learn-chinese-pinyin

What Is Pinyin? The Ultimate Guide to Tones, Initials, Finals and Our Top Pinyin Tips

I’ll let you in on a secret.

Did you know you can learn to speak fluent Chinese without ever learning a single Chinese character?

It’s all thanks to something called pinyin.

Contents

 

What Is Pinyin?

The Oxford Dictionary defines pinyin as “the standard system of romanized spelling for transliterating Chinese.”

Basically, pinyin uses the Latin alphabet (the same one we use in English) to write Chinese words so you can learn their phonetics without needing to learn their characters or 汉字 (hànzì)

Pinyin is how Chinese words are pronounced, whereas Chinese characters are how they are seen in textbooks, newspapers, books, etc. Both traditional Chinese (the Chinese characters used in Taiwan) and simplified Chinese (the Chinese characters used in mainland China) can be represented using the same pinyin.

This means two things:

  • Learning pinyin won’t take much time (because you already know the Latin alphabet)
  • It’s completely possible to learn conversational Mandarin Chinese without knowing any Chinese characters.

Pinyin is only made up of three parts: tones, initials and finals. This makes it relatively simple to learn.

Tone marks show you how each word is pronounced, and there are four of them: a flat tone, rising tone, dip tone and falling tone.

Initials and finals, on the other hand, let you know how to pronounce each letter as well as certain combination sounds (like “uang” and “ch”).

These sounds and tones make up the building blocks of the language, and they can all be represented with the Latin letters you already know.

For these reasons, pinyin has been an incredibly helpful tool for English-speakers (and other users of the Latin alphabet) in learning Chinese. 

But believe it or not, pinyin wasn’t invented for people learning Chinese as a foreign language.

Every single student in China learns pinyin at school.

Pinyin was developed in the ’50s by Chinese linguist Zhou Youguang. In 1958, it was incorporated into the education system by the Chinese government with the purpose of improving the literacy rate in China.

Today, pinyin is still taught to children in school, and most Chinese people use pinyin for texting and typing.

So, you notice I’ve been specifying “Mandarin Chinese pinyin” here. One question I often get is: Is there a difference between Mandarin pinyin, Cantonese pinyin and Taiwanese pinyin?

Yes, they’re different. Like Mandarin pinyin, Cantonese pinyin uses romanized letters, but they are a different set and sound totally different. Taiwanese uses zhuyin fuhao (aka bopomofo). Zhuyin fuhao uses a totally different set of symbols.

Why Learn Pinyin?

If your goal is to learn how to speak Chinese fluently, you need to learn Chinese pinyin. Here are seven reasons why: 

1. You need pinyin to look up words in the dictionary. If you hear Chinese words and phrases in everyday speech and you would like to look them up, then you need to know the hanyu pinyin equivalent. If you encounter them online, then you can copy and paste the character into a dictionary.

2. Digital Chinese input is best done through pinyin. Young Chinese people are forgetting how to write Chinese characters because Chinese input is fastest through pinyin.

3. Learning hanyu pinyin gives you a broader framework for learning Chinese.  Pinyin encompasses all of the potential sounds that can be made in Mandarin Chinese. This is immensely powerful and empowering. It gives you a sense of the lay of the land. Basically, having a “name” for the different sounds is very useful. Imagine learning to paint without having names for different colors?

4. Learning pinyin builds confidence. When you first start learning Chinese, the sheer information overload can be very discouraging and disorienting. By showing you all of the potential sounds in Chinese, it gives you the sense that Mandarin Chinese is not infinite, and hence manageable. After you learn pinyin, all Chinese words begin to have more context.

5. Learning pinyin improves listening comprehension. When you are able to distinguish the pinyin sounds, that means you’re listening with precision.

6. Learning pinyin improves your pronunciation. Pinyin is intimately linked to pronunciation. People who are unable to identify the pinyin for a word, are usually unable to pronounce it effectively. Which makes a lot of sense if you think about it. How are you going to actively recall something, if you’re unable to passively identify it?

7. Failure to master pinyin puts a ceiling on your potential. No matter how big your vocabulary gets, it won’t matter. Without mastering pinyin, you will confuse similar sounding Chinese words (with drastically different meanings). And even if you know what you want to say, you might still not be able to pronounce it accurately. Fluency means selecting and deploying words with precision.

Initials and Finals in Pinyin

First up on the pinyin lesson agenda is initials and finals—which are basically just consonants and vowels.

In Chinese, consonants are the “initials” (since they typically come first) and vowels are the “finals.” And since you can only place tone marks over vowels, you’ll always find the tone of a word over the final. (we’ll cover tones in the next section—for now just know that the tone is determined by those little marks over the vowels).

Although there are more “letters” in pinyin than there are in the English alphabet—23 initials and 38 finals—they’re pretty straightforward and, unlike English letters, never deviate very much in pronunciation.

The following demonstrates each pinyin letter with an example word and a link to a pronunciation guide:

Pinyin Initials

pinyinexample
b(bāng — to help)
p朋友 (péng you — friend)
m(máng — busy)
f(fēi — to fly)
d弟弟 (dì di— younger brother)
t(tiān — sky)
n(néng — can)
l(lù — road)
g(gǒu — dog)
k(kòng — free time)
h(hēi — black)
j(j — nine)
q(qù — to go)
x(xiān — first)
z(zǒu — to walk)
c(cài — vegetable)
s(sòng — to deliver)
zh(zhǐ — only)
ch(chū — to go out)
sh(shàng — up)
r(rén— person, people)
w(wǒ— I, me)
y(yǒu— to have)

As you might have noticed if you listened to the audio links, a few of these sounds don’t exist in English.

Particularly: q, c, zh, and r.

In case you’re still confused about how to pronounce these sounds yourself, let’s use the language you already know—English—as a base to better understand them.

q = sounds like English “ch” (the difference between q and ch in Chinese is when they come before the vowel u. More on this below.)

c = sounds like “t” plus “s,” as in tots. Except in Chinese, this sound comes at the beginning of words instead of the end! This is a lot like the “ts” sound in the Japanese word tsunami or in the Russian word tsar.

zh = sounds like “j” in English. Again, the difference between zh and actual j in Chinese happens when they come after u. Also, j can be used with combination vowels like “iu” whereas zh can’t. For now, just keep it simple and pronounce this sound like “j.”

r = can sound like either “r” in English or the French “j,” as in Jaque. Think of it as a soft “j.” If this sound is too hard for you to pronounce at first, just keep it simple and use the “r” sound you already know and love.

Pinyin Finals

pinyinexample
a(bāng — to help)
o(wǒ — I, me)
e(yě — also)
ai(ài — love, to love)
ei(lèi — tired)
ao(yào — to want)
ou(yǒu — to have)
an安静 (ān jìng — quiet)
ang(cháng — long)
en(hěn — very)
eng朋友 (péng you — friend)
ong(sòng — to deliver)
er儿子 (ér zi — son)
u(lù — road)
ua(h — talk, speech)
uo(c — error, mistake)
uai(kuài — fast)
ui(h — can, to be able to)
uan穿 (chuān — to wear)
uang(zhuàng — to collide)
un春天 (chūn tiān — spring)
i(nǐ — you)
ia(j — home)
ie(j — street)
iao(jiào — to call)
iu(j — nine)
ian(xiān — first)
iang(liǎng — two)
in(jīn — gold)
ing(bīng — ice)
iong(jiǒng — bright)
ū(qù — to go)
ūe(y — moon)
ūan(yuǎn — far)
ūn(yún — cloud)

You might be wondering what the difference is between sounds like u and ū, or between uan and ūan. To an untrained ear, they probably sound the same!

Well, remember how I said earlier that the difference between j and zh is when they come before u?

In pinyin, you’ll never see those last four finals—ū, ūe, ūan and ūn—with that straight line mark over them. Instead, you’ll know how they’re pronounced by looking at the initial (like j and zh) or because they have two dots over them (like ǖ).

For example, 住 (zhù —to live) and 句 ( — sentence) aren’t the same sound. Listen closely to the audio: 住 sounds more like “joo,” whereas 句 sounds more like “jee-oo.”

When I was in college, my Chinese professor told us how to practice differentiating between these two sounds:

  • With u, your lips instantly form a small circle just like as if you were saying “oo” in English.
  • But when you want to pronounce ū—as in 句—start with your lips in a straight line and act as if you’re going to say “ee,” and then make them into a circle. It’ll kind of sound like you’re saying “ew!”

So, how do you know when to use ū instead of u?

Easy: just use the ū sound whenever “u” follows these initials:

Other times, you’ll know to use this sound when there are two dots over the u, as in words like 绿色 ( — green) and ( — woman).

The Four Tones of Pinyin

The next step to learning pinyin is becoming familiar with the Chinese tones.

In my humble opinion, these are actually more important to learn than initials and finals (and I’ll get to why that is later).

But before we begin, it’s important to note that while there are officially four tones, many people consider there to be five tones. But don’t worry—the fifth is just a “neutral tone,” meaning when a Chinese word has the fifth tone, it simply has no tone at all.

But first, what exactly is a “tone“?

Just like in English, you can say Chinese words in a variety of different tones and pitches.

However, in Chinese, the tone you use dictates the meaning of the word.

Let’s take the Chinese sound “ma” for example.

In Chinese, you can say this word five different ways:

() — mom (first tone)

() — numb (second tone)

() — horse (third tone)

() — to scold (fourth tone)

(ma) — question particle (“fifth tone”)

As you can see, each of these words have five different meanings—even though they look and even sound the same. The only difference is the tone (or, pitch) used.

Something else you probably noticed is the lines and marks above each “a.” These are called tone marks, and they indicate which tone you should use when saying the word.

But enough with theory! It’s time to get into the nitty gritty of each tone. Trust me, tones might sound intimidating at first, but by the end you’ll be surprised at how straightforward the Chinese phonetic system really is!

First Tone

First thing’s first—let’s talk about the first tone!

Although all the tones are most commonly referred to as either first, second, third or fourth, they can also be described by the sound they make.

For example, first tone is also known as the “flat tone.” This means that whenever you see the first tone over a vowel you’ll be pronouncing it with a flat, high-pitched voice.

Here are some examples of Chinese words that use the first tone, along with links to short audio snippets that show you how they’re pronounced by native speakers:

妈妈 ( ma) — mother

帮 (bāng) — help

(jiē) — street

哥哥 ( ge) — older brother

Second Tone

The second tone is also called the “rising tone,” and that’s precisely what your voice should do—it sounds a lot like the way our pitch rises at the end of a sentence when we ask a question. This is demonstrated by the native speakers linked to below:

昨天 (zuó tiān) — yesterday

明天 (míng tiān) — tomorrow

时间 (shí jiān) — time

(tóng) — same

Since you already know the first tone, I went ahead and included words that used both the second and first in these examples.

This is known as a tone pair. But don’t worry, we’ll get to those a bit later! Once you’re familiar with each of the four tones individually, the pairs aren’t hard at all.

Third Tone

You know the sound you make when you utter a nice, deep “uh…” out of confusion, sarcasm or sass? If you’ve got some attitude, then congratulations, you’ve already got the third tone down pat!

Third tone—also known as the “dip tone“—requires you to dip your voice so that it becomes deeper than usual. It also gets this name because it’s sort of like the fourth tone (falling tone) directly followed by the second (rising).

To see what I mean, just click the audio links below:

(o) — good

() — you

(u) — to walk

() — inside

Fourth Tone

Last but not least, we have the fourth tone—also known as the “falling tone.

This one is perhaps the simplest of them all. If you’ve ever firmly told someone, “no!” or yelled “drop that!” at your dog, then you’re already acquainted with the fourth tone. This tone starts high and then drops (as demonstrated in the examples linked below).

爸爸 ( ba) — father

() — to go

(zuò) — to do

(shàng) — up

Getting tones right can be tricky at first (especially if your native language doesn’t use tones similarly!), but the key to mastering them isn’t through studying phonetics—instead, get in lots of hours of real-world practice and listening to audio. 

I’m a big fan of Chinese movies, dramas and news segments, and when people compliment me on my Chinese, they particularly point out that I have amazing pronunciation.

One language learning program that can help with practicing tones and pinyin would be FluentU, which uses lessons and exercises based on clips from real Chinese media. All of the clips come with hanzi, English, and pinyin subtitles:

FluentU Pinyin Clip

When you click on any word in the subtitles, you can see definitions and even video examples to hear how native speakers say it. Aside from flashcards and transcripts, there are personalized quizzes too for practicing your listening and speaking. 

FluentU runs on web, but it also has a mobile version (iOS and Android). 

Tone Pairs in Pinyin

Now that you know each of the tones and how to pronounce initials and finals, let’s take the next baby step in our practice: tone pairs!

Tone pairs are exactly what they sound like—words that consist of two tones, which can either be both the same tone or different from one another. Let’s take a look at all of the tone pairs out there (which really aren’t that many!).

First Tone Pairs

今天 (jīn tiān — today) — first tone + first tone

今年 (jīn nián — this year) — first tone + second tone

屋子 (wū zǐ — house) — first tone + third tone

出去 (chū qù — to go out) — first tone + fourth tone

Oftentimes, when there’s a tone pair of “first + third,” native speakers will simply drop the third tone and make it a fifth (the neutral tone). So 休息 (wū zǐ) might sound more like wū zi.

Second Tone Pairs

房间 (fáng jiān — room) — second tone + first tone

符合 (fú hé — to mesh with, to conform to) — second tone + second tone

牛奶 (niú nǎi — milk) — second tone + third tone

一下 (yí xià — one moment, real quick) — second tone + fourth tone

If you’ve already learned numbers in Chinese, you might be wondering why ( — one) is pronounced with the second tone in the fourth example. Well, along with the word 不 ( — no), the first tone over this word changes to a second tone when followed by the fourth.

For example, you’d never say yì xià or bù kàn. Instead, you’d say these phrases as xià and kàn.

The word also changes to the fourth tone when followed by the first tone. For example:

( tiān — one day) is turned into ( tiān)

Lucky for you, and 不 are the only Chinese words that change tones!

Third Tone Pairs

北京 (běi jīng — Beijing) — third tone + first tone

警察 (jǐng chá — police) — third tone + second tone

你好 (nǐ hǎo — hello) — third tone + third tone

有趣 (yǒu qù — interesting, fun) — third tone + fourth tone

Although and 不 are the only words in Chinese that can change tones, there is one small rule that affects pronunciation of the “third tone + third tone” pair.

In Chinese, you’ll never pronounce two words that both have third tones one right after the other. Instead, the first word changes to the second tone. For example, the word 你好 is written in pinyin as hǎo, but is actually pronounced as hǎo.

Let’s look at a few more examples:

很好 (hěn hǎo — very good) is pronounced as hén hǎo

水果 (shuǐ guǒ — fruit) is pronounced as shuí guǒ

影响(yǐng xiǎng — influence) is pronounced as yíng xiǎng

Fourth Tone Pairs

唱歌 (chàng gē — to sing) — fourth tone + first tone

问题 (wèn tí — problem, question) — fourth tone + second tone

汉语 (hàn yǔ — Mandarin Chinese) — fourth tone + third tone

动物 (dòng wù — animal) — fourth tone + fourth tone

Tips for Learning Chinese Pinyin

1. Realize that pinyin is not English

Pinyin looks a lot like English. This makes it approachable and comfortable. You will be tempted to think that you can pronounce pinyin the same way that you would in English. Even if you don’t think so, it will be all too easy to fall into that pattern. This is especially true for pinyin sounds like “shi” and “chi.”

2. Realize that pinyin has its own logic and patterns

You would assume that with pinyin sounds like “zhu” and “ju,” the “u” part would sound the same. Actually, they’re different! The “u” in “zhu” sounds more like the “oo” in “moo,” while the “u” in “ju” sounds more like the letter “u.” You just have to listen very carefully and memorize the patterns.

3. Focus on tones

Don’t stress about initials and finals in the beginning stage.  Trust me—you’ll pick up on the sounds naturally the more you learn words and practice them. Instead, focus on mastering those tones. Remember, tones can change the meanings of words, so they’re pretty important. Plus, they’re much easier to learn and remember than initials and finals, and they get much easier the more you practice new words.

4. Get some great pinyin learning tools

The internet has a ton of great pinyin tools. Here are some essentials for your pinyin learning toolkit:

  • A good online Pinyin chart (aka hanyu pinyin table). There are a ton, but here’s one of the pinyin charts that I like. Since it’s interactive, you can click on any combination of finals and initials and then listen to how it’s pronounced using all of the four tones. If you review this carefully and play back the sound, it will help you differentiate between the different pinyin sounds and ultimately help you pronounce pinyin.
  • Get a great pinyin app. There are various pinyin trainer apps that you can readily find on the Android and iOS App stores. They tend to offer multiple choice questions so that you can improve your listening comprehension.
  • Pinyin input. Getting a pinyin Chinese input method editor (IME) is an essential part of the Chinese learner toolkit. This doesn’t necessarily help you learn Chinese per se, but if you ever have any reason to type in pinyin you will need it. The one I recommend is Google Input Tools.

5. Practice pinyin alone

Do pinyin practice on your own using the Chinese pinyin tools mentioned above. Try to passively identify the correct pinyin, and also try to actively recall the pinyin on your own. This won’t ensure that your pinyin pronunciation is correct, but it will still enable you to make the most of your time with a native.

6. Practice with a native

It’s not enough to practice on your own. You won’t be able to simply by doing multiple choice questions or even mimicking privately. You need to get live action, and more importantly, specific feedback about all the mistakes you’re making. And you have to get this feedback on a regular, consistent basis. That’s what will ensure that you don’t get any bad habits. Here are some more tips on learning Chinese with tutors.

7. Be strict on yourself

When learning with a tutor, make sure that they point out enough mistakes. If you’re a beginner and you don’t have a long list of pinyin sounds to work on after every tutoring session, then chances are that your tutor is being too lax.

8. Practice consistently

Practicing alone and practicing with a native have to be done on a regular basis. Mastering pinyin is a habit like any other.

9. Targeted pinyin drills (eg. chuqu)

As you learn, it will become clear that there are some pesky issues that refuse to resolve themselves. It would be good to zero in on these issues with pinyin drills. Here are some pinyin drills that I found helpful when learning pinyin:

  • 你是不是想吃 (nĭ shì bù shì xiăng chīDo you want to eat?): This is great for the retroflex sounds (eg. shi, chi, zhi), which is a common issue for beginners.
  • 出去 (chū qù — To go out): This one is probably the toughest pinyin sound—don’t feel bad if it takes weeks to really get it right.
  • 大家一起商量一下 ( jiā yī qĭ shāng liang yī xià — Everyone, let’s discuss for a bit): Great for addressing the “a” sound, which beginners pronounce like “cat.” Instead, you have to start opening your mouth very big and  pronouncing them like “ahh.”
  • 我想买一两自行车 (wŏ xiăng măi yī liàng zì xíng chē — I would like to buy a bicycle): This is more of a Chinese tone drill rather than just pinyin. It’s awesome because it is a simple phrase that covers all of the tones.

10. Don’t let up

It will be discouraging because it won’t seem like you’re making progress. You might come close to thinking that you just don’t have a knack for pinyin or tones. But everyone who has learned pinyin well has had to undergo the same thing.

11. Stay humble

After a while, you’ll probably feel very confident about your pinyin and pronunciation. But there will always be more to learn. I recently learned that my pronunciation of “ju” needed some work. Always stay open to feedback so that you can never stop improving.

 

So, it’s actually pretty straightforward. Get the right tools, teachers and habits, and you can learn Chinese pinyin! 

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