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?
All thanks to something called pinyin.
- What Is Pinyin?
- Initials and Finals in Pinyin
- The Four Tones of Pinyin
- Tone Pairs in Pinyin
- How Important Is It to Learn Pinyin?
- Practice Sentences and Videos in Pinyin
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).
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.
Plus, 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 while you’re studying pinyin, remind yourself that there are millions of young native Chinese speakers who are learning the same thing you are!
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:
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.
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 (jù — 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 (lǜ sè — green) and 女 (nǚ — woman).
The Four Tones of Pinyin
The next step to learning pinyin is becoming familiar with the four 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:
妈 (mā) — mom (first tone)
麻 (má) — numb (second tone)
马 (mǎ) — horse (third tone)
骂 (mà) — to scold (fourth tone)
吗 (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 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 (mā ma) — mother
帮 (bāng) — help
街 (jiē) — street
哥哥 (gē ge) — older brother
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
同 (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.
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:
好 (hǎo) — good
你 (nǐ) — you
走 (zǒu) — to walk
里 (lǐ) — inside
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 (bà ba) — father
去 (qù) — to go
做 (zuò) — to do
上 (shàng) — up
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 一 (yī — one) is pronounced with the second tone in the fourth example. Well, along with the word 不 (bù — 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 yí xià and bú kàn.
The word 一 also changes to the fourth tone when followed by the first tone. For example:
一天 (yī tiān — one day) is turned into 一天 (yì tiān)
Lucky for you, 一 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 一 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 nǐ hǎo, but is actually pronounced as ní 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
How Important Is It to Learn Pinyin?
The short answer: very important!
Without pinyin, you won’t be able to look up Chinese words in the dictionary, master native pronunciation, or learn how to make sounds that don’t exist in English.
Plus, remember that most Chinese people themselves know (or are at least familiar with) pinyin, since they use it to type and text.
But even though pinyin is essential to your Chinese learning journey, you might still feel intimidated by it.
If that’s the case then honestly, the best piece of advice I can offer is this:
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.
I’ve been learning Mandarin Chinese for over 10 years and I’m currently approaching an advanced (HSK 5) level of fluency.
But you know what I never studied at at all when I was first learning? Initials and finals. In fact, I never even knew what “initials and finals” were until I went to college.
I was the only person in my first-year Chinese course who had studied the language before. One of the first things we covered in that class were initials and finals—and they stressed out my friends!
The reason I’m able to explain all of these rules and combination sounds isn’t because I thoroughly studied initials and finals—it’s because I focused on learning new words with audio when I was a beginner.
When people compliment me on my Chinese, they particularly point out that I have amazing pronunciation.
To me, this proves one thing: studying phonetics does not lead to pronunciation mastery—real-world practice and listening to audio does. I’m a big fan of Chinese movies, dramas and news segments, and I like to use FluentU because the lessons and exercises are all based on clips from real Chinese media.
So, what should your next step be if it doesn’t include dedicating tons of time to initials and finals? Master 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.
But while they should be taken seriously, they still aren’t worth tons of headaches, stress and worry that you’ll accidentally call your 妈 (mā — mom) a 马 (mǎ — horse). In many cases, native speakers will understand you regardless because of context.
If you take anything away from this post, let it be this: practice, practice and more practice is the key to mastering pinyin—not intense studying!
Practice Sentences and Videos in Pinyin
What better way to wrap up a quality pinyin lesson than with a few fun practice exercises?
To test how much you’re getting the hang of it, try reading the following sentences out loud. Then, click on the link to watch the FluentU video I pulled them from to see how close you got.
你是我的音符，我是你的旋律。(nǐ shì wǒ de yīn fú, wǒ shì nǐ de xuán lǜ.) — You are my musical note, I am your melody.
我今天要吃大碗牛肉面好了。 (wǒ jīntiān yào chī dà wǎn niú ròu miàn hǎo le.) — Today I want to eat a big bowl of beef noodles.
今天要上课，所以比较早起床。 (jīn tiān yào shàng kè, suǒ yǐ bǐ jiào zǎo qǐ chuáng.) — I’m going to class today, so I get up quite early.
我的爱好是看电影。 (wǒ de ài hào shì kàn diàn yǐng.) — My hobby is watching movies.
How’d you do?
Whether you’re pleased with your results or you feel like you need a bit more practice, I send you my congratulations—learning pinyin is a vital part of your Chinese learning journey, and you’ve already taken the first major step in mastering it.
Now, all that’s left to do is the fun part—practice!