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Lesson Transcript

Amber: Hey everyone, welcome back to chineseclass101.com. I am Amber.
Victor: 大家好 (Dàjiā hǎo), I am victor.
Amber: And this is of course our pronunciation series.
Victor: The series that will help you to perfect your pronunciations in Chinese.
Amber: That’s right and today we are getting down to the very basics Victor.
Victor: Yeah. We are going to tell you exactly what makes a Chinese word.
Amber: Yeah and as most of us probably know already, Chinese uses a character system for its written language.
Victor: Yes but in spite their beauty, the written characters don’t really give any phonetics as to their pronunciations.
Amber: Yes often beautiful things are not that practical, right? and they also don’t indicate which tones they are to be pronounced in. So in order to help us learn pronunciation better, fortunately there is a system that we’ve talked about before that gives us the phonetics and the tones for each character. Even if we can’t read the character, we can use this phonetic system called Pinyin.
Victor: It will make it a lot easier to get the pronunciation right when you see the phonetic elements that make up a word.
Amber: That’s right. So you learn the small bits first and then you can go on to stringing them together. So let’s see Victor like what’s in a Chinese word or the sound of a Chinese word?
Victor: Yeah well, each Chinese character can be said to be a syllable.
Amber: Right and those syllables or characters can be a standalone word or they can also be groups together combined together to make compound words which they quite often are.
Victor: Right. Each syllable or a character sound is made up of an initial sound, a final sound and the tone.

Lesson focus

Amber: Right. So basically the breakdown of a Chinese word and what it’s made up of is pinyin’s broken down into initial sounds, final sounds and then different – four different tones.
Victor: Correct.
Amber: Okay so the initials and finals, what this means is basically they are the sounds of Chinese characters transcribed into Romanized letters. So letters that look a lot like English but they are more like symbols for the pronunciation.
Victor: Right, right. There are about 21 initials in Chinese and this is the sound that the word starts with. There are about 38 combinations of final sounds that combine with those to make one syllable.
Amber: That’s right. So all these 21 initials can be put together with 38 different finals and multiply those all together, that’s all the combinations possible. So, basically as we mentioned, pinyin uses the same letters as English. So when you end up seeing it spelled like you sometimes do in newspapers, it just looks kind of like weird English words with lots of Xs and Vs and stuff in that right?
Victor: Yes and then the tone is represented by a tone mark placed on top of the syllable.
Amber: Yes it’s a symbol for each of the different four tones. First tone is straight across. Second tone is like a forward slash.
Victor: Right.
Amber: Third tone is like a little upside down caret.
Victor: Right. It’s like a checkmark.
Amber: Yeah a checkmark.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: And then the fourth tone is a backward slash.
Victor: Yes.
Amber: Okay so here is the catch though. I think of a pinyin, though it uses English letters as we said, as you might have guessed from seeing all those Xs and Vs and stuff, you can’t pronounce it like you would in English.
Victor: Right. Definitely not, however though, once you catch on how pinyin is pronounced, it will be pretty easy to keep it straight.
Amber: Yeah. Okay so when you combine all of the initials possible with all the finals possible as we mentioned, it ends up that – this is the good news. There is only about 400 or so individual possible word sounds in Chinese. There is lots of homophones. So this is something that you can love but maybe later, you might also kind of hate. Love and hate are very close because there is less words to learn however.
Victor: Right it means you need the context.
Amber: That’s right.
Victor: And the context for the written character will tell you which word is being used.
Amber: Yeah because sometimes words with very different meanings will sound exactly the same.
Victor: Yes.
Amber: But I mean it happens in English too and you get used to it.
Victor: Right.
Amber: It’s all context. Okay now, 400 possible sounds and we know, nobody wants to sit here and listen to me and victor go on with 400 possible sounds. It’s the bombardment.
Victor: Yeah I think we will get a sore throat if we have to say all that many words.
Amber: That’s right. So I think we can play a fun game. It’s the fun game called Laugh at the Foreigner’s Bad Pronunciation game.
Victor: That’s very self depreciating hah!
Amber: Well, I am very humble, I don’t mind.
Victor: Well…
Amber: I want to sacrifice myself at the altar of Chinese.
Victor: See we will never laugh at you Amber.
Amber: Okay they will laugh.
Victor: All our listeners, you know, we understand you are learning. So as long as you are trying your best efforts.
Amber: Yes for the sake of learning. Okay, so what I am going to do is I am going to read a pinyin sound like it would sound if I was reading English and then victor, you will correct me.
Victor: Okay.
Amber: And that way we can hear what not to say.
Victor: Okay.
Amber: And that will help us to learn what we should say right?
Victor: That sounds good. So I will spell the pinyin word and you can say it.
Amber: Okay throw it out there.
Victor: All right, so here is the pinyin 很 (hěn).
Amber: Well that’s easy. It’s hen. We have that word in English too.
Victor: That’s a typical English way of pronouncing it but in Chinese…
Amber: Yeah Hen like 很好 (hěn hǎo) right. It means very good, you know.
Victor: But in Chinese, you actually say 很 (hěn).
Amber: Oh so the E is difference. It is no hen, it’s e the E sound is a little bit more like – a little more like a “u” I think.
Victor: 很 (hěn)
Amber: Yeah.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: So you can see the pinyin though it is in E, it is not necessarily…
Victor: So let’s do it one more time. You do it your way and I will do it my way.
Amber: Hen.
Victor: 很 (hěn)
Amber: Okay 很 (hěn), if I say it correctly, it’s 很 (hěn). Okay give me another one Victor. I am not too embarrassed yet.
Victor: How about b-a-n-g?
Amber: Oh bang, so easy bang! We have that in English. No it’s not bang, what is it?
Victor: It’s 帮 (bāng)
Amber: Ah again, the vowel sound is different.
Victor: 帮 (bāng)
Amber: 帮 (bāng), not bang.
Victor: If it’s 帮 (bāng). yes.
Amber: And one thing everyone else should also take notice of is the ending. So the ending we hear here is the pinyin ang. Now when I said bang, that’s a very English.
Victor: Right.
Amber: Ang but we have to notice that the Chinese ang, can you pronounce it for us Victor? It’s a little different.
Victor: 帮 (bāng)
Amber: That’s right. So basically when you see the -ang at the end of a word in Chinese, it’s a lot softer than the G in English and it’s quite nasal.
Victor: Right it is. 帮 (bāng)
Amber: Okay next.
Victor: S-h-a-n-g.
Amber: Shang – Shanghai right? No?
Victor: No not quite. You know you probably guessed from our last example, it should be Shang.
Amber: Right. So the A is different.
Victor: Yeah the A is different instead of saying it as ang, it’s Shang. Let’s try another one, D-e-n-g.
Amber: Oh that kind of reminds me of like Dengue fever. So I am going to say Deng.
Victor: As in the Chinese leader 邓小平 (Dèng xiǎo píng). So his name is actually 邓 (dèng)
Amber: Ah so 邓 (dèng) not Deng
Victor: 邓 (dèng)
Amber: So again, the E sounds a little bit more like a “u” kind of.
Victor: Yeah 邓 (dèng)
Amber: Okay.
Victor: Next we have a B-I.
Amber: Okay well that’s easy like bye. Bipolar.
Victor: That’s like English way of saying it, but in Chinese, it’s actually 必 (bì). So the I is E….
Amber: That sounds like an ee sound, not like an I sound in English.
Victor: Right. So it’s P. All right, let’s move on to p-i-e.
Amber: Pie.
Victor: Right.
Amber: Cool that so many words are same, you know.
Victor: Yeah in Chinese, 撇 (piē) get ready for this,
Amber: It’s really different.
Victor: It’s 撇 (piē)
Amber: Ah so you kind of say each vowel sound here a little bit on its own.
Victor: Right. You kind of separate the I and the E. So it’s 撇 (piē)
Amber: Okay. Give me another one.
Victor: Next one is very common and I hear this a lot. It is a very common Chinese last name w-a-n-g.
Amber: Oh it’s Wang, right? But it’s not a very nice word.
Victor: In Chinese, it’s 王 (wáng).
Amber: That sounds much better.
Victor: 王 (wáng).
Amber: So again, the vowel sound is different.
Victor: Right. So next time you see it, you know how to say it’s 王 (wáng).
Amber: Okay.
Victor: And next we have a Q-u-a-n.
Amber: Oh that sounds like Quan but…
Victor: No…
Amber: Quan.
Victor: Yeah that’s – you know, that will be your first instinct but it’s actually in Chinese
Amber: Much different.
Victor: 圈 (quān)
Amber: Okay.
Victor: 圈 (quān)
Amber: But right away, we can see that Q is very different pronunciation.
Victor: Right it’s 圈 (quān)
Amber: And if you want to know more about the Q and all these other letters too, we have another pronunciation lesson which is the difficult sounds, pinyin sounds in Chinese, so make sure we refer to that.
Victor: Right.
Amber: Anyways 圈 (quān); so when you see a -uan, it’s not pronounced how you might think in English as “on”…
Victor: It’s actually -uan.
Amber: -uān
Victor: Yeah so 圈 (quān). And last we have quan.
Amber: So again it’s that tricky Quan sound. So you don’t say Y-uan I am guessing?
Victor: Right. You just say 元 (Yuán)
Amber: Yeah it rhymes with 圈 (quān) we just learned.
Victor: Right.
Amber: Now the -uan, we don’t want to be too troublesome for everyone but there is an exception. You mentioned that with certain pinyin initials like Quen and those sorts of things. The -uan is pronounced more like -uen. However, depending on what initial it is combined with, the uan can also just sound normal…
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: Like you think it would. Basically here is the exception. It is that if the initial is a Y, a Q, a J or an X, it’s pronounced
Victor: As an un, 元 (yuán), 泉 (quán), 卷 (juǎn), 选 (xuǎn)
Amber: That’s right. You can hear it sounds like -uan at the end. However if it’s combined with any other initial sound for example like we often see chuan which means “boat”. How does that sound, Victor?
Victor: It’s pronounced 船 (chuán)
Amber: Right. So in that case, it sticks more to the normal the way you think it would sound -uan.
Victor: Right as in 船 (chuán).
Amber: Right. What about z-h?
Victor: 转 (zhuǎn)
Amber: How about throughout a R?
Victor: 软 (ruǎn).
Amber: How about throughout a L?
Victor: 乱 (luàn)
Amber: Yeah. So you can hear the difference 泉 (quán) and 乱 (luàn) difference.
Victor: 泉 (quán) and 乱 (luàn) yeah.
Amber: So something to keep a look out for. Okay now another thing you are going to encounter as you learn more pinyin sounds is that a lot of them, the spelling is very similar. Maybe just one letter is off.
Victor: Right.
Amber: However the sound is quite different. So what we are going to do now is give a little comparison of some similarly spelled pinyin words and tell you the difference side by side.
Victor: Okay yeah.
Amber: Okay. So we will start with – here is the two words that are very similar and might be difficult to wrap your mind around what the difference in pronunciation is when you see them. The first one is the pinyin spelled m-o. Well there is mo and there is another pinyin that is spelled m-o-u. So Victor, give us m-o, how does it sound?
Victor: 摸 (Mō)
Amber: So that’s m-o, now what about m-o-u, what’s the difference?
Victor: 某 (Mǒu)
Amber: Ah it’s quite a big difference. Let’s hear it again?
Victor: 摸 (Mō)
Amber: Is m-o.
Victor: 某 (Mǒu)
Amber: is m-o-u. Now here is another really tricky one which is the difference between the pinyin for a word that is s-e and the one that is s-i. So let’s hear s-e first. How does it sound Victor?
Victor: It’s 色 (sè)
Amber: Okay and what about s-i?
Victor: It’s 丝 (sī)
Amber: Okay this is important because it’s very easy for us to get mixed up when we pronounce these. The se is basically more open at the end I would say.
Victor: Right.
Amber: And the s-i is shorter and you cut it off a bit more.
Victor: Right.
Amber: Let’s hear it again.
Victor: 色 (sè)
Amber: S-e.
Victor: 丝 (sī)
Amber: Is s-i. Let’s hear this with a few other initial sounds to hear how it works with different combinations. How about z-e?
Victor: 责 (zé)
Amber: And z-i?
Victor: 滋 (zī)
Amber: How about c-e?
Victor: 廁 (cè)
Amber: And c-i?
Victor: 疵 (cī)
Amber: Shorter, the second one definitely. How about r-e?
Victor: 熱 (rè)
Amber: And r-i?
Victor: 日 (rì)
Amber: Umm there is definitely a difference you can hear when they are side by side. Okay let’s hear another one that’s also with the e ending versus the i ending but with a different initial. Let’s try with the s-h, s-h-e.
Victor: 奢 (shē)
Amber: Right and if you have s-h-i?
Victor: 失 (shī)
Amber: Right. It’s shorter and more cut off. How about z-h-e?
Victor: 遮 (zhē)
Amber: And then z-h-i?
Victor: 之 (zhī)
Amber: Right. And I can see Victor’s mouth when he says the first one with the E, it’s more open.
Victor: It’s more open, right.
Amber: Yeah. The other one he keeps it quite close. Okay now, we are at the tricky U now because there is two u sounds in Chinese. Now sometimes, you will know because in the pinyin, one of the U sounds yeah will have two dots on the top and that will tell you that it is the more nasal, more difficult U, put it that way. So let’s hear first Victor say with l-u if it’s the regular U, how does it sound?
Victor: It’s 噜 (lū)
Amber: Okay and if it is the lu with the two dots
Victor: 绿 (lǜ)
Amber: Hah. Now this sound is a sound kind of like French as a sound, I heard Swedish as a sound. You kind of make an I but an I sound but you close your mouth and it comes out like
Victor: Ü.
Amber: Okay let’s hear it again l-u versus l-u with the dots.
Victor: 噜 (lū) and 绿 (lǜ)
Amber: Okay. How about n-u? Normal U and then versus U with the two dots. How does that sound?
Victor: It’s 怒 (nù) and it’s 女 (nǚ)
Amber: Yeah. So the second one, you can hear the difference. Once more?
Victor: 怒 (nù) and 女 (nǚ).
Amber: Right. Definitely a big difference in the sound there. Okay well I’ve learnt my lesson Victor. There is no “hen” in Chinese. What else, there is no “bangs”, “shangs”.
Victor: Right.
Amber: It’s no “pie” unfortunately. And another important thing I’ve learned is that you have to be very careful about the very slight differences between the I final sound and the E final sound.
Victor: Right.
Amber: Especially when it’s on its own with just an initial sound.
Victor: Yes and the -UAN ending is not -uan, it actually sounds more like 元 (yuán).
Amber: Yeah it’s not -uan, some people think Chinese money is called the Chinese yuan or something but it’s not, it’s 元 (yuán).
Victor: 元 (yuán). It’s more like -uen.
Amber: Yeah that’s how it sounds.
Victor: But it’s spelled in uan in Chinese pinyin.
Amber: Yeah.


Victor: So that was just a few to get everyone started and once you practice with the pinyin charts on the website, you would be fluent in Chinese pronunciation in no time.
Amber: Yeah. So I would suggest listen and repeat, just listen and repeat. It’s something you can do with us online, you can do it by yourself when you are talking to yourself on the subway but if you come to the site, we even have some audio files of naïve speakers. You can click on with the pinyin chart and even a voice recorder to see how you sound in comparison.
Victor: Yep. So we will see you at the website.
Amber: 再见!(zàijiàn!)
Victor: 再见!(zàijiàn!)