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Lesson Transcript

Amber: Hey everybody, welcome back to chineseclass101. I am Amber.
Victor: 大家好 (Dàjiā hǎo), I am victor.
Amber: And this is our pronunciation series. In this series, you are going to learn how to perfect your pronunciation in Chinese.
Victor: Yeah. One of the fun things about learning a language is the workout your mouth will get.
Amber: Yeah and I think Chinese is actually very good for that because honestly Victor, when I started, the first day that I learned Pinyin sounds, my mouth literally ached. It hurts.
Victor: It needs some workout.
Amber: I had sore muscles the next day.
Victor: Right, right, right I think it definitely uses a different set of muscles in your mouth as Chinese does in English.
Amber: That’s true.
Victor: So it definitely needs a lot of workout.

Lesson focus

Amber: Yeah. And as you might know, some of the letters that are used to represent the sounds of Chinese and Pinyin are similar in pronunciation to their English counterparts but there are many that are different. Therefore they require using different parts of your mouth.
Victor: Right. So you basically can’t read pinyin like you would English.
Amber: Yeah that’s the first thing. So pinyin is the system – the phonetic system for pronouncing Chinese characters and it’s quite easy to master. I would say Victor, I probably mastered it in you know, just a few days with some practice.
Victor: Right and today, we are going to talk a little bit about the pronunciations that sometimes give people trouble.
Amber: Yeah because there are some sort of tongue gymnastics that you do need to do in order to make the sound. So we will do our best to describe to you how to make the more difficult sounds maybe the sounds that you haven’t heard or used made your mouth make before.
Victor: Right. So we are going to attack the trouble areas today.
Amber: Okay so let’s start with the end of the alphabet, Victor. There is a lot of words in Chinese that start in pinyin. The phonetic representation of the sound is a z. So the z sound in pinyin, how do we pronounce it, Victor? Is it the same as English?
Victor: Well it’s different than the English z. In Chinese, pinyin, it’s pronounced [Z]
Amber: Right. So if you listen, maybe I can help by giving the mouth commentary. I am looking at Victor’s mouth right now. No, I am looking through his mouth and…
Victor: The way I pronounce things.
Amber: No but what it is is, in order to make this sound, your tongue has to be in a certain position. This is the key. So the difference with the Chinese z sound and the English z sound is that the Chinese sound is made with your tongue touching the back of your upper teeth. So this results in a sound that it’s a little bit more like a D mixed with a z altogether [Z]
Victor: Right. So let me do it again. It’s [Z]
Amber: Kind of reminds me when kids pretend their bumblebee [Dzzz]
Victor: Yeah….
Amber: Kind of like that.
Victor: And an example of a Chinese character that starts with a [Z] is 脏 (zàng)
Amber: Okay. So the pinyin for that word is zang 脏 (zàng)
Victor: Means “dirty” in Chinese and once again it’s pronounced 脏 (zàng).
Amber: A little bit different than the z sound in English for sure. Okay there is another similar sound that’s represented in pinyin with a C.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: And it’s sometimes confused with the z sound because they are very similar. So let’s just hear a comparison.
Victor: The difference is very subtle. So listen carefully, it’s [C]
Amber: Right, now…
Victor: [C]
Amber: The commentary on this sound for the c is that this c is aspirated whereas the z is not. Now, do you really know what aspirated means?
Victor: What does that mean?
Amber: It means that you let the air out when you are producing the sound like you actually push air through your teeth kind of. So [C]
Victor: Like [C]
Amber: And to give you more of an example of what an aspirated sound is, it’s kind of like English has – definitely has aspirated sounds one of which is T. You can notice when you say [Ta] some air comes out of your mouth. So it’s the same when you say the c in Chinese [Ce]. There is a little bit of air coming out and one more tip to help you is that like the z, the tongue will touch the back of your upper teeth here as well when you are making the sound if you are doing it properly.
Victor: Right.
Amber: So try and lift your tongue up a bit and just place it against the back of your top teeth.
Victor: Yeah and let me demonstrate it one more time. It’s [Ci]
Amber: Let’s hear [Ci] like a c word in Chinese.
Victor: That will be 菜 (cài) like “dish” or “vegetable”, it’s 菜 (cài).
Amber: Yeah that’s the word for dish, Chinese food. They often use the word 中国菜 (Zhōng guó cài)
Victor: Right.
Amber: Okay so next is the zh sound.
Victor: And that is [ZH]
Amber: Right. Now zh as represented in pinyin, to make this sound, I will give you again the mouth commentary. The tip of the tongue is raised against the back of the gum ridge which is that sort of ridge above your teeth and you can feel it if everyone takes their tongue right now and puts it up against it.
Victor: [ZH]
Amber: But I go up from your teeth and you will find there is a ridge in your mouth.
Victor: I am doing it right now. I just can’t see it.
Amber: Yeah. So once you put your tongue there, making the sound is a lot easier. It has a similar sound to the English J but because of this positioning of the tongue, it makes it have a retroflex of nature and that makes the sound much thicker as you can hear.
Victor: And let me do it again. It’s [ZH]
Amber: Okay. Let’s have an example of a [ZH] word.
Victor: In Chinese, a very common last name is 章 (Zhāng).
Amber: 章 (Zhāng)
Victor: So its Zhang is pronounced 章 (Zhāng) as in the really famous actress 章子怡 (Zhāng zi yí)
Amber: Yes. A lot of people know 章子怡 (Zhāng zi yí) in America but they are probably saying her name wrong.
Victor: Correct.
Amber: We can correct the record right now, Victor.
Victor: Zhang, yeah Zhang.
Amber: Yeah I know a lot of people when they read pinyin, they pronounce like Zhang, no one really says 章 (Zhāng) yeah.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: It’s 章 (Zhāng)
Victor: It’s 章 (Zhāng).
Amber: Good. Okay now, excellently just like with the z and the c pinyin sound, well the zh has its counterpart with the c, a ch. The ch uses the same tongue positioning as the zh. Can you give us an example victor?
Victor: Yeah it’s [CH]
Amber: Right. So it’s very similar to the English ch kind of like we say chocolate. However again, the difference is that your tongue is raised against the back of the gum ridge as it is in the zh. So it produces quite a bit thicker and maybe a softer sound.
Victor: Yeah [CH]
Amber: Well a very common word that use the ch is the word for “to eat”.
Victor: Yeah right. It’s exactly what you just said basically 吃 (chī)
Amber: Yeah 吃 (chī)
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: So that’s a good word to learn.
Victor: The chi 吃 (chī) or the word for “long” which is 长 (chǎng).
Amber: Good. Okay so now we come to the sound that makes Mandarin sound so nice and soft to me Victor which is the oft used sh.
Victor: Sh. It’s pronounced [SH]
Amber: Right. So the Chinese sh is similar to the English sh, however the difference again is that the tip of the tongue is raised against the back of the gum ridge just like it was in the zh and the ch. So what’s a good sh word Victor?
Victor: There are common ones 是 (shì) “to be”.
Amber: Oh “to be”?
Victor: Right. And also as in Shanghai. You know like 上海 (Shànghǎi) that’s how you pronounce it, Shanghai.
Amber: Yeah so you can hear the difference. In English, we say Shanghai. It’s a little bit lighter 上海 (Shànghǎi).
Victor: Yeah and it’s really important that you distinguish between the z, c, s with their counterparts zh, ch, and sh and you should really pay attention to the differences in pronunciation because there are actually two distinctive ways of pronouncing and if you go to China, you realize, a lot of Chinese people don’t distinguish the differences.
Amber: It’s very true.
Victor: Right and you know, that does not mean it’s the right way to do it.
Amber: Yeah because you have noticed that due to accents, due to dialects, some people in especially Southern China I found and also in Taiwan, people will take the sh sound and say it like the s sound. They won’t really make a difference. They won’t put their tongue actually and they haven’t listened to our podcast Victor.
Victor: Right.
Amber: They haven’t listened to the mouth commentary.
Victor: It’s very common but that’s not the right way to remember. Especially for new learners, you should do it the correct way.
Amber: Yeah and sometimes that can be a challenge because if everyone is speaking like that, you can easily pick up the wrong word. So always keep your dictionary handy.
Victor: Right but if you do it the right way, you sound like a total PRO.
Amber: That’s right. Okay now, there is another one moving on that is really sometimes difficult for people because it’s a very different sound than we have in English and it’s the one represented by the x.
Victor: Yes.
Amber: Aspirated sound.
Victor: A lot of people get really confused with that.
Amber: So Victor, can you give us an example?
Victor: It’s [X]
Amber: Right. So that didn’t sound like an x, to me, it would sound at all in English like English mind.
Victor: Right.
Amber: So the way to make this sound, it’s difficult. So try to do this. Raise your tongue up and let the air squeeze out is the best I can describe it, [Xi].
Victor: Yeah let’s try it again [Xi].
Amber: This one is like a workout for your mouth I think. This is probably the one that makes your mouth so hard.
Victor: It’s hard to find a corresponding English sound.
Amber: Uhoo how about you give us a example in Chinese word how it sounds. That will probably be the easiest.
Victor: Sure like 想 (xiǎng) like “thinking” or “want to”, and also as in the city Xi’an.
Amber: Yeah you want to think it’s like halfway between the s sound in pinyin which is just like the English s basically and the sh sound.
Victor: Right.
Amber: It’s sort of in the middle.
Victor: Right. So we have kind of [Xi].
Amber: And again, raise your tongue, let the air squeeze out.
Victor: Just keep on trying.
Amber: It’s my sign to big disruption. Okay now, here is another weird one probably a little bit less weird than the x but different than the English counterpart and that is the q.
Victor: Not a difficult one.
Amber: How in the world do you pronounce q in Chinese?
Victor: It’s [Qi]
Amber: Okay so it’s in the range of the English ch sound as well right?
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: But the difference is that it’s produced in the same way as the x which is you raise your tongue and you let the air squeeze out.
Victor: Yeah. So it’s [Qi]
Amber: Right. So let’s hear a word that uses the [Qi]
Victor: Right. Well “number 7” is 七 (qī) and also “please” is 请 (qǐng).
Amber: Umm a good word to learn.
Victor: Yeah and the pinyin for that is qing 请 (qǐng).
Amber: Yeah. So it is similar to the [CH] sound but again raise your tongue and let the air squeeze out [Q]
Victor: 请 (qǐng).
Amber: Okay so now the best one for last.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: The infamies r. Now this one I think is tough because first of all, lot of people are tempted to pronounce it like the English R because it feels like you can’t really define this R in pinyin.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: But we have to understand that first of all, you need to divorce that notion from your mind. It is nothing like the English R. So let’s hear it Victor.
Victor: It’s [Ri]
Amber: Okay now it sounds kind of like ER might sound in English.
Victor: Difficult yeah.
Amber: But I can’t really say it’s that either.
Victor: [Ri]
Amber: Let’s hear it in a word. I think that will help.
Victor: Sure. The word for “people” is 人 (rén) and for “dates” it is 日 (rì).
Amber: So it’s again we have the curled tongue. That will help you to make it and there is almost a tiny bit of a z sound in there [Ri]. When you curl your tongue up, it comes out a little like a trace of it maybe.
Victor: [Ri]. And another example would be “hot” is 热 (rè).
Amber: Okay. We can’t deny. Those are the trickier of the consonants.
Victor: Right.
Amber: Most of the other sounds of pinyin, you will find it very similar to English and you will be able to tune your ears to them quite quickly and start sounding them all in no time. Okay so now, the vowels. Now the good news is, there is only 6 vowels used in pinyin but they are combined to produce a lot of different sounds.
Victor: You can listen to all of them by visiting the website where we have a pinyin charts with clickable Mp3 records for each of the sounds.
Amber: Okay so why don’t we start with the U. Let’s talk about the u sound a little bit. Now this u that I am talking about is the one you see in pinyin that sometimes is reference with two dots on the top.
Victor: Right.
Amber: And what that two dots indicate is that it’s a special u sound in Chinese that’s quite a nasal sound. Some people say it’s similar to the French u.
Victor: And here it is how it sounds [ü]
Amber: You can hear it but maybe you are not seeing how to do it. It’s kind of hard to master if you are not familiar with this sound in your language. So what you do is try to pronounce an I and then round the mouth. It actually helps when you think of it that way [ü]
Victor: [ü]
Amber: It’s a little bit hard, okay.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: But it’s basically something you have to listen to and repeat and you can eventually master it as well.
Victor: Right. You kind of have to round your mouth and then close it to make it very small and that’s how the sound comes out.
Amber: Okay. So how about Victor can you give us a few words that we – now everyone can listen and repeat?
Victor: Sure. As in the word “fish”, it is 鱼(yú) and the word for “to go to” is 去 (qù).
Amber: Right. So if you say the regular u with no two dots, how does it sound, Victor? Just so we can hear the difference?
Victor: In a character, it can be as [Du]
Amber: That’s the normal u. So it sounds kind of just like it would in English but can we hear how it would sound if it was the u with the two dots.
Victor: With the two dots, it can be [Qù]
Amber: Right. So you are going to learn that the way to know when it’s going to be the u with the two dots and when it’s not is that certain initial sounds when combined with u will make a normal u. Certain initial sounds when combined with this two dotted u will be that. So it sounds complicated but it honestly is not that hard once you get looking at them and practicing.
Victor: Yeah once you get to doing it yourself, I think these things will all naturally come to you.


Amber: And just think that your mouth will be in tip top shape. You will never have to go to work out your mouth at the gym anyway. So keep practicing and another great resource we have on the website is the pinyin chart. You can check it out at chineseclass101.com. It has all of the pinyin pronunciations on there that you can click on and listen and repeat and even record yourself too. There is a voice recorder.
Victor: That’s right and hopefully we will see you there and good luck.
Amber: Yes we will see you next time. 再见!(zàijiàn!)
Victor: 再见!(zàijiàn!)