Chinese pronunciation can be fairly easily mastered. In fact, the key to learning any new language is often learning the correct pronunciation—and learning Mandarin Chinese is no different! However, there are a number of very useful aids and tools available to help you on your way. Some background on the writing system first, though:
Pinyin is a system which was devised over 50 years ago for writing standard Mandarin Chinese using the Roman alphabet and is used exclusively in China to this day.
Although Pinyin is widely accepted by the international community, and uses the same letters as European languages, the sounds those letters represent are the sounds of Mandarin Chinese. It is, therefore, important to you pay close attention to how each letter of pinyin is pronounced, as they cannot be read as if they were English.
Consonants and vowels
Learning how to pronounce Mandarin Chinese helps with both speaking and listening skills.
Mandarin Chinese has 21 consonants and 16 vowels and they can be combined together to create more than 400 mono-syllabic sounds. Obviously, it is important to try to hear the differences and work on learning how to best pronounce Mandarin sounds. Some examples:
c = English ts (as in “hats”)
q = English ch (as in “cheat”)
r = somewhere between an English r and a French j)
x = English sh (as in “sheet”)
z = English ds (as in “fads”)
zh = English j (as in “Joe”)
i after h or r = English r (as in “grr”)
i after s, c, z = English z (as in “bzzzz”)
i elsewhere = English ee (as in “beet”)
ian or yan = English yen (as in ¥)
ui = English way (as in “lost his way”)
u after q, j, x, or y = French u (say oo as in “goo” and then try to say ee as in “see”)
u elsewhere = English oo (as in “pooh”)
ü or yu = French u (say oo and try to say ee)
Standard Mandarin Chinese has four tones (pitch patterns) which can be represented in Romanised text by diacritical marks or (in older texts or electronic messages) by numbers. These tones are very important to correct pronunciation and are as follows:
- Macron (“long mark”) (ā or a1) = high, even pitch (first tone)
- Acute accent (á or a2) = rising pitch (second tone)
- Caron or breve accent (ǎ or ă or a3) = pitch that falls then rises (third tone)
- Grave accent (à or a4) = dropping pitch (fourth tone)
- Pronunciation tools
On the internet, it’s easy to find a variety of useful tools to help with pronunciation and these include videos or charts of the 37 sounds of Mandarin Chinese with a sound clip of each. There are even tools where you can type in a word and the programme will help you with the correct pronunciation.
Some particularly challenging sounds
Native English speakers often have trouble distinguishing between the j, q, x vs. zh, ch, sh sounds in Mandarin Chinese. For instance, “x” and “sh” sound similar to native English ears but, to native Chinese speakers, the sounds are quite different, mainly as the tongue and lip positions are very different.
The Mandarin Chinese consonant sounds zh, ch, and sh are similar to the “j,” “ch,” and “sh” sounds in English, but not exactly the same. The beginner will find this approximation perfectly serviceable, but the serious student will want to refine his pronunciation of these consonants eventually.
Pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese can be master by a variety of techniques although, of course, the best way it to practice speaking with the locals!