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.
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.
The following 10 initials are hard because they do not have any similar sounds in English. Students can start with the cue words.
The following two initials are the same as their corresponding finals (see the next section).
There are 35 finals in pinyin.
The following 17 finals all have one single sound.
The following 18 finals are all combinations of the above finals.
There are four tones in Mandarin Chinese and a neutral one.
A simple guide for pronouncing the four tones are:
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. Read more here: Tones, a fluid and dynamic concept.
Also, tones and intonations are two different things in Mandarin. More info is here: Pinyin, tones and intonations of Chinese.
Something you need to remember
Pinyin is not as straightforward as we would like it to be, and it is not self-evident. Read more here: The gulf between pinyin and Mandarin Chinese pronunciation.
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. Find out more here: Why learning Mandarin using (only) Pinyin will create more hurdles.
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