A beginner’s guide to pinyin pronunciations

Pinyin is a useful tool for Chinese language learners to start learning Mandarin Chinese.

Below is a guide for how pinyin is pronounced. When it is possible, a similar sound from English is used to roughly illustrate the pronunciations. 

This guide introduces pinyin is according its three parts: initials, finals, and tones. 

Initials

There are 23 initials in pinyin. 

The following 11 are easy to pronounce as all of them have a similar or equivalent sound in English.

  • 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

The following 10 initials are hard because they do not have any similar sounds in English. Students can start with the cue words.

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

The following two initials are the same as their corresponding finals (see the next section).

  • y: the same as the final “i”
  • w: the same as the final “u”

Finals

There are 35 finals in pinyin.

The following 17 finals all have one single sound.

  • 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”

The following 18 finals are all combinations of the above finals.

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

Tones

There are four tones in Mandarin Chinese and a neutral one. 

A simple guide for pronouncing the four tones are: 

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

Tones are a fascinating topic. They are actually a fluid and dynamic concept, and are not to be taken literally as how they are written down. Changes happen all the time in natural speeches. 

Also, tones and intonations are two different things in Mandarin.

Something you need to remember

Pinyin is not as straightforward as we would like it to be, and it is not self-evident.

There are rules and exceptions, such as the 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”. 

Moreover, only relying on pinyin to learn Mandarin is not sustainable in the long run.


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