This page provides the basic information for correct pronunciation of spoken Mandarin. You might want to refer back to it often as you proceed through the lessons.
Designed in the People’s Republic of China during the mid-1950s, pinyin is a phonetic system of the Chinese language. It adopts the roman alphabet to represent phonetic sounds in Mandarin Chinese. There have been many different systems of transcription used for learning Chinese pronunciation. Whereas China’s capital was once called “Peking” in English, using pinyin it is now written “Beijing”
In Chinese the variation of a syllable’s pitch may distinguish meaning. There are four tones, indicated respectively by the following tone marks:
|First Tone||high, level pitch||妈 = mother|
|Second Tone||starting high and rising||蔴 = hemp|
|Third Tone||falling first, then rising||马 = horse|
|Fourth Tone||starting high and falling||骂 = scold|
- The first tone is high in pitch and even.
- The second tone is the rising tone, starting from a high pitch and rising briefly.
- The third tone is a falling rising tone.
- The fourth tone is a falling tone, starting high and descending briefly.
There is also a neutral tone. It is short and unaccented. Its pitch relies on a natural extension of the preceding tone. It is conveyed by the absence of a sign.
When one low tone follows another, the first one becomes a rising tone.
Having a good pronunciation depends greatly on getting the tones right. Of all the difficulties found in learning Chinese, the problem of tones is undoubtedly the most difficult.
There are 21 initials in Chinese and 12 of them have almost the same pronunciation as English.
m, f, n, l, h, and sh are pronounced as in English
d like “t” in “straight”(unaspirated)
j like “g” in “genius” (unaspirated)
z like “ds” in “beds”
zh like “j” in job
b like “p” in “spin” (unaspirated)
g a soft unaspirated “k” sound
x like “sh” in “sleep” but with the corners of the lips drawn back
r somewhat like “ge” in lodge
There is some special attention to be paid on the so called “aspirated” consonants. It is necessary to breath heavily after the original consonant is sounded:
p = p’(like in “pop”)
q = ch harder than “ch” in cheap
t = t’ (like in “tap”)
c = ts’ (like in “cats”), with aspiration
k = k’ (like in “kangaroo”)
ch = ch’ (tongue curled back, aspiration)
There are 36 finals in Chinese. Six of them are simple finals (a, e, i, o, u). The other 29 are compound finals. The following table shows all the finals.
|i||ie||ye||ie like "ye" in "yes"|
|e||e like "e" in "her" (open)|
|er||-r (final) like "er" in "sister" (American pronunciation)|
|ai||uai||ai like "y" as in "by" (light)|
|ei||uei||ei like "ay" as in "bay" (light)|
|ou||iou||ou like "o" in "go"|
|an||ian||uan||yan||an like "an" in "can" (without stressing the "n")|
|ang||iang||uang||-ng (final) a nasalized sound like the "ng" in "bang" without pronouncing the "g"|
There is also a final “er” which cannot be combined with initials.
an preceded by y or I = “yen” without stressing the “n”
In zi, ci, si, zhi, chi, shi and ri the i is not pronounced. It indicates that the consonant only is pronounced. e.g. zi = “ds” as in “beds” ri = “r” as in “right”
The consonants j, q and x are all followed by long vowels like the “ee” in “bee”.
When placed in the initial position Cu and Ci are written as w and y respectively.
Proper pronunciation is essential in spoken Chinese. With more homonyms than any other language each mispronunciation results in another meaning.
to care for
(peiod of) time
point in time
to go to work
to be afraid
This concludes the pronunciation basics. The next basic lesson introduces the fundamentals of writing Chinese characters.