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A Beginner’s Guide to Chinese Pronunciation (Part I)

Aug. 4, 2017

Chinese General Pronunciation

你吃饭了吗 (Nǐ chīfàn le ma) Have you eaten yet?” is a traditional way of greeting others. One day, one of my students tried to use this Chinese sentence to greet others before we started the class. It came as quite a shock when he asked me “你吃粪了吗 (nǐ chī fèn le ma)? Have you eaten shit?” I tried really hard not to laugh. See how important learning correct Chinese pronunciation is? It is way more important than you think if you are learning Chinese now.

If you want to learn Chinese pronunciation well, you should first figure out what the Chinese syllable is. In Chinese, a syllable is composed of an initial consonant, a vowel and a tone. The very beginning of a syllable is called the initial, and the rest of parts are called finals. For example, in the syllable “hǎo”, “h” is the initial and “ǎo” is the final. Mandarin Chinese has four basic tones.

1. Pinyin – Initials

Chinese General Pronunciation

In the common speech of modern Chinese, there are 21 initials. The letters w and y are not included in the table of initials in the official pinyin system. They are an orthographic convention for the medials i, u and ü when no initial is present. When i, u, or ü are finals and no initial is present, they are spelled yi, wu, and yu, respectively.

Many learners feel it is hard to pronounce the initials “z, c, s.” Actually, you just need to master the pronunciation key z sounds like the ds in English beds, but with no exhalation. c sounds like the ts in English hats. It is very similar to the Pinyin z, but with a strong exhalation. s, has the same sound as in English. In pronouncing the syllables zi, ci, si the tongue is held in the same position throughout the syllable except that it is slightly relaxed as the articulation moves from the voiceless initial consonant to the voiced vowel.

2. Pinyin-Finals

Chinese General Pronunciation

Initials can be divided into single vowels, e.g a, o, e, i, u and compound vowels, e.g ai, ei, ao, ou. Read them very carefully, it’s easy to get embarrassed if you make careless mistakes.

My class: Christopher & The Small Intestines
Another interesting lesson: I always do an exercise with my students on how to recognize and speak the names of different fruits in Chinese. After we initially go over vocabulary, I always ask my students to make Chinese sentences using the vocabulary of the different fruit names. One sentence caught me way off guard one day: One of my students, Christopher, said:

“我喜欢吃黄色的肠子 (wǒ xǐhuān chī huáng sè de chángzi).”

Or in English, “I like to eat yellow intestines.”

Her little interpretation completely changed the picture in my mind. I was this close to fearing for my life, imagining The Walking Dead. But it turned out this error was a simple problem with correct pronunciation.

My student needed to say: “橙子 (chéngzi)” not “肠子 (chángzi) .”

The sentence should be “我喜欢吃黄色的橙子 (wǒ xǐ huān chī huáng sè de chéngzi).”

He didn’t quite distinguish the finals(vowels) clearly enough. Mixing the finals(vowels) “eng” and “ang” made the sentence take on an entirely different meaning. Pay attention to your finals(vowels)!

Quiz:

1. Which of the following is not one of the basic components of Chinese sub-syllabic speaking?

A. Initial consonant
B. Alphabet
C. Vowel
D. Tone
See Answer

— Written by Jennifer Zhu —
Jennifer Zhu is a professional Chinese teacher from eChineseLearning. She has many years of Chinese language teaching experience and received her B.A. and M.A. in “Teaching Chinese as a Second Language.”

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