Improve Your Mandarin Chinese Pronunciation: 2 Simple Exercises You Can Do Today!

Chinese General Pronunciation
Learning Chinese has one specific challenge in its early stages: pronunciation. The tonal sounds of Mandarin Chinese will be a challenge that you will have to overcome. A Mandarin Chinese learner will have to exercise and train their mouths to create the Mandarin Chinese pronunciation as best as possible.

First, you must learn from a native speaker so as to not repeat the mistakes of the non-native speaker. Second, you must learn written Pinyin, Romanized alphabet of Chinese, essential to understand spoken Mandarin. Third, you should study by yourself under the guidance of your native teacher.

As a Mandarin Chinese teacher, there are two pronunciation exercises that I always recommend my students do at home to exercise their mouths for Chinese pronunciation. These are simple but effective: all you need is paper and a mirror!

Exercise #1: Mirror

As I mentioned before, when beginning Chinese, learning Pinyin should be the first step. Learning Pinyin will help lay the foundation for pronunciation. Chinese Pinyin consists of initial consonants (b, p, m, f, d, t, n, l, g, k, h, j, q, x, z, c, s, r, zh, ch, sh) and finals or compound vowels (a, o, e, i, u etc.). How can you make sure that you are pronouncing them accurately? Watch yourself in the mirror! When you try to imitate the pronunciation of the written Pinyin, check your mouth’s appearance, along with your lip and tongue positions as you make the sounds.

Here is an example of what to look for in the mirror:

For initial consonants: n, m

● When you pronounce the “n” sound, your lip needs to be kept slightly open, exposing your bottom teeth.
● While you pronounce the “m” sound, you need to keep your lips closed. Check your lips in the mirror to make sure your pronunciation is correct.

Chinese General Pronunciation2

Finals: a, o, e

● When you pronounce the “a” sound, open your mouth wide, put your tongue in a centered position and slightly raise the middle of the tongue blade (just behind the tip).
● When you pronounce the “o” sound, push your lips forward into a small circle, with your tongue at the bottom of your mouth, leaving a hollow space just above it.
● To produce the vowel “e” sound, first pronounce “o”, and then change the shape of your mouth from rounded to unrounded. At the same time, spread your lips apart, as if you were smiling.

Chinese General Pronunciation3

These tips will help you analyze your mouth’s training in the mirror. You can do this in the privacy of home, so that you don’t have to feel silly in front of others!

Exercise #2: Paper

When speaking Chinese, many learners have difficulty in pronouncing aspirated consonants and unaspirated consonants such as “p” and “b”. Chinese beginners mix these two up quite easily. One of my students made a joke in my class. He originally intended to say:

Wǒ bóbo shì yí gè hěn kù de nánrén.
我   伯伯  是  一 个  很  酷  的   男人.
My uncle is a very cool man.

Instead, he said:
Wǒ pópo shì yí gè hěn kù de nánrén.
我   婆婆  是  一 个  很  酷  的   男人. ✘
My mother-in-law is a very cool man.

He misused the aspirated consonant “p” to replace the unaspirated consonant “b,” so “伯伯 (bóbo)” became “婆婆 (pópo)”. A good way to imitate and distinguish aspirated consonants and unaspirated consonants is an exercise that I call “paper game”. You can try it at home.

Prepare some small and thin papers in a plate, and pronounce “b” and “p” initial consonants toward the plate. Of course, make sure your mouth is close to the plate, as the following image shows. If you pronounce “p” correctly, small papers will be blown away. On the contrary, the papers will be kept stable if you pronounce “b” correctly towards the plate. It’s as simple as that!

Chinese General Pronunciation4

I hope these two simple, but effective, exercises help you out as you’re beginning your journey on Mandarin Chinese pronunciation. Practice makes perfect!
HSK 3 quiz
1. In the mirror, as you make the initial consonant “m” sound, your lips should be:
A. Spread apart, as if you are smiling
B. Changing in shape from rounded to unrounded as you make the sound
C. Kept slightly open, exposing your bottom teeth
D. Kept closed

―Written by Becky Zhang―
Becky Zhang is a teacher at She has over eight years of experience teaching Mandarin Chinese to foreign students and promoting Chinese culture. She lives in Beijing but loves traveling to ancient Chinese villages. One day she’d like to be a tour guide in China!

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