How to Improve Your Mandarin Chinese Pronunciation

When you are learning Mandarin Chinese, one of the most important but yet challenging things is to learn to pronounce the language.

Mandarin is actually made up of individual syllables. Every Chinese character is pronounced as one syllable. The good news is that there are not as many sounds in Chinese as some other languages. However, Chinese is a tonal language, and there are 4 ways of pronouncing each syllable.

When you start learning to speak Chinese, I recommend learning Pinyin. This is the official way in China of writing the sounds of Mandarin using the Western Roman alphabet. Each syllable or character can be written out, with a little accent above the letters to indicate 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th tone. Pinyin was devised by a Chinese man, not a Westerner. Some of the sounds are not spelled out in the way that you expect them to be.

To help you learn Pinyin and the sounds of Mandarin, I recommend that you try the free  Pinyin Chart tool. When you use it, you can click on any of the syllables and a corresponding tone. Try to learn to say all of the different sounds and practice using the four different tones. Using the software, you can practice all the sounds in Mandarin Chinese.

As you continue to study Mandarin, pay attention to the tones of each character and word. In my course Survive in Chinese. I stress this right from the beginning. It is important that you learn the tones of each character and practice saying them right from the beginning. If you have to speak very very slowly at the beginning, that is fine, accuracy is the most important thing. You should always study from courses that have audio recordings and copy the native speaker as closely as you can, following along with the Pinyin pronunciation guide. You can speed up gradually, although it is important to keep your tones accurate. Make a point of noting down the tones of vocabulary and jotting down mistakes when people point out your mistakes. At the earlier stages of your learning it is a good idea to listen and follow along with texts in textbooks. At the intermediate stage, there is quite a big jump between textbook texts and authentic Chinese audio, so you will probably want to consider using listening courses and intermediate textbooks.

For more intermediate or advanced learners who want to improve the accuracy of their pronunciation, I recommend listening to a lot of TV and radio. Broadcasters in China are tested on the accuracy of their pronunciation before they can go on the air, so you know that they will be speaking very accurately. Try to note their intonation. For listening to Chinese radio, one site that I like to use is tunein, and you can also download the TuneIn app your Android phone or iPhone/iPad. On the site, you search for radio stations from Mainland China or Taiwan. I sometimes listen to Beijing News Radio (北京新闻广播) or Beijing Communications Radio (北京交通广播). You can find both of them by searching on the site. The second one is designed for taxis and drivers to listen to, and it has more music and light-hearted discussion on everyday topics. For music lovers there is also Hit FM , which plays both Chinese and Western music. These are just some of the stations in Beijing, and there are loads more that you can choose from!

Most Chinese TV has subtitles, so you can read along at the same time. You can even stop the recording and try repeating sections, following the pronunciation of the speaker carefully. To watch TV from China online, you can download the Chinese CCTV app from here. The website is in Chinese, but just click the dark blue button to download. Once you install it, it is pretty easy to use. Open the program and click on the second button along on the top bar that says 直播中国, then you will find a list of channels. As well as having the national TV channels, you can also watch some of the major local satellite channels using the program. CCTV 1 and 2 have a lot of news and also entertainment programs, CCTV 5 has sport and CCTV新闻 is news. For advanced learners I also recommend Phoenix TV News.

If you are able to speak to native Chinese speakers or a teacher, ask them to point out specific problems with your pronunciation. This will help you to correct some of your more common mistakes. It may be discouraging sometimes to hear about your mistakes, but you will learn from them very quickly and it will help you to improve fast.

Also, you can grab a voice recorder or your smartphone and record yourself reading out a text from a textbook or talking about a certain topic. Then play the recording back to yourself and try to listen for any Chinese pronunciation or tone mistakes. They will be more obvious when you are listening back. Write down some notes for next time you speak or ask a native speaker to give you some pointers.

When I was first learning Chinese, I found that I made quite a lot of mistakes with tones, however through people correcting me, listening to a lot of standard Chinese, listening to myself and taking care with Chinese pronunciation, I have managed to iron out most of my mistakes over time. Don’t worry if you make mistakes with pronunciation. Try to pay attention, but speaking out is the most important thing, and you can improve over a period of time.

Chris Parker

Chris Parker has been speaking Mandarin since 2006. He has worked as a translator and simultaneous interpreter between Chinese and English, and has taught interpretation in the UK and in Beijing. He now works in the media, specializing in international communications strategy. He also has his own blog and Facebook page on learning Chinese.