A beginner’s guide to pinyin pronunciations

For adult learners, pinyin is a useful tool for them to start learning Mandarin Chinese, provided that they also understand that pinyin has its limitations.

The biggest advantage of pinyin is that it makes learning Mandarin accessible. It allows beginner students to “see” the pronunciations and therefore have a better grasp of the differences between Mandarin and their own languages. The disadvantage of pinyin is that it is not a true representation of spoken Mandarin, and it is not to be used as the only medium of teaching and learning. 

Having said that, below is a guide for how to pronounce pinyin letters and combinations. When it is possible, a similar sound from English is used to roughly illustrate the pronunciations. As pinyin is usually introduced according its three parts: initials, finals, and tones, this guide follows the same pattern. 

Initials

When an initial has a similar or equivalent sound in English, it can be accepted quickly. The following ones are the easy ones.

  • b:  as in “ball”
  • p: as in “pot”
  • m: as in “may”
  • f: as in “four”
  • d: as in “day”
  • t: as in “toy”
  • n: as in “no”
  • l: as in “laugh”
  • g: as in “guy”
  • k: as in “Kate”
  • h: as in “how” but much stronger

When an initial does not have a similar or equivalent sound in English, it is hard. It is when “seeing” the sounds becomes important for beginner students. For the following initials, students can start with the cue words and pay attention to how the initials end.

  • j: students can take a cue from “gee”
  • q: students can take a cue from “cheek”
  • x: students can take a cue form “sheep”
  • zh: students can take a cue from “jug”
  • ch: students can take a cue from “chase”
  • sh: students can take a cue from “show”
  • r: students can take a cue from “azure”
  • z: students can take a cue from “buzz”
  • c: students can take a cue from “Tsui”
  • s: students can take a cue from “dance”

The initial “y” is the same as the final “i”, and “w” the same as the final “u”. 

Finals

Except the final ü, everything else is not very difficult for English speakers. The trick is to practice. Practice makes perfect! 

  • a: as in “father”
  • o: as in “orange”
  • e: as “uhh”
  • i: as in “teeth”
  • u: as in “tooth”
  • ü: there is no equivalent in English. Start saying letter “e” and slowly round the mouth. 
  • ai: as “eye”
  • ei: as in “day”
  • ao: as in “how”
  • ou: as “oh”
  • ie: as in “yes”
  • an: students can take a cue from “Anne”
  • ang: students can take a cue from “aunt”
  • en: as in “deepen”
  • in: as in “been”
  • eng: “uhh-ng”
  • ong: start with pinyin “o” end with “ng”

When students are familiar with the above finals, they can blend them together and pronounce the following ones.

  • ia: a blend of pinyin “i” and “a”
  • ua: a blend of pinyin “u” and “a”
  • uo: a blend of pinyin “u” and “o”
  • üe: a blend of pinyin “ü” and “e” in “yes”
  • uai: a blend of pinyin “u” and “ai”
  • ui/uei: a blend of pinyin “u” and “ei”
  • iu/iou: a blend of pinyin “i’ and “ou”
  • iao: a blend of pinyin “i” and “ao”
  • ian: although it is supposed to be a blend of pinyin “i” and “an”, it really sounds like “ien”
  • uan: a blend of pinyin “u” and “an”
  • üan: a blend of pinyin “ü” and “an”
  • iang: a blend of pinyin “i” and “ang”
  • uang: a blend of pinyin “u” and “ang”
  • uen/un: a blend of pinyin “u” and “en”
  • üen/ün: a blend of pinyin “ü” and “en”
  • ing: a blend of pinyin “i” and “eng”
  • ueng: a blend of pinyin “u” and “eng”
  • iong: a blend of pinyin “i” and “ong”

Tones

There are four tones in Mandarin. Also there is a neutral one. My advice for beginner students is not to take tones too seriously. Take the approach of incremental progress and slowly and surely you will improve your pronunciations. Moreover, tones are not to be taken literally as how they are written down. Changes happen quite often in natural speech.  

  • 1st tone: high and flat
  • 2nd tone: rising, similar to the rising intonation in English.
  • 3rd tone: low dip and rise. However, it is rarely fully pronounced. The rising part is often not emphasised. 
  • 4th tone: start high and let it fall, similar to “hey!”

Something you need to remember

Pinyin is not as straightforward as we would like it to be. There are certain rules and exceptions that students must be aware of, such as the pinyin final “i” loses its sound in “zhi, chi, shi, zi, ci, si, ri”, and the final “ü” drops its two dots after “j, q, x, y”.


© 2019 MSL Master, Hong Kong. All Rights Reserved