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An Ultimate Guide to Chinese Pronunciation

Do people have a hard time understanding what you’re trying to say when you speak Chinese? Do you need to learn Chinese Mandarin pronunciation?

Pronunciation is one of the first things a language learner should study. If you recently started learning Chinese and are currently struggling with Chinese pronunciation, congratulations! You’ve found the treasure you’ve been looking for: A pronunciation guide in Chinese vocabulary.

But is Chinese pronunciation difficult?

For those who don’t know yet, the Chinese writing system is logosyllabic instead and doesn’t use alphabets or a compact syllabary like English does. The system for pronunciation is called “pinyin,” which is written similarly to English alphabets. It’s constituted of letters and tonal signs. There are twenty-one consonants and sixteen vowels in the Chinese language, and with different combinations, we can create more than four-hundred mono-syllabic sounds altogether.

This may sound complicated and surprisingly rough for a beginner in Chinese, but not to worry. There are thirty-seven sounds that are similar to English, which is a good place to start. Further, you can find some pinyin charts online to help you better visualize what we talk about in this article.

Ready to learn Chinese Mandarin pronunciation? Let’s pave the way for your very first steps in your success in the Chinese language!

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1. Introduction to Chinese Pronunciation

Though the title of this article implies that we will only be “introducing” you to Chinese pronunciation, you can rest assured that our introduction will be extensive enough to set you well on your way. The most basic rule you need to learn is that each individual Chinese character makes up one syllable in a word. Just as in the English language, these words can consist of only one syllable, in which case they would be written using only one character. Another fact to know is that each of these syllables is comprised of both an initial and a final sound. There is a finite number of these sounds, and learning to pronounce them all will mean that you have essentially mastered the pronunciation of this language.

In Chinese pronunciation, there is a system of letters that is used to help people learn to properly pronounce Chinese words. Most of the sounds represented by these letters are pronounced the same way in Chinese as they are in English. However, many of them are different. One such example pertains to the letter “Z.” In Chinese, this sound is made while your tongue is pressed up against the back of your teeth. That way, it comes out as more of a “dz” sound. The letter “C” represents a sound that is very similar, with the exception that air is allowed to escape from the mouth while the sound is being made.

Of course, there are also lots of other sounds to learn in Chinese pronunciation, and one of them is the “ZH” sound. This sound is produced by raising the tip of your tongue against the back of your gum ridge. It sounds similar to the “J” sound in English, but it’s thicker. The “CH” sound is similar to its English counterpart, with the exception that your tongue will occupy the same position as when pronouncing “ZH,” again resulting in a much thicker sound. The same is true of the “SH” sound. To create the “X” sound in Chinese, you just raise your tongue up and let the air slip out.

Of course, there are lots of other rules governing Chinese pronunciation as well. This may all seem more than a little confusing at first, but don’t worry. In time, and with practice, you’ll get it for sure. Remember, practice makes perfect, so listen to native speakers and repeat the sounds they are making every chance you get.

2. Top Five Mistakes to Avoid

There are always mistakes that are hard to avoid!

Before starting on our Chinese pronunciation list and other aspects of our Chinese pronunciation key, let’s go over some of the most common mistakes Chinese learners make when starting out with pronunciation.

1- Mind the Tone

Chinese is a tonal language. The tones are a major challenge for Chinese learners of all levels, but they can’t be avoided. Using the wrong tone can give a word a completely different meaning and lead to miscommunication.

2- Mispronouncing the U Sound

English speakers tend to read the pinyin U like the “oo” in “good.”

This is incorrect. It should be more like the “oo” sound in the word “boot.”

Whenever you’re pronouncing the U, imagine a little girl pouting and saying “no” in Chinese:

  • In Chinese: 不
    Pinyin:
    In English: no 

You want to round your lips as much as possible. It’s better to over-exaggerate than to make the wrong sound.

3- Mispronouncing the E Sound

Many people tend to mispronounce the E sound in Chinese, which sounds like it does in the word “people.”

They commonly substitute it for the short English “E” as in “red.”

  • In Chinese: 人
    Pinyin: rén
    In English: people

The Chinese E sounds identical to the “E” sound at the end of the word “problem.”

In fact, the Chinese E is a special sound because it’s the most neutral of all sounds. It requires little effort to pronounce because you don’t have to move your lips, tongue, or mouth. All you need to do is relax with everything in a resting position, and just let your vocal cords do the rest.

4- Pronouncing the Q as Ch Sounds

This is one of the biggest mistakes for students of Chinese. There are many “ch”-like sounds in Chinese, all of which are distinct. The challenge for English speakers is to first perceive the difference—then to recreate it.

The Chinese Q sound should be pronounced with the tip of the tongue touching the bottom teeth, while the blade of the tongue lies flat behind the front teeth. Instead of puckering the lips as you pronounce “ch” in English (like in the word “Chinese”), keep the lips flat and relaxed when you pronounce the Chinese Q sound. Practice saying this word:

  • In Chinese: 钱
    Pinyin: qián
    In English: money

5- Adding an R Sound to the End of the Chi Sound 

  • In Chinese: 吃
    Pinyin: chī
    In English: to eat

Students of Chinese tend to add an “R” sound in the middle or at the end of this word. This generally occurs when the speaker isn’t used to pronouncing the Chinese Ch

The Chinese Ch requires you to place your tongue in a position that you’re unfamiliar with. If you’re an English speaker, your brain naturally assumes that you’re trying to pronounce an English “R” due to muscle memory. Try to be wary of this when you’re practicing the Chinese Ch. Although the tongue tip is curled up when you pronounce Ch, be aware that it still gently touches the front part of the top palate.

3. Vowel Sounds

Correct Pronunciation

When it comes to your Chinese vocabulary, pronunciation of Chinese vowels is extremely important. Let’s take a look.

1- Similar Sounds in English

  1. (w)u is similar to oo in the English word “boot.”
  2. (y)i is similar to ee in the English word “tree.”
  3. (w)o is similar to or in the English word “pore.”
  4. (y)e is similar to the English word “Yay.”
  5. Ang is a unique sound that’s constituted of an a and ng, which sounds like it does in the English word “sing.”
  6. Ou is similar to oa in the English word “boat.”

2- New Sounds

  1. The “-ü” sound is quite a nasal sound. It’s made by pronouncing an “-i,” then rounding the mouth.

The “er” sound is a unique Mandarin e that requires you to curl your tongue backwards.

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4. Consonant Sounds

Introduction

1- Similar Sounds to English

  1. -ch is similar to the English “-ch,” as in “chocolate.” However, the tip of the tongue is raised against the back of the gum ridge, as it is in the -zh sound.
  2. -sh is similar to the English “-sh.” However, the tip of the tongue is raised close to the back of the gum ridge, but not touching it, unlike -zh and -ch.
  3. To make the -zh sound, the tip of your tongue is raised against the back of the gum ridge. It has a similar sound to “-j,” in English, but its retroflexive nature makes it much thicker.

2- New Sounds: 

  1. -x: To make this sound, raise your tongue up and let the air squeeze out. It’s different from English sounds.
  2. -q: This sound is in the range of the English “-ch,” but is different in that it’s also produced in the same way as the -x. You raise your tongue and let the air squeeze out.
  3. -r: Here, we have the curled tongue touching the gum ridge, with a “-z” sound slightly mixed in. Unlike the English “-r,” when your lips are puckered into a small O shape, when you pronounce the Chinese -r, the lips need to be relaxed.
  4. -z: The difference between the pinyin -z and the English “-z” is that the Chinese sound is made with your tongue touching the back of your upper teeth. This results in a more “-dz” sound.

-c: Sometimes confused with the -z sound, the -c sound is aspirated, whereas the -z is not. “Aspirated” means that you let air out when producing this sound.

5. Different Types of Tones

In Chinese pronunciation, four tones must be mastered. These are the high tone, rising tone, rising-falling tone, and falling tone.

1- High Tone

The first tone is the high tone. It’s marked with a horizontal line above the letter.

It’s pronounced high and steady, and the pitch should be kept at the highest range that’s comfortable to you. The key point here is to keep it even across the whole syllable.

Example:

  • In Chinese: 书

Pinyin: shū

In English: book

2- Rising Tone

The second tone is the rising tone. It’s marked with a rising diagonal line going from left to right.

It has a rising intonation and kind of sounds like you’re asking a question. You should start from a comfortable range and then rise from there.

Example:

  • In Chinese: 人

Pinyin: rén

In English: people

3- Rising-Falling Tone

The third tone is the falling and rising tone. It’s marked with an upwards semi-circle.

This tone is often the most challenging for many Chinese students. Starting from around mid-range, dip to the very bottom of your range until you feel like something is stuck in your throat and then rise quickly to clear it!

Using hand gestures while trying to pronounce this tone really helps. The key point here is “bouncing off” from the deepest part of your range.

Example:

  • In Chinese: 好

Pinyin: hǎo

In English: good

4- Falling Tone

The fourth and final tone is the falling tone. It’s marked with a falling diagonal line going from left to right.

It sounds like a fast, sharp drop. English speakers often associate this tone with anger. It might help to imagine a pencil dropping as you’re pronouncing this tone.

Example:

  • In Chinese: 下
    Pinyin: xià

6. Hard Words to Pronounce & How to Overcome

Are you having a hard time with Chinese pronunciation?

Here are some of the hardest words for Chinese pronunciation, to English.

  • 日 () — day
  • 轮 (lún) — wheel
  • 四十 (sì shí) — forty
  • 姜 (jiāng) — ginger
  • 去 () — go
  • 腿 (tuǐ) — legs
  • 知道 (zhī dào) — know
  • 喝水 (hē shuǐ) — drink water
  • 辞职 (cí zhí) — resign

Tips:

Chinese sounds are known for being round and accurate for each unique pronunciation due to the tones and how they’re pronounced. Thus, the best way to practice these non-English sounds is to grasp which part of your mouth is being used to pronounce the word, and how your tongue works during pronunciation. By focusing on the nature of sounds and how they originate from your mouth, you’ll eventually be able to master perfect pronunciation.

7. How to Improve Chinese Pronunciation

Secrets to Learning

Are you wondering how to master Chinese pronunciation? There’s a lot to take in, we know, but we’ve outlined some tips for you on how to learn Chinese pronunciation more efficiently.

1- Read a Book out Loud

When you read a Chinese book, you should always read it out loud so that your ears and mouth get as much practice as your eyes do. Don’t miss out on any chance to practice! Take advantage of all your senses and it’s a win-win!

2- Repeat Lines from Chinese Shows

Watching shows is one of the most fascinating ways to learn a language in its native habitat. When you watch Chinese TV shows or Chinese movies, be sure to stay attentive for people’s ways of pronunciation, as well as their accents. If necessary, don’t be lazy, and pause the show while your memory is still fresh to practice with your own mouth!

3- Listen to Chinese Audio Before Going to Sleep (and While Sleeping)

Listening helps you memorize things better.

There’s a great variety of resources for Chinese pronunciation audio from applications and websites. Find some that trigger your own best interest and form a habit of listening to them before going to sleep! If you’re afraid of falling asleep while listening, don’t worry. Just leave it on; this is even better, because your brain will unconsciously work, even when you’re sleeping.

4- Record Your Own Pronunciation

Many times when we speak to ourselves, we tend to ignore the problems and fail to recognize our own mistakes. Why not record it and listen to it later as a third person who’s trying to examine others’ mistakes? Be your own teacher! This is also an efficient way to keep records to review your previous mistakes.

5- Speak with Native Chinese People and Ask for Help

Talking allows you to connect with people.

Never be afraid to ask for help! If you have Chinese friends, this is the best opportunity for you to improve your Chinese for free. Just talk to them, and remember to kindly ask them to be your teacher and point out your pronunciation mistakes when needed. Feel free to speak and make mistakes so that you can always make room to improve.

Or practice your pronunciation with your Chinese teacher on ChineseClass101.com! You will have your own native Chinese teacher available to practice your pronunciation with, and much more! Send recordings of yourself speaking Chinese and get feedback from your Chinese teacher.

8. Conclusion

How did you like our Chinese lesson about pronunciation? Did our pronunciation guide in Chinese vocabulary give you a better grasp of how to handle Chinese pronunciation? 

Now that you’ve gone through the gist of Chinese pronunciation, we hope your knowledge of Chinese pronunciation has grown. Do you feel that this was a short adventure? There’s still much more treasure for you to hunt here at ChineseClass101.com

We provide a wide range of Chinese lessons for beginners and advanced students, including grammar and culture lessons. We also help you learn both casual and formal phrases in an entertaining way. It’s not just about lessons here—it’s a fun playground for learning Chinese, an experience that you can’t have elsewhere!

9. How to Download Your Free Guide to Beginner Chinese

Download Your FREE Guide to Beginner Chinese!

If you want to master the Chinese language and become fluent, you must learn the Chinese alphabet letters first. And you need physical worksheets to practice on.

This eBook is a MUST-HAVE for all Chinese learning beginners!

FREE Chinese eBook

Download your FREE Chinese practice sheets PDF today and learn the Chinese language in no time!
This is a must-have guide for absolute beginners

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Studying video or audio lessons online is a great way to learn a language because students can play and rewind sections as many times as needed until the lesson is mastered. But when you review the same Chinese lessons again in PDF format, an incredible thing happens: your retention dramatically improves! Thanks to Time Spaced Repetition, seeing the information again in written format helps reinforce the information in your mind and improves both retention and recall. The benefits of learning Chinese using PDF lessons quickly add up to significant time savings for you, your data plan, and your dream of learning a new language!

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