For any learner of Mandarin Chinese, nailing down pronunciation is a huge hurdle. The diction of standard Mandarin Chinese is quite unlike English sounds or most other languages, which makes it quite challenging to wrap your mind around. That’s why it is crucial to practice hard – and smart – when it comes to learning Chinese pronunciations.
Here, we will take a look at some of the basics of the pronunciation of the Chinese language, from a tone to an individual sound. We will also explore how these sounds are written in pinyin, the most common system for writing Chinese terms using the Roman alphabet.
What is Pinyin?
Pinyin is the official romanization system for Mandarin Chinese. It was developed in the 1950s by the People’s Republic of China, and it’s used to help people learn how to pronounce Chinese characters. Pinyin uses the Latin alphabet, and each pinyin letters correspond to a Chinese sound.
To pronounce a Chinese term, we first need to know the pinyin spelling of the word and the syllable. Then, we can use the dictionary pinyin chart below to find the right diction of each letter. (Note: In the pinyin chart, the letters a, e, and o represent the sounds “a” in “father”, “e” in “hello”, and “o” in “more”. The letter u represents the sound of “u” in “put”.)
Once you know the spelling and how to pronounce each letter in pinyin, you can put them together to form whole words. For example, the word for “China” is written as Zhongguo in pinyin. To pronounce this word, we first say the letter zh, then guo.
When pronouncing Chinese terms, it is important to remember that pinyin is phonetic, which means that pronouncing each letter in a term is based on the sound of the letter in English translation. For instance, the letter q in pinyin represents the sound of “ch”. This may be not very clear at first, but with a little training, you’ll get the hang of it!
Now that we know some basics about the Chinese Mandarin language pronunciation let’s look at tones.
In the Chinese language, there are four tones. These tones are used to distinguish between words that have similar sounds or the same pronunciation but different meanings.
The first tone is high and level. The second tone is rising, and the third tone is falling. The fourth tone is low and level. In pinyin, these tones are represented by diacritical marks above the vowels in a term. Let’s learn more about these tones.
The first tone in the language of the Chinese people is high and level. This tonality is enounced by keeping the pitch of your voice constant. In pinyin, the high and level tonality is represented by a diacritical mark (ˉ) above the vowel.
For instance, the phrase “mother” is written as mā in pinyin. We pronounce the phrase “ma” with a high and level tonality. Other examples of phrases with the high and level tonality include:
- 明天 (Míngtiān) – tomorrow
- 老师 (Lǎoshī) – Teacher
The second tone is rising, and it is represented by a diacritical mark that looks like a rising diagonal line ( ˊ ) above the vowel in a phrase. This tonality is often pronounced with a higher pitch than the high and level tone, and it’s often used to express questioning or surprise.
For instance, the phrase “room” is written as Fángjiān in pinyin. We say “fang-jian” with a rising tonality to pronounce this phrase. Other examples of terms with the second tone include:
- 时间 (Shíjiān) – Time
- 熊猫 (Xióngmāo) – Panda
- 苹果 (Píngguǒ) – Apple
The third tone is falling then going up, and it is represented by a diacritical mark that looks like a tiny “v” ( ˇ ) above the vowel in a phrase. This tone is often enounced with a lower pitch than the first and second tones.
For instance, the term for “milk” is written as Nǎi in pinyin. We pronounce the phrase “nai” with a falling then rising tone. Other examples of terms with the third tone include:
- 下雨 (Xiàyǔ) – It’s raining
- 好 (Hǎo) – Good
- 你 (nǐ) – You
- 下午 (Xiàwǔ) – afternoon
- 马 (Mǎ) – Horse
The fourth tone and last tone that we will be discussing is a falling tone, and it is represented by a diacritical mark that looks like a dropping diagonal line ( ˋ ) above the vowel in a phrase. This tone is often pronounced with a high pitch to be immediately followed by a sudden drop in pitch.
For instance, the phrase “fast” is written as Kuài in pinyin. To pronounce this phrase, we say “kway” with a falling tone. Other examples of terms with the fourth tone include:
- 睡觉 (Shuìjiào) – to sleep
- 错误 (Cuòwù) – mistake
- 不 (Bù) – No
- 看见 (Kànjiàn) – to see / to watch
- 爱 (Ài) – Love
- 结婚 (Jiéhūn) – Married
- 叫 (Jiào) – To call out
- 爸爸 (Bàba) – Dad
One common mistake that people make when pronouncing Chinese terms is forgetting to use the correct tone. For instance, the term for “China” is written as Zhongguo in pinyin, but it is pronounced as “jung-gwah”. If you forget to use the correct tone when saying this phrase, people will be able to tell that you’re not a native speaker.
Another common mistake is pronouncing the letter “r” as “l”. For instance, the phrase “apple” is written as pingguo in pinyin characters, but it is pronounced as “ping-gwah”. If you pronounce this phrase with an “l” sound, people will know that you’re not a native.
To avoid making these common mistakes, it’s important to exercise pronouncing Chinese terms with the correct tones. Many online resources can help you practice, and there are also apps available that can help improve the diction of Chinese terms for you. With a little bit of training, you’ll be able to master and speak Chinese like Chinese people in no time!
Tips on How to Improve your Pronunciation
While learning the different tones is important, practising how to speak Chinese terms out loud is also important. Another way to help improve your diction is to watch Chinese movies or TV shows. Let’s dive into these tips and how they can help improve our Chinese pronunciations:
Tip No. 1 Speak Chinese Words Out Loud
One of the best ways to improve your diction is by speaking the terms aloud. This will help you get a feel for how the terms should sound and how the tones should be pronounced. If you have a set of terms that you’re practising, try to say them out loud as often as possible.
Tip No. 2 Watch Chinese Movies or TV Shows
Another great way to help improve your diction is to watch Chinese movies or TV shows. By listening to natural conversations, you’ll be able to hear the different tones being used in context. This will help you better understand how the tones are used and make it easier for you to use them yourself. You will also learn more about Chinese culture!
Tip No. 3 Use Online Resources to Practice Pronunciation
Many online resources can help you exercise your pronunciation. These resources usually have audio clips of native speakers pronouncing the words so that you can listen and imitate the sounds. You can also find quizzes and exercises that will test your understanding of the tones.
Tip No. 4 Use an App to Practice Pronunciation
There are also apps available that can help you improve your diction. These apps usually have audio lessons and clips of Chinese people pronouncing the words and interactive exercises that will help you improve and master your skills.
Tip No. 5 Listen to Good Examples
Knowing the rules and all are great, but it’s tough to reproduce them if you don’t have some great examples to refer to. Apart from your Chinese teachers or pronunciation guides, you can look to other sources for your everyday input of good Chinese pronunciation as well.
Children’s nursery rhymes, cartoons, video lessons, or audiobooks are some of the best materials for the beginner. After all, these are made for early Chinese speakers. If you feel ready for something more advanced, you can also tune in to Chinese news broadcasts – these will really give you some of the best examples of standard diction you can find.
Tip No. 6 Get help
Mistakes are inevitable at the learning stage, but what matters is that you spot them and correct them before they become a persistent errors. It always helps to have the guidance of a teacher figure to give you feedback on your Chinese diction and any mistakes you make.
You can even do so through an online Mandarin course – through video conferencing, and your teacher can still help you correct and improve your Chinese pronunciation.
Tip No. 7 Make your own language environment.
When we immerse ourselves in our target language environment, we can get the most accurate feedback on how well we’re doing with pronunciation. If your surroundings are mostly filled with English speakers, it isn’t easy to gauge whether your Chinese sounds close to the original or not.
But by hanging out with more Chinese friends, listening to more Chinese music and reading books originally written in Mandarin, you will be able to subconsciously train your ear to better distinguish the tone and sound of the language.
Tip No. 8 Learn from Your Mistakes
As a beginner learning a new skill, we always make mistakes. The key is to learn from these mistakes and not repeat them. This principle also applies to diction. Remember, practice makes perfect, so the more you practice, the more likely you are to master the grammar and make fewer errors.
Instead of getting frustrated, see these errors as an opportunity to learn and improve. After all, no one is perfect! With a bit of training and patience, you will be able to nail down that perfect Chinese pronunciation!
Tip No. 9 Always Review your Pronunciation
Last but not least, it’s important that students keep practising and reviewing their pronunciation regularly. This way, the syllable tones and sounds of Mandarin will become more natural to you, and you’ll be able to use them with greater fluency.
English speakers should keep these tips in mind and practice as often as possible, and soon they will be speaking Chinese like a native speaker!
There is no lack of ways to improve your Chinese pronunciation if you are willing to put in the work. Starting from the basic rules to the constant practice and correction, Chinese pronunciation is tough but not impossible to grasp.
For students who want to polish their Mandarin pronunciation, why not join us in one of our online Mandarin courses? We’ll be more than glad to have you onboard to brush up on your diction, as well as other aspects of learning Mandarin.