerk" without the "k"||知 (zhī) — to know|
|chi||English "ch" with your tongue above the ridge, finishing with a soft "r" sound; like "chirp" without the "p"||吃 (chī) — to eat|
|shi||English "sh" with your tongue above the ridge, finishing with a soft "r" sound; like "shirt" without the "t"||十 (shí) — ten|
|zhe||English "j" with your tongue above the ridge, finishing with an "uh" sound||这 (zhè) — this|
|che||English "ch" with your tongue above the ridge, finishing with an "uh" sound||车 (chē) — car|
|she||English "sh" with your tongue above the ridge, finishing with an "uh" sound||设 (shè) — to design; to establish|
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.
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
|ju||English "j" plus the ü sound||句 (jù) — sentence, as in phrase|
|xu||English "sh" through your teeth plus the ü soundsound; like "chirp" without the "p"||需 (xū) — to need|
|qu||English "ch" through your teeth plus the ü sound||去 (qù) — to go|
|yu||Only the "ü" sound||语 (yǔ) — language|
|yi||Only the "i" sound, pronounced "ee"||一 (yī) — one|
|ying||Only the "ing" sound||英 (yīng) — English|
|wu||only the "u" sound, pronounced "oo" as in "food"||五 (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!