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Chinese Pronunciation 101: Where to Start (Part II)

Aug. 11, 2017

Chinese General Pronunciation

In a previous article , we introduced Initials and Finals. Today we will teach another important part of Pinyin: Tones. Many learners have difficulties mastering the tones of each character, but correct tonal pronunciation is essential for intelligibility because of the vast number of words in the language that only differ by tone.

1. Pinyin – Tones
Mandarin Chinese has four basic tones. The tone of a word describes how the pitch changes of a syllable. Chinese is a tonal language in which the tones convey differences in meanings.

Chinese General Pronunciation2

2. What’s so important about using the right tone?
When you speak Chinese, your teacher will always tell you: Speak your tones correctly! Why is this so important when you’re speaking Mandarin? Because if you use the wrong tone you can get a totally different meaning to a word, and therefore a sentence.

3. Examples of Wrong Tones and Wrong Meaning
I’ve been teaching for over 10 years, and I have a million stories of my students using the wrong Chinese tone at the wrong Chinese time. I always want my students to succeed, which is why I’m sharing these situations with you today. The more you know where you can go wrong, the more you can get right when it comes to speaking Chinese.

Funny Story: Tony & The Chef
My student Tony is an American who lives in California. When he went on his first immersion trip to China, he Skyped me complaining of how fast people spoke there. He couldn’t keep up! One night, he and his friends went to a restaurant for dinner. He mustered up the courage to talk to the Chinese chef. The chef spoke rapidly and Tony struggled to keep up. The chef wasn’t speaking at a particularly fast speed for Mainland China, though. Tony, as many second language learners, just couldn’t place each word. The four tones were getting jumbled in his mind. Tony took a deep breath and tried to say:

“今天是星期日 (Jīn tiān shì xīng qī rì.) Today is Sunday.”

But he used the wrong tone, and so the sentence became:
“今天是行乞日 (Jīn tiān shì xíng qǐ rì.) Today is a day of begging.”

Tony did not pronounce accurately, so “星期 (xīngqī) week” became “行乞 (xíngqǐ) beg.”
Pay attention to your tones!

4. How to drill?
Practice, practice, practice your pronunciation and never give up on speaking Mandarin. The more you speak, the more you will learn. And the more mistakes you make, the better you get!

If you have a Chinese tutor, your tutor has probably already told you the pronunciation key. For example, The initials: m, n, l and h are pronounced similarly to their counterparts in the English language. b like “p” in “speak” (unaspirated, voiceless), etc. The pronunciation key can greatly increase and accelerate your progress in speaking Chinese.

Do exercises as much as possible, like “Distinguish sounds” or “Read words, phrases or setences.” The repetitions help to strengthen what you have learned in Chinese class.

Want to sound like a native speaker? Try to imitate their accent first. Nowadays, it is easy to find a Chinese tutor or friend online. Maybe WeChat will be a nice tool when you want to practice your Chinese. Lots of Chinese native speakers can be found there.

For more help on speaking Chinese click here! You will get more useful tips on mastering Chinese Pinyin and Tones.


1. How to pronounce the Pinyin of “星期 week?”

A. Xíngqǐ
B. Xīngqī
C. Xìngqǐ
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.”

HSK Test

General Chinese (Beginner Level) 

General Chinese (Intermediate Level) 

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