The pronunciation guide below uses Hanyu pinyin, the official romanization of the People’s Republic of China. Until recently, Taiwan used the Wade-Giles system, which is quite different, then switched to Tongyong pinyin, only slightly different from Hanyu pinyin, and now officially uses Hanyu pinyin just like the People’s Republic, however based on experience, many Taiwanese still use these other variants of pinyin.
Pinyin allows very accurate pronunciation of Chinese if you understand how it works, but the way that it uses letters like q, x, c,z and even i is not at all intuitive to the English speaker. Studying the pronunciation guide below carefully is thus essential. After you master the pronunciation you still may not be understood, its time to move on to the next challenge, speaking the accurate tones.
Some pinyin vowels (especially “e”, “i”, “ü”) can be tricky, so it is best to get a native speaker to demonstrate. Also, beware of the spelling rules listed in the exceptions below.
These are the diphthongs in Chinese:
Chinese stops distinguish between aspirated and unaspirated, not voiceless and voiced as in English. Aspirated sounds are pronounced with a distinctive puff of air as they are pronounced in English when at the beginning of a word, while unaspirated sounds are pronounced without the puff, as in English when found in clusters.
Place a hand in front of your mouth and compare pit (aspirated) with spit (unaspirated) to see the difference.
|b||as in spot||p||as in pit|
|d||as in do||t||as in tongue|
|g||as in skin||k||as in king|
|j||as in jeer||q||as in cheap|
|zh||as in jungle||ch||as in chore|
|z||as in zebra||c||as in rats|
Here are the other consonants in Chinese:
If you think that is a fairly intimidating repertoire, rest assured that many Chinese people, particularly those who are not native Mandarin speakers, will merge many of the sounds above (especially q with ch and j with zh).
There is a fairly large number of niggling exceptions to the basic rules above, based on the position of the sound:
There are four tones in Mandarin that must be followed for proper pronunciation. If you are not used to tonal languages, never underestimate the importance of these tones. Consider a vowel with a different tone as simply a different vowel altogether, and you will realize why Chinese will not understand you if you use the wrong tone — mǎ is to mā as “I want a cake” is to “I want a coke”. Be especially wary of questions that have a falling tone, or conversely exclamations that have an “asking” tone (eg jǐngchá, police). In other words, pronounced like does not imply meaning. While Mandarin speakers also vary their tone just like English speakers do to differentiate a statement from a question and convey emotion, this is much more subtle than in English. Do not try it until you have mastered the basic tones.
Listen to the four main tones of Standard Mandarin, pronounced with the syllable ma.