Chinese Pronunciation: From English Perspective

Chinese pronunciation is simple, and not nearly as varied as English!

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

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

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.

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.

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”).

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’.

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:

  • 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 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 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’.

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 “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.

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.

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.

Consonant ‘q’

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

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.

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.

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’.

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.

Homophones disambiguated by multi-character words

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

Jon writes technology tutorials, fantasy (in honor of ex-wife), linguistics (phonology, etymologies, Chinese), gaming (in-depth playthrough-based game reviews).

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store