Pronouncing Mandarin Chinese

To people who’s first language is English, trying to understand Mandarin Chinese can seem like an impossible task. It’s certainly not going to be something you can master in a single afternoon but there are a few handy hints to helping you pronounce Mandarin Chinese.

The language has 21 consonants and 16 vowels, and there are tonal differences that we don’t see in English. Think of how vowels are pronounced differently with accents in French. That is another example of how tones are used. Since we don’t use tones in English, it can be tricky to understand how they are used at first.

When you are not accustomed to listening for tones, the sound of Mandarin seems to have a lot of confusing ups and downs to it. Once you are able to hear the tones for what they are, it will start to make a lot more sense to you.

In Mandarin, there are 4 basic tones:

  • the first tone: a high tone that remains constant (ā)
  • the second tone: a rising tone (á)
  • the third tone: a tone that falls first and then rises (ă)
  • the fourth tone: a falling tone (à)

Accent marks are used when Chinese words are written in English format (pinyin). The look of each mark should help you remember the form of the four tones. The tones are vital as a change in tone makes the word have a totally different meaning (it’s not just a matter of sounding wrong).

And speaking of the pinyin writing format, don’t let the English consonants fool you. Just because a word is written in English letters, doesn’t mean it’s pronounced in an English manner. For example, the consonant “q” can be awkward to say because it’s not usually used alone in English. But in Mandarin, that represents a “ch” sound (like the word “cheek”).

When it comes to vowels, Mandarin Chinese doesn’t have long and short vowel sounds like English does. The vowels are more or less constant with their sounds no matter what (other than tonal changes). Various vowel sounds are made by combining vowels. And again, don’t assume that the letters all sound like their English counterparts. For example, the Qin Dynasty would be properly pronounced as the “Cheen” Dynasty.

The best way to really understand the sounds that the vowels, consonants and tones all make together is to hear a native speaker slowly illustrate what the various sounds are. Trying to read descriptions on how to place your tongue and teeth can be hard to manage if you’re not a linguistics student.


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