Learn Chinese -- The 80/20 Guide to Chinese Pronunciation

“Just give me the basics!” That’s what this Chinese pronunciation guide is all about. It’s all that you need to know Chinese pronunciation to get by. The 80% that’s important.


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To speak Mandarin, the first thing to learn is Chinese pronunciation of words using the system known as pinyin.

Pinyin is the Romanized Chinese phonetic system and is the most effective aid to learning Mandarin today. (Romanized means using English alphabets.)

Pinyin was invented in the 1950’s so that anyone, especially English speaking foreigners, could learn Chinese pronunciation easily.

Most of the letters in pinyin have the same

sounds as letters of the alphabet – with only a few exceptions. It’s really a very practical pronunciation system.

Can you imagine an English speaker trying to pronounce Chinese characters without pinyin?

(By the way, pinyin is less complicated that the other forms of Romanization for Chinese pronunciation, Wade-Giles and Yale.)

    Pinyin Tips
    Two great articles with pinyin tips to help you overcome obstacles in Chinese Pronunciation.

  1. The Four Tones
  2. Chinese is a tonal language. Each Chinese character is a syllable with a fixed tone. A different tone is a different Chinese character and hence a different meaning.

    Chinese pronunciation involves four tones, each indicated by a tone mark. The tone marks are placed over the vowels. (If the letter “i” has a tone mark over it, the dot is removed.”

    First Tone: a high, level tone represented by “-“ as in mā 妈 “mother”

    Second Tone: a rising, questioning tone represented by “/” as in má 麻 “to have pins and needles”

    Third Tone: a drawling tone falling then rising represented by “v” as in mǎ 马 “horse”

    Fourth Tone: a sharp falling tone represented by “” as in mà 骂 “to scold”

    At this point, you're thinking: "Wouldn't it be great if I could hear how the four tones sound?" Here's an interesting (and free!) audio lesson where you can listen to how to pronounce Chinese words in the four tones.

    Each syllable is written as a combination of consonants and vowels, plus the tone mark. Some syllables don’t start with consonants. And the only consonants that come after vowels are are the nasal “n” or “ng”.

    Note: from here on, I’m just going to use 1, 2 3, 4 to represent the four tones

    You can see the importance of getting the tones right to avoid misunderstandings and comic situations.

    A friend of mine just learnt the words for “secretary” “mi4 shu1” and instead said “mystery book” “mi2 shu1”. I bet you've heard stories like that.:)

    It will take a little time to get the tones right cause they’re not “natural” to English speakers. Like many of you, English is my first language and I went through the same process trying to pronounce the words right.

    One learning tool I used to speed up my grasp of Chinese pronunciation is a Besta English-Chinese talking dictionary. Another great value-for-money alternative is the BBK AM99 English Chinese talking dictionary. I use the Mini-S color LCD Besta which is available only in China. They're handy anytime and anywhere you need the right word and pronunciation so you can learn and speak Mandarin on the go. They're also useful for getting the sounds of words right when you're on your own practicing the writing of Chinese characters. Electronic dictionaries were a big help to me in learning Mandarin.

    • Consonants
    • There are 24 consonants in pinyin which are pronounced a lot like in English.

      b, p, m, f, d, t, n, l, g, k, ng, h, j, q, x, zh, ch, sh, r, z, c, s, y, w

      Pronunciation of Consonants

      b as in boy
      p as in pine
      m as in mother
      f as in food
      d as in dig
      t as in talk
      n as in none
      l as in loud
      g as in good
      k as in kid
      ng as in song
      h as in hot
      j as in jeep
      q like “ch” in cheat
      x like a sound between the “s” in see and the “sh” in she
      zh like “dg” in sludge
      ch as in children
      sh as in shake
      r as in raw
      z like “ds” in words
      c like “ts” in eats
      s as in son
      y as in Yao Ming
      w as in we

    • Vowels
    • There are 6 simple vowels.

      a, o, e, i, u, ü

      Pronunciation of Vowels

      a as in mama
      o as in drop
      e as in earn
      I as in sit
      U as in look
      ü like the u in the French rue

    • Vowel Combinations
    • In Chinese pronunciation, basic vowels can form vowel combinations with each other or with a nasal consonant.

      Pronunciation of Vowel Combinations

      - ai like eye
      - an sounds like “ah” with an emphatic “n” at the end (NOT like “an” in can)
      - ang sounds like “ah” with a soft “ng” (NOT like “ang” in hang)
      - ao is like “ao” in Tao
      - ei is like “ay” in bay
      - en is like “u” in sun
      - eng is like “ung” in sung
      - er like “ur” in purse
      - ia is like ya
      - iang is like young
      - ie is like yeah
      - iu is like the “ou” in you
      - ian like yen
      - iao is like “eow” in meow
      - in as in “in” in gin
      - ing as in “ing” in sing
      - iong is like pinyin “yong”
      - ong is like “ong” in kong
      - ou is like “ow” in low
      - ua is like “ua” in guava
      - uan like one
      - uang like “oo” + ang
      - ui is like way
      - un is like “wou” in would and ending in “n” sound (woon)
      - uo sounds like “wo” as in wall
      - uai is like why
      - ua is like “wa”
      - üan like yuan and written without two dots
      - üe is like “yue” (“we” in “wet”)

    Now, I know you’re going to ask…

    Continue to 80/20 guide to Chinese pronunciation Part 2