Chinese Pronunciation: From English Perspective

Image courtesy of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAVnOz7i-JA

Last updated: 06 Feb 2021

Chinese pronunciation is melodious. Chris Tucker probably made it action-packed as well!

(This article has been converted into a course at this Facebook group.)

I will always always enjoy Chris Tucker! But if you want to learn Chinese pronunciation, you have to know that the vowel ‘ou’ when paired with ‘y’ does not sound like “you” in English; the Chinese pronunciation of “you” is actually closer to English “yo!” (as in “hi there!”). But it makes for great comedy, so loosen up before we dive into learning Chinese pronunciation! (“Me” in English does sound exactly like “mi” in Chinese, though.)

Video courtesy of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAVnOz7i-JA

This article is a valuable reference for part 4 of 4 articles that fully explain the Chinese writing system. Part 4 of that series explains “phonetic construction” principles for character construction:

4 tones only, to melodious effect

There are 4 tones for every vowel, plus a toneless pronunciation.

There’s no need to spend effort practicing these 4 tones for now. We just want to get our nomenclature clarified. We’ll be marking romanizations with tones in the rest of this article.

Wikipedia has a very accurate graphical depiction of the tones, in case you are phonologically intrigued.

Image courtesy of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pinyin_Tone_Chart.svg

They are formally written with diacritics:

  1. 1st tone: ā (the macron)
  2. 2nd tone: á (the acute)
  3. 3rd tone: ǎ (the caron)
  4. 4th tone: à (the grave)
  5. Toneless: a (no tone mark)

However, in our study of Chinese pronunciations, we will simply label them with numbers: a1, a2, a3, a4, a.

If you’re able to sing reasonably well, you should be able to “sing” out the 4 tones.

A comparison with tones in English

A comparative study may help you easily learn those 4 Chinese tones. If you’re a native English speaker, you should already by familiar with the 2 tones in English pronunciation: primary emphasis, secondary emphasis, and toneless.

In the word “presentation”, the 1st syllable “pre-” has secondary emphasis, the 3rd syllable “ta-” has primary emphasis, and the rest are toneless.

There are 4 tones (and a toneless voicing) in Chinese pronunciation. In comparison, there are 2 tones (and a toneless voicing) in English pronunciation.

Now that you understand tones in both English and Chinese, simply “sing” your way to proper English and Chinese pronunciation!

Vowels

There are 6 vowels in Chinese, 5 of which look like English’s ‘a e i o u’. 1 vowel looks unfamiliar to English speakers: ‘ü’. We’ll be using the Han Yu Pin Yin, a romanization system that also functions competently as a phonetic description.

Wikipedia lists almost 40 vowels, but all of them can be boiled down to our system of just 6 vowels. If you also have keen phonological awareness, help me further refine this system of 6 vowels!

We’ll be using (very close, very good) approximations for sounds. After you’ve mastered Chinese pronunciation with these approximations, it’s easy for you to adjust to any geography-specific accents you fancy.

We’ll be using (very close, very good) approximations for sounds, just so that we can reuse as many sounds as possible and limit the number of sounds you have to learn. This approximation also streamlines our 6-vowel system into a clean and minimal tool.

There really are only 7 vowel sounds to learn.

Of the 7 vowel sounds to learn, 6 have English counterparts, and 1 has a French/German counterpart.

Vowels: Primary Sounds

Each of the 6 vowels has a primary sound that is used frequently, either on its own or often in combination with other sounds.

Vowel ‘a’

The ‘a’, like in 马 (ma3, “horse”) is pronounced like English “car” (APA ‘ä’, IPA ‘ɑː’).

Vowel ‘e’

The ‘e’, like in 乐 (le4, “joy”) is pronounced like English “(a)bout” (APA and IPA ‘ə’).

Vowel ‘i’

The ‘i’, like in 米 (mi3, “rice grain”) is pronounced like English “me” (APA ‘ē’, IPA ‘i’).

Vowel ‘o’

The ‘o’, like in 永 (yong3, “forever”) is pronounced like the first half of English “toe” (IPA ‘o’, APA first half of ‘ō’).

Vowel ‘u’

The ‘u’, like in 福 (fu2, “fortune”) is pronounced like “foo” (APA ‘o̅o̅’, IPA ‘ʊ’).

Vowel ‘ü’

The ‘ü’, like in 率 (lu4, “rate”) is pronounced like the French in “tu” (“you”) and the German in “über” (“over, surpassing”). IPA ‘y’.

There are 6 primary vowel sounds in Chinese.

Confusing simplification for vowel ‘ü’

The vowel ‘ü’ needs a little more explanation because it can be confusingly simplified as ‘u’ in the Han Yu Pin Yin romanization/phonetic system.

Only consonants ’n’, ‘l’, ‘j’, ‘q’, ‘x’ and ‘y’ use this vowel, but you only need to memorize cases for ’n’ and ‘l’.

Consonants ’n’ and ‘l’ can use both vowels ‘u’ and ‘ü’, which is why you do see the vowel ‘ü’ written in Han Yu Pin Yin for these consonants. Consonants ’n’ and ‘l’ sound exactly like in English. You can practice this vowel by differentiating between ‘nu3’ (努, “to expend all-out effort”) and ‘nü3’ (女, “female”), ‘lu4’ (路, “road”) and ‘lü4’ (率, “rate”).

Consonants ‘j’, ‘q’, ‘x’ and ‘y’ are special in that they never pair with vowel ‘u’. And here is where the Han Yu Pin Yin makes a confusing simplification: ‘ju’, ‘qu’, ‘xu’ and ‘yu’ all actually refer to vowel ‘ü’ instead of ‘u’.

For a humurous distraction, note that consonant ‘y’ also sounds exactly like in English, but you’ll never encounter the consonant paired with ‘u’, so you should never hear “yoo” in Chinese (have another laugh at the Chris Tucker video above to understand this!). Instead, consonant ‘y’ is often paired with ‘ü’ such as in 鱼 (yu2, “fish”).

We’ll explore the consonants’ sounds in a section further below.

Primary sounds combine

The ‘ou’, like in 漏 (lou4, “to leak”) is pronounced like English’s “oh” (APA ‘ō’, IPA ‘oʊ’). This sound is literally a combination of ‘o’ and ‘u’.

The ‘uo’, like in 落 (luo4, “to drop”) is pronounced in reverse sequence as for ‘ou’ (IPA ‘ʊo’, APA reverse of ‘ō’). This sound is literally a combination of ‘u’ and ‘o’.

The combination ‘uo’ is noteworthy because the vowel ‘o’ often has a variant sound that is ‘uo’.

All other combinations of primary sounds are just as straightforward, so we won’t list them all here.

Primary vowels combine in various vowel combinations. The primary vowel sounds combine accordingly, with only a few unintuitive exceptions that we’ll explore further below.

Consonant, Vowel Combination, End

Each Chinese pronunciation, one for each character, consists of 3 parts, the first 2 of which are mandatory:

  • Consonant
  • Vowel combination
  • End (optional, only “n”, “ng” or “r”)

While the Wikipedia’s terms of ‘initials’ and ‘finals’ are more formal, we will simply describe each Chinese pronunciation as consisting of a ‘consonant’ and a ‘vowel combination’, and possibly an ‘end’ that is either “n”, “ng” or “r”.

Vowels: Variant Sounds

With the exception of ‘ü’, all other vowels have variant sounds.

Although many vowels undergo a change in sound under various vowel combinations, there really is only 1 additional vowel sound to learn: IPA ‘e’ (like the ‘e’ in English “hey”).

Vowels ‘a’ and ‘e’

The ‘a’ and the ‘e’ have a variant sound that is pronounced like the ‘e’ in English “hey” (IPA ‘e’, APA first half of ‘ā’).

The vowel ‘a’ has a variant sound that occurs only with end ’n’, such that ‘an’ sounds like saying the English alphabet ’n’. This variant sound occurs in these cases: ‘ian’ (天, tian1, “sky”) and ‘üan’ (远, yuan3, “far”).

Recall that Han Yu Pin Yin simplifies the representation of vowel ‘ü’ to ‘u’ for consonants that never pair with vowel ‘u’.

The vowel combination ‘üan’ is always written as ‘juan’, ‘quan’, ‘xuan’ or ‘yuan’ because ‘üan’ only ever pairs with consonants that don’t take vowel ‘u’: ‘j’, ‘q’, ‘x’ and ‘y’.

Be careful to note that other consonants written with ‘uan’ will have a different vowel combination sound, such as in 乱 (luan4, “messy”) which has primary vowel sounds ‘u’ (not ‘ü’) and ‘a’.

The vowel ‘e’ has the same variant sound as that for ‘a’, and occurs with ‘i’, such as in ‘ei’ (黑, hei1, “black”, sounds exactly like English “hey”) and ‘ie’ (铁, tie3, “metal”). The latter’s vowel combination sound is simply the reverse of the former’s. The variant sound also occurs with ‘ü’ such as in ‘üe’ (月, yue4, “moon”).

Another confusing simplification by Han Yu Pin Yin occurs here.

The vowel combination ‘üe’ is always written as ‘ue’ in Han Yu Pin Yin because vowel ‘u’ never combines with vowel ‘e’ to form ‘ue’.

The full list of possible pairing of ‘üe’ with consonants are: ‘jue’ (觉, jue2, “to feel”), ‘que’ (确, que4, “correct”), ‘xue’ (学, xue2, “to learn”), ‘yue’ (月, yue4, “moon”), ‘lue’ (略, lue4, “demarcate lands”), ‘nue’ (虐, nue4, “to harm”).

Vowel ‘i’

There’s only a single special case of vowel combination that sees a variant sound for vowel ‘i’.

When vowel ‘i’ comes after vowel ‘u’, the vowel ‘i’ is pronunced ‘ei’. Therefore, ‘gui’ (龟, gui1, “turtle”) rhymes with ‘hei’ (黑, hei1, “black”).

With certain consonants and when standing alone (not in vowel combination), the vowel ‘i’ becomes a neutral continuation of the consonant.

When vowel ‘i’ stands alone to pair with ‘c’, ‘ch’, ‘s’, ‘sh’, ‘z’, ‘zh’, and ‘r’, it is a neutral continuation of the consonant. You’ll have to hear it to know how easy to reproduce it is. An example is 四 (si4, “four”).

Technically, this isn’t a new vowel sound to learn. If you really have to know exactly what sound this is, just know that it is even more neutral (and effortless) than the most relaxed vowel sound there is. You’ll expend effort mainly in voicing the consonant in these cases.

The full list of possible pairing of this stand-alone vowel ‘i’ that has this variant sound are: ‘ci’ (词, ci2, “word”), ‘chi’ (吃, chi1, “to eat”), ‘si’ (四, si4, “four”), ‘shi’ (十, shi2, “ten”), ‘zi’ (字, zi4, “character”), ‘zhi’ (知, zhi1, “to know”), ‘ri’ (日, “day, or sun”).

The best way to learn the neutral ‘i’ sound is to contrast the sound with what ‘ji’ makes. For example, contrast 字 (zi4, “character”) with 记 (ji4, “to remember”).

Interesting note about 词: In Chinese vocabulary, what we term as “words” are actually “phrases” in English. Phrases such as “Petri dish” in English are termed as words like “培养皿” in Chinese. Still, there’s common ground: what English calls “terminology” is termed “专业术语” in Chinese. For detailed explanation of this, visit my series of articles on Chinese writing, starting at: Learning Chinese: Writing made easy.

Vowel ‘o’

With certain consonants and when standing alone (not in vowel combination), the vowel ‘o’ actually represents vowel combination ‘uo’.

When vowel ‘o’ stands alone to pair with ‘b’, ‘p’, ‘m’, ‘f’ and ‘w’, the vowel actually represents vowel combination ‘uo’. You’ll have to read ‘mo’ (摸, mo1, “to touch”) like ‘muo’ (never written like this).

Note that this phenomenon disappears if the vowel ‘o’ is in a vowel combination, so 谋 (mou2, “plan, scheme”) has a vowel combination that reads ‘ou’ and not ‘uou’.

The full list of possible pairing of stand-alone vowel ‘o’ with consonants are: ‘bo’ (波, bo1, “wave”), ‘po’ (坡, po1, “hill”), ‘mo’ (摸, mo1, “to touch”), ‘佛’ (fo2, “Buddha”), ‘wo’ (我, wo3, “I”).

The vowel combination sound of ‘uo’ actually does pair with just about every consonant. But Han Yu Pin Yin just makes it confusing by writing ‘o’ in lieu of ‘uo’ for some consonants (‘b’, ‘p’, ‘m’, ‘f’ and ‘w’).

In a particular vowel combination, the ‘ao’, the vowel ‘o’ is pronounced as ‘u’.

The vowel combination ‘ao’ sees the vowel ‘o’ pronounced as ‘u’. An example is the character 老 (lao3, “old”).

Vowel ‘u’

Only a single case sees the vowel ‘u’ pronounced with a variant sound.

When the vowel ‘u’ follows the vowel ‘i’, it is pronounced like ‘ou’. An example is 六 (liu4, “six”), which sounds like English “leo”.

Voiceless Consonants

Most consonants in Chinese sound exactly the same in English, with a few exceptions: voiceless consonants ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘g’, ‘j’.

To understand how to do voiceless consonants in Chinese, we can benefit from investigating how voiced consonants are performed in English.

Voicing the consonant means you feel a vibration in your mouth and throat as you occlude airflow (with teeth or lips or tongue) and vibrate your vocal chords, if only momentarily, to pronounce the start of the consonant. Consider the English ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘g’ and ‘j’.

Voiceless consonants in Chinese are pronounced with a very brief “hold”. Consider that formal phonetics lists 3 stages for pronouncing consonants:

  • The “approach”
    (when you bring your teeth and tongue together to prepare for a ‘d’)
  • The “hold”
    (when you hold the occlusion as you start vibrating your vocal chords)
  • The “release”
    (when you end the occlusion and let air flow out of your mouth)

To pronounce voiceless consonants the Chinese way, you occlude airflow for a very brief moment, so brief that you won’t even be vibrating your vocal chords at this stage. Most of the airflow and the pronunciation duration is spent on the vowels, not the consonant.

Technically, the ‘r’ consonant is very different from English ‘r’ or Japanese ‘r’ or Spanish ‘r’. The consonant ‘r’ is actually a very voiced consonant in Chinese! However, you can for now just pronounce it like the English ‘r’. Give me a ping if you really really need to sound totally China in China.

One of the best ways to practice voiceless consonants in Chinese is to pretend to speak English with a heavy Chinese accent! Try to “make sloppy” certain English consonants.

Try these words: “bag”, “good”, “judge”, “zoo”.

In fact, all Chinese consonants are pronounced very briefly. English speakers will understand when considering their own consonants like ‘t’ and ‘c’. “Sloppy” does it! Native Chinese speakers generally sound sloppy when speaking English, and now you know why!

Consonants that sound the same

The Chinese phonetic system (also a romanization system), the Han Yu Pin Yin, reduces the complexity of representing vowels at the expense of complicating the representation of consonants.

Most consonants are straightforward, having one pronunciation each. We look at odd consonants that are pronounced differently in different situations.

Consonant ‘x’

The consonant ‘x’ sounds different depending on the vowel it is paired with.

In ‘xü’ such as 许 (xu3, “to permit”), the consonant sounds like “sh”. Recall that ‘xü’ is simply (but confusingly) written as ‘xu’ because consonant ‘x’ does not pair with vowel ‘u’. To produce the English sound “shoo”, we write “shu”.

When paired with vowel ‘ü’, the consonant ‘x’ is pronounced like English “sh” (and Chinese “sh” too!).

The following have the same consonant sound: sha, she, shi, shuo, shu, shou, xu.

An example is seen in the word “叙述” (xu4 shu4, “narrative”), where both consonants sound the same. Vowels are ‘ü’ and ‘u’, respectively.

In ‘xi’ such as 西 (xi1, “west”), the consonant sounds like “s”. Therefore, ‘xi’ is read exactly like “see” in English.

When paired with vowel ‘i’, the consonant ‘x’ is pronounced like English “s” (and Chinese “s” too!).

The following have the same consonant sound: sa, se, si, suo, su, sou, xi.

An example is seen in the word “习俗” (xi2 su2, “custom”), where both consonants sound the same.

Consonant ‘q’

The consonant ‘q’ sounds different depending on the vowel it is paired with.

In ‘qü’ such as 区 (qu1, “zone”), the consonant sounds like “ch”. Recall that ‘qü’ is simply (but confusingly) written as ‘qu’ because consonant ‘q’ does not pair with vowel ‘u’. To produce the English sound “choo”, we write “chu”.

When paired with vowel ‘ü’, the consonant ‘q’ is pronounced like English “ch” (and Chinese “ch” too!).

The following have the same consonant sound: cha, che, chi, chuo, chu, chou, qu.

An example is seen in the word “去除” (qu4 chu2, “to remove (a contaminant)”). Both consonants sound the same. Vowels are ‘ü’ and ‘u’, respectively.

In ‘qi’ such as 七 (qi1, “seven”), the consonant sounds like the German “zeit” but more explosive (you’ll need to block air flow initially with tongue), like an English “ch” but with the tongue at the teeth (rather than at roof of mouth).

When paired with vowel ‘i’, the consonant ‘q’ is pronounced like German “z(eit)” (and Chinese “c”). Unlike the German “z’, this ‘q’ is shorter and more explosive. Recall that all Chinese consonants are very brief in pronunciation.

The following have the same consonant sound: ca, ce, ci, cuo, cu, cou, qi.

An example is seen in the word “其次” (qi2 ci4, “secondly”). Consonants sound the same.

Consonant ‘j’

The consonant ‘j’ is only used with vowels ‘i’ and ‘ü’. It sounds just like ‘z’ or ‘zh’.

When paired with vowel ‘i’, the consonant ‘j’ sounds like an unvoiced English “z” (and Chinese “z”). Imagine the English “gee”, and then strip off the voicing of the consonant ‘g’. Now say this in heavily Chinese-accented English: “Gee! That was ee gee!”.

In the above exercise, you would have gotten very good practice in pronouncing the Chinese consonant ‘z’.

The following have the same consonant sound: za, ze, zi, zuo, zu, zou, ji.

An example is seen in word “自己” (zi4 ji3, “myself”), where both consonants sound the same. (But the vowels sound different!)

When paired with vowel ‘ü’, the consonant ‘j’ sounds like an unvoiced English ‘j’ (and Chinese “zh”). Imagine the English “jewel”, being careful to retain the rounded protruding lips, and then strip off the voicing of the consonant ‘j’. Now say this in heavily Chinese-accented English: “Jury Jarring Joe”.

The following have the same consonant sound: zha, zhe, zhi, zhuo, zhu, zhou, ju.

An example is seen in word “居住” (ju1 zhu4, “to reside”), where both consonants sound the same. (Vowels sound different; revise ‘ü’ versus ‘u’.)

Homophones disambiguated by multi-character words

Similar sounding characters (homophones) are usually disambiguated by using them in multi-character words.

An example is “马路” (ma3 lu4, “road”, literally “horse road”) that contrasts with “码号” (ma3 hao4, “code”, literally “numerical mark”). The former refers to “road” whereas the latter refers to codes like the size codes found on shirts (‘S’, ‘M’, ‘L’, etc).

This article is a valuable reference for part 4 of 4 articles that fully explain the Chinese writing system. Part 4 of that series explains “phonetic construction” principles for character construction:

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Jon Wong

Jon Wong

Jon writes technology tutorials, fantasy (a dream), linguistics (phonology, etymologies, Chinese), gaming (in-depth playthrough-based game reviews).