Pronunciation Basics

Pronunciation Basics

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.

Pinyin

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”

Tones

In Chinese the variation of a syllable’s pitch may distinguish meaning. There are four tones, indicated respectively by the following tone marks:

Tone
Tone Mark
Description
Example
First ToneFirst Tonehigh, level pitch = mother
Second ToneSecond Tonestarting high and rising = hemp
Third ToneThird Tonefalling first, then rising = horse
Fourth ToneFourth Tonestarting high and falling = 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.

Initials

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)

Finals

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
u
y
 
aiaua
ouo
iieyeie like "ye" in "yes"
ee like "e" in "her" (open)
er-r (final) like "er" in "sister" (American pronunciation)
aiuaiai like "y" as in "by" (light)
eiueiei like "ay" as in "bay" (light)
aoiao
ouiouou like "o" in "go"
anianuanyanan like "an" in "can" (without stressing the "n")
eninuenyen
angianguang-ng (final) a nasalized sound like the "ng" in "bang" without pronouncing the "g"
engingueng
ongiong

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.

Pronunciation Exercises

Proper pronunciation is essential in spoken Chinese. With more homonyms than any other language each mispronunciation results in another meaning.

First ToneFirst Toneshān dōng
Shandong
fēi jī
airplane
fā yīn
pronunciation
guān xīn
to care for
First ToneSecond Tonezhōng guó
China
huā chá
jasmine tea
jīn nián
this year
huān yíng
welcome
First ToneThird Tonekāi shuǐ
boiling water
gāng bǐ
fountain pen
shēn tǐ
body
jī chǎng
airport
First ToneFourth Tonegōng zuò
to work
chī fàn
to eat
yī yuàn
hospital
shāng diàn
shop
First Tonetā men
they
zhī dao
to know
duō shao
how many
gē ge
older brother
Second ToneFirst Tonenán jīng
Nanjing
shí jiān
(peiod of) time
zuó tiān
yesterday
cháng jiāng
Yangtze River
Second ToneSecond Tonehóng chá
black tea
tóng xué
schoolmate
huáng hé
Yellow River
cháng cháng
often
Second ToneThird Tonechá guǎn
tea house
liáng shuǐ
cold water
chí jiǔ
lasting
rén kǒu
population
Second ToneFourth Toneniú ròu
beef
nán kàn
ugly
bái cài
cabbage
yī yàng
the same
Second Tonemíng zi
name
shí hou
point in time
xué sheng
student
péng you
friend
Third ToneFirst Tonelǎo shī
teacher
běi jīng
Beijing
xǐ huan
to like
huǒ chē
train
Third ToneSecond Tonefǎ guó
France
xiǎo shí
hour
kě néng
maybe
shuǐ píng
level
Third ToneThird Tonenǐ hǎo
hello
kǒng zi
Confucius
guǎng chǎng
square, plaza
běi hǎi
beihai
Third ToneFourth Tonemǐ fàn
rice
hǎo xiàng
it seems
zhǔ yào
main
hǎo hàn
brave
Third Tonejiǎo zi
dumplings
mǔ qīn
mother
wǎn shang
evening
zǎo shang
morning
Fourth ToneFirst Tonesì chuān
Sichuan
shàng bān
to go to work
qì chē
car
kè tīng
living room
Fourth ToneSecond Tonejiù xié
old shoe
pà rén
to be afraid
dì tú
map
sì shí
forty
Fourth ToneThird Tonerì běn
Japan
hàn yǔ
Chinese language
shàng hǎi
Shanghai
fàn guǎn
restaurant
Fourth ToneFourth Toneguì xìng
surname
hàn zì
Chinese character
huà bào
illustrated magazine
zài jiàn
goodbye
Fourth Toneài ren
spouse
dì fang
place
xiè xie
thank you
bà ba
dad
-r finalnà r
where
zhèr
here
nà er
over there
yī diǎnr
a little
nán háir
boy
nǚ háir
girl

This concludes the pronunciation basics. The next basic lesson introduces the fundamentals of writing Chinese characters.

10 Comments

  1. Chinese fan
    Oct 13, 2012 @ 19:42:43

    This is a great website to learn chinese.

    Reply

  2. chiney
    Nov 20, 2012 @ 21:36:48

    this is good stuff

    Reply

  3. Rick
    Feb 06, 2013 @ 06:22:25

    How can I be sure I am. Saying it right if I cannot hear it ?

    Reply

    • Xue Hao
      Feb 06, 2013 @ 13:34:31

      Good question. We’re going to be adding sound to this page soon.

      Reply

      • rocky
        Mar 20, 2014 @ 15:28:20

        ya pls add it soon . It will be very helpful.

        Reply

  4. minou
    Feb 21, 2013 @ 10:46:54

    very good start but we realy need the sound as it is not eay y just reading
    thansk

    Reply

    • Arlene Mckee
      Jul 19, 2013 @ 06:48:56

      I totally agree we need to hear it :)

      Reply

  5. rishi
    Mar 29, 2013 @ 14:19:36

    yeah i go with minou’s comments. we would be grateful if we get chance to hear the word or sentences from the native Chinese speaker.

    Reply

  6. lukong pius
    May 10, 2014 @ 18:30:03

    Hello!
    i am interested in learning chinese
    i have a good mastery of english and French.
    Can someone chat with me?

    Reply

  7. Valerie
    Jun 27, 2014 @ 22:21:49

    Thank you for your time and efforts. Sound would be a great benefit to correct pronounciation right from to start as not to develop bad habits.

    Reply

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