Yin and yang, P.F. Chang’s… Chinese words can’t be all that difficult to pronounce, right?
The truth? Chinese is one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn.
There are tons of vocab words that are difficult to read out loud because our minds automatically think in English when we’re faced with pinyin.
Believe it or not, you already know all the sounds of those difficult words, despite pinyin being drastically different from the Latin alphabet.
Pinyin pronunciation actually isn’t the hardest part of learning Chinese. In fact, native English speakers find the tones more challenging, although with plenty of practice, tones aren’t that great of an obstacle.
Okay, so how would one easily transition into correct pinyin pronunciation?
Rather than simply mimicking the sounds that your Chinese language partner or teacher is saying, wouldn’t it be easier to transliterate the pinyin into spelling that you can understand?
That’s exactly what we’ll do so you can tackle those typically hard-to-pronounce Chinese words without breaking a sweat.
Difficult Chinese Vowel Sounds
Let’s briefly go over those hard-to-pronounce vowel sounds.
It’s all about being aware of how parts of your mouth are moving, as well as what shapes you’re making with your mouth.
Once you’ve understood what mouth movement and shape is utilized per pinyin letter, you’ll know exactly what to do when you come across new pinyin combos. And the way to understand those two factors is to look at transliterate spelling.
You can always refer back to an earlier guide that breaks down all the Chinese vowel sounds and combinations.
e — Sounds like “uh.”
u — Sounds like “oo” in “zoo.”
ü — Say “ew” with a small, round mouth.
ue — Say “ew” with a small, round mouth + “eh.” Notice the u here is basically ü without the umlaut.
ie — Sounds like “ee” + “eh.”
Difficult Chines Consonant Sounds
And now for the consonant sounds that tend to trip people up. You can check out the master list of pinyin consonants if you need help with any others that aren’t listed here.
q — Sounds like “chee” in “cheese.”
x — Sounds like the word “she” but with a wider mouth.
zh — Sounds like “jur” in “jury” but with a smaller mouth.
ch — Sounds like “chr.”
sh — Sounds like “shr.”
r — Sounds like “ir” in “irk.”
z — Sounds like “tzi,” where the “zi” sounds like the beginning of “zip.”
c — Sounds like “tsi,” where the “si” sounds like the beginning of “sip.”
The Hardest Chinese Words to Pronounce and How to Master Them
There are lots of words in the Chinese dictionary that share the following tricky pinyin combinations, so we’re going to go for the difficult terms to pronounce that still fall under beginners’ vocabulary.
You can get some help pronouncing these words by hearing them in use, which you can do on FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
FluentU’s videos come with interactive dual-language subtitles so you can keep track of everything you’re watching (and understand it, of course!). You can use the flashcards to practice any words you’re learning, and hear them in use with the associated video clips.
Try it out with a free FluentU trial!
四十四 (sì shí sì) — 44
This one’s definitely a tongue twister on its own, having to switch between the consonants s and sh. The pinyin consonants s and sh have the same pronunciation as the pinyin si and shi, so this word contains sounds that you are already know from the pinyin alphabet system.
What’s most difficult about 四十四 (sì shí sì) is incorporating an “r” sound into the mix even though it’s not indicated in the pinyin. But referring to the guide above, you’re basically saying “si shr si,” with the fourth, second and fourth tones respectively.
去 (qù) — go
One thing you have to know about the pinyin vowel u is that it sounds like ü when it’s preceded by the consonants j, q, x and y.
Thus, rather than pronouncing 去 (qù) as “ch-oo,” you’d pronounce it as the word “chew” with a small, round mouth and in the fourth tone.
日 (rì) — sun
Ri sounds exactly as r does in the pinyin alphabet, so it shouldn’t be completely out of your comfort zone. The key is to not resort to American phonetics when you see r in pinyin.
As I indicated in the previous section, 日 (rì) sounds more like “ir” in the word “irk,” with emphasis on the “r” and with the fourth tone applied.
月亮 (yuèliàng) — moon
Remember what I said about u following j, q, x and y, and earlier when I pointed out that ue is actually üe minus the umlaut? The combination ue on its own can be pretty tough to pronounce, though when combined with a consonant, pronunciation is a little more straightforward.
月 (yuè) is said like the word “you-eh,” then 亮 (liàng) would be “lee-ahng.” Both characters are pronounced with the fourth tone, so that shouldn’t be too hard.
喝 (hē) — to drink
Not to be mistaken for the English word “he,” the pronunciation of 喝 (hē) is actually “h-uh,” though it isn’t said the same way as you would say “huh.”
Hē is a longer syllable and said with much less gusto in comparison, as it’s said in the first tone.
寸 (cùn) — inch
Since 寸 (cùn) begins with the pinyin consonant c, the u doesn’t need to be pronounced the same as ü.
The most difficult part about this word is getting the c right; the rest is smooth sailing. As I’ve said before, c is like “tsi,” so 寸 would be “tsi-un” together with the fourth tone.
出租车 (chū zū chē) — taxi
The challenge here is the ch-z-ch combination because it has you changing positions of your tongue, then your mouth and tongue. That might have not made any sense just yet, but you’ll see what I mean once you say the word yourself.
Pronounce 出 (chū) like “ch-oo” (not the same as “choo” like the sound of a train), 租 (zū) as “tzi-oo” and 车 (chē) like “ch” + “uh,” using the first tone with all three characters.
自行车 (zìxíngchē) — bicycle
Here’s a term that uses three letters from the list of difficult consonants. Although the pinyin looks rather intimidating, it’s all just about breaking it down into sounds you recognize.
For 自 (zì), you’d say it as “tzi” with the fourth tone; for 行 (xíng), you’d say it as “shing” with the second or rising tone; and for 车 (chē), you’d say it as “ch-uh” with the first tone.
鞋子 (xiézi) — shoes
Just like we did with the previous terms, let’s change the pinyin into American English sounds you’d understand.
鞋子 (xiézi) can be read as “sh-ye tzi,” with the rising tone on just the first character. Not too hard to pronounce when it’s put that way, right?
裙子 (qúnzi) — skirt
Taking in everything we’ve covered in the previous nine terms, this might not seem as complicated anymore.
In American English, 裙子 (qúnzi) would be read as “ch-win zi,” with the second tone on just the first character
Tongue Twisters for Practice
Tongue twisters are great tools for getting used to all the new mouth movements and tongue placements required for Chinese pronunciation practice. Especially when it comes to tackling any allegedly hard-to-say words!
Here are just a few to get you started:
Tongue Twister #1 – Four is Four
This is probably one of most popular tongue twisters for beginners. It can help with tones and give you the chance to practice switching between the “s” and “sh” sounds.
(sì shì sì, shí shì shí, shí sì shì shí sì, sì shí shì sì shí, sì shí sì shì sì shí sì.)
Four is four, 10 is 10, 14 is 14, 40 is 40, 44 is 44.
Tongue Twister #2 – If You Know, Say You Know
This one will help you practice differentiating between the “j” and “zh” sounds.
(zhīdào jiù shuō zhīdào, bù zhīdào jiù shuō bù zhīdào, bū yào zhīdào shuō bù zhīdào, yě bū yào bù zhīdào shuō zhīdào, nǐ zhīdào bù zhīdào?)
If you know then say you know. If you don’t know then say you don’t know. You shouldn’t know and say you don’t know, and you shouldn’t not know and say you know, you know?
Tongue Twister 3 – The Rabbit
Here’s one that’s short, a bit strange and focuses on the vowel sound “u” and the consonant “z.”
(wŏde。。。tùzi de dùzi de pùzi。)
My… rabbit’s stomach’s shop.
And if these three aren’t challenging enough for you, try your hand at these more advanced tongue twisters.
Soon enough, there won’t be any new Chinese words that you can’t pronounce!