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Chinese Pronunciation: The Complete Guide for Beginner

Mastering Mandarin Chinese begins with solid pronunciation. No matter what your level is, ensuring correct pronunciation is crucial, and it’s never too late to start. A good foundation makes a significant difference. This guide will help you learn Chinese pronunciation more easily and accurately.

Part 1: What is Pinyin?

Chinese is not a phonetic language. Its pronunciation does not relate to the writing of Chinese words (characters). Pinyin is a special system created to help people learn Mandarin pronunciation. It transcribes Chinese characters so that people can pronounce them. Pinyin may also be used as an input method to enter Chinese characters into computers or electronic devices.

The writing of Pinyin is similar to the English alphabet. You can pronounce every single sound in Chinese using Pinyin. However, you should be aware that the pronunciation and spelling of Pinyin letters differ from English letters. The sounds that Pinyin letters represent do not correspond exactly to the sounds that English letters represent. Therefore, you cannot pronounce Pinyin as if it were English. For example,

 EnglishPinyin
she
      
      
he
      
      
can
      
      

One Chinese sound corresponds to one syllable, and each Chinese character has its own Pinyin syllable.

pinyin syllable

A Pinyin syllable consists of three parts: the Initial, the Final, and the Tone. The Initial and Final represent the segmental phonetic portion of the language, rather than individual letters.

chinese initial final tone

Chinese PinYin Chart with Audio (click here)

Chinese pinyin chart

Learn more about the detailed illustration of the Chinese Pinyin system.

Part 2: What is Tones?

Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, meaning the pronunciation of a sound directly affects the meaning of what is said. Mandarin’s tones give the language a distinctive quality, but they can also be a source of miscommunication if not given due attention.

There are four main tones and one neutral tone in Mandarin Chinese (or, as some say, five tones). Each tone has a distinctive pitch contour, which can be graphed using the following Chinese 5-level system.

chinese tones
First ToneHigh and level sound, naturally prolonged.A straight horizontal line: ˉ

e.g.   mā

      
Second ToneRising tone, from low to high,

just like the pitch in question

A rising diagonal line:ˊ

e.g.   má

      
Third ToneFirst falling and then going up againA curved “dipping” line: ˇ

e.g.   mǎ

      
Fourth ToneTotal falling tone which starts very high and falls short and strongA dropping diagonal line:ˋ

e.g.   mà

      
Neutral TonePronounced very light and quickHave no tone mark

e.g.   ma

      

I’ve seen some posts claiming that Chinese tones are just like English, conveying the attitude or feeling of a speaker, but this is not the case. This idea confuses two different concepts. English doesn’t have tones; words don’t change meanings when pronounced with different intonations. However, in Chinese, even with the same initial and final, different tones represent different characters and meanings. Many Chinese characters share the same initials and finals. For example,

chinese pronunciation tones

Common Tone Rules

  • Third Tone Sandhi

When a third tone is followed by another third tone, it should be pronounced as a second tone automatically. But the writing script should remain unchanged as the third tone mark. For example:
你好 (nǐ + hǎo)  ->  你好 (ní hǎo)

      

我很 (wǒ + hěn + hǎo)  ->  我很好 (wó hén hǎo) 

      

  • Tone sandhi of “不”

“不” becomes a second tone when followed by a fourth tone character. It is a fourth-tone syllable by itself, and when followed by other tones, the following changes occur.

      
tone-rules-bu
  • Tone sandhi of “一”

“一” is pronounced in the first tone when it`s by itself, at the end of a word, or used as a number. However, when followed by a first, second, or third-tone character, “一” changes to the fourth tone. It is pronounced in the second tone when it precedes a fourth-tone character.

      
tone-rules-yi

Why Tones Matter?

If you can’t recognize the tone, you may struggle to understand Chinese speakers and face embarrassing communication barriers.

Many learners quit after initially underestimating the importance of mastering tones and proper pronunciation in Mandarin. They find Pinyin deceptively simple and rush into more complex language aspects, only to be overwhelmed by similar vocabulary that erodes their confidence. However, consistent practice in listening and speaking, though tedious, is vital. Mastering these basics builds a solid foundation for further Chinese studies, underscoring the critical importance of tones.

Related Reading: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Tones in Mandarin Chinese

Part 3: Tips and Suggestions: How to improve your Chinese pronunciation

1. Master the basic rules of pronunciation and tones

Knowing basic greetings like “你好” and “你好吗” in Chinese is straightforward, but advancing beyond these initial greetings is a different endeavor. As a beginner, it is crucial to become familiar with all Pinyin sounds, spelling rules, and tone-changing rules. If possible, find a professional teacher who speaks standard Mandarin Chinese and can clearly explain the differences among similar sounds.

Many learning experiences are shared on how to improve your Chinese pronunciation, Master Chinese Pronunciation with 6 Techniques.

To improve your pronunciation of each initial and final, here are the tricks:

The Pinyin Finals:

The Pinyin Initials:

2. Having Enough input: Create your own language environment

If you are learning Chinese in China or luckily are surrounded by a group of native speakers, just try to talk to them about what you`ve learned. If you can`t follow them at the beginning, don`t feel embarrassed or upset; it`s a quite common phase. Focus on distinguishing the words you’ve learned and becoming more familiar with the intonation of the Chinese language. Gradually, you will be able to connect all the words and understand the conversations.

If you don`t have the language environment, create one yourself! There are tons of online learning resources available, especially on platforms like Dig Mandarin. 🙂 Whether through Chinese learning audios or videos, make use of your spare time to listen. While some learning content might be tedious, diversify your practice with  Chinese songs to perfect your accent.   Additionally, learning from movies and TV shows is an excellent way to improve your language sense and deepen your understanding of Chinese culture.

3. Having Enough output

i. Practice in words, phrases, and sentences

Phonetic changes occur in the flow of speech, especially with tones. When you begin studying Mandarin Chinese pronunciation, it is beneficial to practice tone pairs. Start with a phrase you know, such as 很好 (hěnhǎo, very good), which uses the second and then the third tone. Repeat this phrase out loud several times, listening to the tone and rhythm of the syllables. This study of the language’s natural rhythm will help you accurately pronounce new words and speak sentences more smoothly. Starting can be tough, but mastering this will make longer sentences much easier.

ii. Slow down and be clear

Ensure you do not speak too quickly. It’s natural to want to speak at a normal speed like a native speaker, but as a beginner, you might not produce standard sounds. Focus on clarity and correctness over speed. If people can’t understand you, there’s no point in speaking quickly. Clear and accurate communication should be your goal.

Here is the Chinese Speaking Training with the Shadowing technique.

iii. Practice makes perfect

As mentioned, cultivating a keen sense of the Chinese language requires sufficient input. Practicing alone can sometimes create the illusion that you are speaking well, when in reality, perhaps only you or your teacher can understand. Therefore, the key is to practice repeatedly. If one doesn’t work, try twice, then three times, and more. Persistence will lead to success.

4. Learn from your mistakes

As you know, Chinese people are very kind, so they often offer encouragement and compliments. While confidence is necessary, don’t let their kindness prevent you from recognizing and correcting your mistakes and foreign pronunciation. Ask your Chinese friends to point out inaccuracies and specific issues directly. Ideally, one of these friends should be a professional teacher. Take notes on your common mistakes and analyze them one by one. This process will help you overcome your problems. It can be discouraging to hear about many mistakes, but you will learn a lot from them quickly, and this will accelerate your improvement.

You can also gauge if others understand you; regardless of their kindness, being understood is a good start. Additionally, try preparing a paragraph on a specific topic, then record your speech and listen to it several times to assess if it sounds odd from your perspective. Then have your Chinese friends or teacher check it. If possible, compare your recordings with those of native speakers to clearly hear differences in sounds, rhythms, and intonation. Focus on the difficulties, repeat them slowly, and ensure your pronunciation is correct.

5. Review all the time

Acquiring accurate pronunciation is a long-term battle. Do not be naive and think you can master authentic pronunciation in one shot. Record all your mistakes and misunderstandings of specific concepts. Review your notes regularly to keep your attention focused and remind you of the correct approaches. Eventually, you will master them all. Repetition is the key to mastery!

Part 4: Resources

1. Video Lessons

a) Learn Complete Chinese Pronunciation in 16 Days! – This pronunciation course is produced by DigMandarin. With this course, you will:

  • Pronounce every Chinese sound clearly with the proper accent.
  • Understand the phonetic alphabet (Pinyin) and how it relates to pronunciation.
  • Learn each of the 21 Pinyin Initials.
  • Learn each of the basic 6 Finals, as well as the 30 compound Finals.
  • Reduce your accent to sound more like a native.
  • Master the trickiest elements that challenge most beginners, including the complex Mandarin tones.
  • Receive detailed explanations on how to shape your mouth, position your tongue, and produce the required sounds.

b) Fluent Forever – Just as I illustrated above, these 3 videos provide instructions to help you gain a basic understanding of Chinese pronunciation, tones, and spelling rules. Its whiteboard illustration way is quite clear and easy to follow.

c) Yoyo Chinese – Featured in an interview by Dig Mandarin, this group offers over 100 YouTube videos designed to help you learn Mandarin more easily. An additional 300-400 videos are available if you pay for the premium membership on the website. Beginners can make great strides in language learning with the systemic video organization that naturally builds world knowledge and pronunciation skills.

d) Chinese Made Easy – This course is designed to guide you through the fundamentals of Mandarin pronunciation and is essential for anyone new to learning Chinese. It provides a thorough understanding of Pinyin, the Romanization system used for phoneticizing Chinese characters. You will learn about the importance of tones in Mandarin, how they affect meaning, and the structure of Pinyin syllables, including initials, finals, and tone marks. Whether you are starting from scratch or looking to improve your pronunciation skills, this course is your first step toward fluency.

2. Audio Lessons

 ChineseClass101 – ChineseClass101 offers a substantial number of lessons, with five episodes dedicated to teaching Chinese word construction, tones, related tone rules, and challenging sounds. These lessons cover the essential aspects of Mandarin Chinese pronunciation.

Mandarin Bean – As a Chinese-graded reading and practice site, Mandarin Bean offers many resources focused on fundamental content such as grammar and pronunciation. You can listen to tutorial audio on Pinyin and then engage in practice exercises to reinforce what you’ve learned.

3. Tools & APP

a) Pinyin Tools – If you want to learn about how to use Pinyin to aid your Chinese verbal language acquisition, Dig Mandarin recommends apps: pinyin chart, tone chart, and Pinyin to Chinese character converter app.

b) Pleco – This dictionary is one of the most useful tools for people learning Mandarin. You can search by either Chinese characters or Pinyin spelling. If you hear a new Chinese word that you do not understand, you can easily search for it on this site to figure out what it means. A premium version is also available, which includes audio pronunciations.

4. Book

New Practice Chinese Readers – This Mandarin Chinese textbook is my personal favorite. It combines a carefully laid-out learning structure ideal for language with audio files for better pronunciation and understanding. The lessons include vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar sentence structure, and even cultural information. New Practice for Chinese Readers is available on Amazon and from major book retailers.

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JING CAO

Jing Cao is the chief-editor and co-founder of DigMandarin. She has a master's degree in Chinese Linguistics and Language Aquisition and has taught thousands of students for the past years. She devotes herself to the education career of making Chinese learning easier throughout the world.

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Hi!
    Thought the Pinyin Guide I created might be a great addition to the tools list you provide as it provides a Pinyin pronunciation tool with audio that works excellent on both desktop and mobile. Hope this helps!

  2. Hi,
    Thanks for the guide!
    Just one correction: the pronunciations for “deng” in the Chinese PinYin Chart with Audio are pointed to the ones of “dang”. You’ll hear “dang” when you click “deng”.

  3. first of all thanks this website….im beginner ,so want to learn the correct sound of the pronunciaton ….so hard but i want to learn….because my boss is chinese mandarin…im fun to learn so,interesting much….i enjoy to speak their language and to communicate them.i hope ….this tips of this tone pronunciation i can do it w/correct😊
    thank you ma’am!!!

  4. Thank you for this website. I have been reading the English translation of Journey to the West, but I find some of the names difficult to pronounce. I believe this will help me when I discuss the book enthusiastically with anyone long-suffering enough to listen for more than two minutes.

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