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How to Speak Chinese

There are four key elements of learning a foreign language, they are listening, speaking, reading and writing. Many people who learn Chinese feel that one of the most difficult issues in Chinese is that Chinese characters and pronunciation do not correspond to each other, which is different from English. If you see a word, it is hard to tell what its pronunciation is. Therefore, to learn how to speak Chinese, we need to start from the basic formation of Chinese pronuniciation–pinyin. Today we will take a detailed look on pinyin(拼音:  pīn yīn)and the tone of pinyin (拼音声调: pīn yīn shēng diào).

1. What is Chinese pinyin?

Chinese pinyin is a Latinization scheme of Chinese character phonetic notes promulgated by the Chinese official. It refers to the phonetic syllable of Putonghua, which is spelled into a standard pronunciation of modern Chinese with the letters and spelling stipulated in the Chinese pinyin scheme. Chinese pinyin is a tool to assist the pronunciation of Chinese characters, and it is used in the field where Chinese characters are inconvenient or cannot be used.

2. Chinese pinyin alphabet and pronunciation

The 23 consonants (Initials): are both consonants in front of vowels and a complete syllable formed with vowels.

b, p, m, f, d, t, n, l, g, k, h, j, q, x, zh, ch, sh, r, z, c, s, y, w

How to pronounce:

b: the lips are closed, hindering the air flow, and then the lips suddenly let the air flow out, the pronunciation is light and short.

p: the lips are closed, hindering the air flow, and then the lips suddenly open, and the air flow bursts into a sound.

m: the lips are closed, the tongue is retracted, the airflow comes out of the nasal cavity, the mouth is opened, and the vocal cord quivers.

f: the upper tooth touches the lower lip to form a narrow slit, allowing the air flow to squeeze out of the seam and rub into a sound.

d: the tip of the tongue against the gums, hold back the airflow suddenly release, the air burst out of the mouth, burst into a sound.

t: the tip of the tongue against the gums, hold the breath, suddenly release it, the air burst out of the mouth.

n: the tip of the tongue stands against the gums, the air flows through the nasal cavity, and at the same time it flushes away the hindrance of the tip of the tongue, and the vocal cord trembles.

l: the lips are slightly open, the tip of the tongue is against the gums, the vocal cord trembles, and the air flows out from both sides of the tip of the tongue.

g: the anterior part of the tongue root against the soft palate hinders the air flow, allowing the air flow to break through the obstruction of the tongue root and erupt into a sound.

k: the anterior part of the tongue root, against the soft palate, hinders the air flow, let the air flow break through the obstruction of the tongue root, burst into a sound.

h: the root of the tongue is raised, close to the soft palate, forming a narrow slit, and the air flow is squeezed out of the seam and rubbed into a sound.

j: the tip of the tongue stands against the lower incisor, the front of the tongue is close to the hard palate, and the air flows out of the narrow seam, rubbing into a sound.

q: the front of the tongue is close to the hard palate, the air flow breaks through the hindrance of the root of the tongue, and the friction becomes a sound.

x: the tip of the tongue against the lower incisor, the front of the tongue is raised near the hard palate, forming a narrow slit, air flow extruded from the seam, friction into a sound.

zh: the tip of the tongue is tilted up, which stands against the front of the hard palatine, and a weak airflow flushes through the tip of the tongue, extruding from the seam and rubbing into a sound.

ch: the tip of the tongue is tilted up, which stands against the front of the hard palatine, and there is a strong airflow running away from the tip of the tongue, extruding from the seam and rubbing into a sound.

sh: the tip of the tongue is tilted up, close to the front of the hard palate, leaving a narrow slit, and the air flow is squeezed out of the narrow seam and rubbed into a sound.

r: the tip of the tongue is upturned, close to the front of the hard palate, leaving a narrow slit, a hard voice, an air flow extruding from the narrow seam, rubbing into a sound, and the vocal cord trembling.

z: the tip of the tongue stands against the back of the front tooth, hindering the air flow, allowing the weaker air flow to wash away the tip of the tongue, extruding from the narrow seam, and rubbing into a sound.

c: the tip of the tongue against the back of the front teeth, hindering the air flow, so that the stronger air flow out of the seam, friction into a sound.

s: the tip of the tongue is close to the back of the front tooth, leaving a narrow slit, and the air flow is squeezed out of the narrow seam of the tip of the tongue and rubbed into a sound.

y: the mouth is slightly flat, the tip of the tongue against the lower gums, the surface of the tongue raised, close to the upper hard palate, and the vocal cord trembles.

w: the lips are round, protruding into small holes, the back of the tongue is protruding, and the vocal cord trembles.

It takes a lot of practice to get these initials sound correct, especially for zh, ch, sh since they are unique for Chinese. No other language has this way to speak. Also q, x, z, c are easily been confused with same letter in western languages.

The 24 vowels:

a, o, e, i, u, ü, ai, ei, ui, ao, ou, iu, ie, üe, er, an, en, in, un, ün, ang, eng, ing, ong

The single vowel: a, o, e, i, u, ü.

Examples: 爸(bà),我(wǒ),和(hé),其(qí),木(mù),女(nǚ)

How to pronounce:

a: the lips are naturally wide, the tongue is flat, the tongue is naturally placed, and the vocal cord trembles. Sound like English “father”, but a bit more fronted.

o: the lips are round, slightly raised, the tongue retracts, the back of the tongue rises, the tongue is in the middle, and the vocal cord quivers. Sound the vowels in “saw”, “all”.

e: the mouth is half open, the tongue is back, the corners of the mouth are flattened on both sides, and the vocal cord trembles. Sound like English “earth”.

i: the mouth is slightly flat, the tip of the tongue against the lower gums, the surface of the tongue is raised, close to the upper hard palate, and the vocal cord trembles. Sound like English “bee”.

u: the lips are round, protruding into small holes, the back of the tongue is protruding, and the vocal cord trembles. Sound like English “goose”.

ü: the lips are round and close, the tip of the tongue against the lower gums, the anterior part of the tongue bulging, and the vocal cord trembling.

The Compound vowels: ai, ei, ui, ao, ou, iu, ie, üe, er, an, en, in, un, ün, ang, eng, ing, ong.

Examples: 白(bái),给(gěi),贵(guì),好(hǎo),都(dōu),秋(qiū)、切(qiè)、运(yùn)、月(yuè)、儿(ér)、慢(màn)、真(zhēn)、平(píng)、方(fāng)、糖(táng)、城(chéng)、宁(níng)、永(yǒng)

How to pronounce:

ai: pronounce a first, then slide to i, the air flow is not interrupted, and the pronunciation is light and short. Sound like the vowel in “bike”.

ei: pronounce e first, then slide to i, the air flow does not stop, and the corners of the mouth expand on both sides.

ui: the pronunciation of u is light and short, and then slips into the shape of ei, mouth from round to flat. Sound like the word “we”.

ao: pronounce a sound first, then shrink back at the tip of the tongue, lift the root of the tongue upward, shape the mouth into a circle, and gently slide to o. Sound like the vowel in “loud” or “now“.

ou: the first sound is o, the lips are gradually closed, the root of the tongue is raised, and the shape of the mouth is from large circle to small circle. Sound like the word “oh

iu: start with i, then slide to u, and the mouth changes from flat to round.

ie: i is sent first, then e, and the air flow is not interrupted.

üe: it begins with the sound of yu, then slips to e, and the mouth changes from round to flat.

er: the tongue is in the middle of the e sound, and then the tip of the tongue rolls up to the hard palate, and the two letters are pronounced at the same time.

an: the sound of a is pronounced first, and then the tip of the tongue is gradually raised and the gums are held up to pronounce n. Sound like the vowel in “anchor”

en: pronounce e first, then raise the tongue surface, the tip of the tongue stands against the gums, and the air flows out of the nasal cavity to pronounce n.

in: i sound first, then the tip of the tongue against the back of the lower incisor, the surface of the tongue gradually reaches the hard palate, and the air flows out of the nasal cavity to pronounce n. Sound like the word “in

un: the sound of u is pronounced first, then the tip of the tongue is pressed against the gums, and then the sound of n is pronounced, and the air flows out of the nasal cavity. Sound like the vowel in “When”.

ün: pronounce the yu first, then lift the tongue up, hold back the gums, flow out from the nasal cavity, pronounce n.

ang: the sound of a is pronounced first, then the root of the tongue is pressed against the soft palate, the air flow is released from the nasal cavity, and the sound of ng at the end of the nasal sound is pronounced. Sound like the word “long

eng: the sound of e is pronounced first, then the tip of the tongue is pressed against the gums, the root of the tongue is retracted against the soft palate to pronounce ng, and the air flows out from the nasal cavity.

ing: the tip of the tongue touches the lower gums, the surface of the tongue rises to the hard palate, and the nasal cavity resonates with each other. Sound like the vowel in “English”

ong: the sound of o is pronounced first, then the root of the tongue is retracted against the soft palate, the surface of the tongue is raised, the lips are round, and the nasal cavity resonates with each other.

3. The tones of pinyin (声调:shēng diào)

Chinese is a tonal language, which means the tones change the meanings of words. This is one of the most confusing and difficult part for learning Chinese. Since Mandarin has a limited number of syllables, there are a lot of homophones whose meaning varies with the tone. Take an example as below:

八/巴(bā);拨/跋(bá);把/靶(bǎ);爸/霸(bà)

The tone of pinyin: usually called four tones (四声调:sì shēng diào):

The first tone (一声:yī shēng), marked as “ˉ“;

The second tone (二声:èr shēng), marked as “ˊ“;

The third tone (三声:sān shēng), marked as “ˇ“;

The fourth tone (四声:sì shēng), marked as “ˋ“.

There is also a special tone in Chinese, called neutral tone(轻声: qīng shēng), sometimes also called the fifth tone, which is denoted by the lack of tone mark in Chinese pinyin.

1st tone ā ē ō ī ū ǖ keeps at high.

2nd tone á é ó í ú ǘ starts from middle and increases gradually to high.

3rd tone ǎ ě ǒ ǐ ǔ ǚ starts from middle low, drops to low and then increases gradually to mid-high.

4th tone à è ò ì ù ǜ starts from high and gradually decreases to low.

The rules of tone position in Chinese pinyin are as follows:

The tone is indicated by a tone mark placed on top the vowel. If there are two vowels and the first vowel is i, u, or ü, the tone is marked on the second vowel. In the rest of the case, the tone should be marked on the first vowel.

The replacement of the tones symbols:

The numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 are used to replace the tone symbols of Yin Ping.

1: (ˉ); 2: (ˊ); 3: (ˇ); 4: (ˋ)and 5: (Neutral tone with no denotation)

Hope this post helps you to start understand more about how Chinese charters are sounded. In fact, pinyin is a very useful tool to learn to get around China. It can be seen on some maps, road signs, and other notices. Pinyin is easier to learn, practice and remember than characters. Listen and repeat as much as you can. Practice them until you feel your pronunciations are close to it.

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