Learn Pinyin: The Building Blocks of Chinese Pronunciation

Are you interested in learning Chinese but feel intimidated by the characters? Unlike European languages, Mandarin Chinese looks daunting to the untrained eye. But fear not, there’s a system designed to make your journey easier – Chinese Pinyin. And it will likely be the first step on your journey to mastering Mandarin.

In this article, we’ll explore everything you need to know about Pinyin, including what is Pinyin, why it’s essential to learn, and how to learn it effectively. It’s the first step towards mastering Mandarin, and we’re here to help you get started.

So, whether you’re a beginner or looking to level up your skills, join us to dive into the world of Pinyin together! Let’s get started!

What is Pinyin

Pinyin is the standard system of romanized spelling for Mandarin Chinese. It’s also known as the Chinese alphabet since it allows you to master the pronunciation of Chinese characters in romanized letters. Pinyin is an extremely helpful tool for learning Chinese. Even in China, Pinyin is the first thing children learn at school, even before characters!

With pinyin, you don’t have to worry about deciphering hanzi (Chinese characters) and guessing how to pronounce them! Pinyin gives you the answers and makes it much easier to learn. 

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Why should we learn Pinyin

If you’re wondering whether you need to learn Pinyin or start right from the characters, the simple answer is always learn Pinyin first! Because Pinyin can help you:

  • Look up Chinese characters in dictionaries
  • Learn Chinese characters much quicker and easier
  • Aid your pronunciation, speaking, and listening skills
  • Easily text or type in Chinese
  • Communicate with natives

A Brief History of Pinyin

Pinyin was first developed in the 1950s to simplify learning Mandarin for Chinese speakers and improve the national literacy rate. Before Pinyin was born, the Wade-Giles system and Zhuyin were used to romanize Chinese letters. But Pinyin quickly took their places and has since become the most commonly used phonetic system for learning Chinese

Nowadays, Pinyin is used by schools and teachers around the world to teach Mandarin Chinese to both native and foreign learners. That’s right – even Chinese children learn Pinyin before they move on to characters. That’s because Pinyin helps students master the correct pronunciation of Chinese characters.

Chinese Pinyin is a learning tool, so as you progress in the language, you’ll rely less and less on it, learning instead to recognize and pronounce characters without the romanized spelling. But if you need to type in Chinese frequently, Pinyin is still a lifesaver. It allows you to type more than 10000 characters with the same English keyboard you are using right now!

Also, as you advance in Chinese, you’ll constantly need to refer to pinyin for learning new characters or checking the pronunciation of old characters. So, it’s pretty important to learn!

The composition of Pinyin

Before we get down to the details of pinyin, let’s first learn the basics – what does pinyin consist of.

Pinyin consists of sounds (initials and finals) and tones, which together form a complete sound.

In total, there are 23 initials, 38 finals, and 4 tones (plus a neutral tone)

Each Chinese character represents one syllable. An initial sound makes up the first part of the syllable, while the final makes up the second. Initials can never be used as a final and vice versa, making it a bit easier to remember.

Let’s look at an example: 

The character 热 rè, meaning hot, is formed of the initial r and the final e

pinyin composition

While initials and finals are formed of letters, the tone is represented by a line marked above the final. This example shows that the character 热 is pronounced in the fourth tone – the strong falling tone.

We’ll explore this in more detail with the charts below. It’s easier than it sounds! Now let’s dive in.

Pinyin Chart and Tips for Pronunciation

As we’ve seen before, each pinyin syllable is made up of an initial sound and a final sound. The initial sound is the consonant that starts the syllable, and the final sound is the vowel that follows it.

Initials 

  • labial: b p m f
  • alveolar: d t n l
  • velar: g k h

So far these 11 initials are pronounced the same way as in English.

Initials Pronunciation in English Audio Sample Chinese Words
b as in “boy”
不 (bù; not)
p as in “people”  
朋友 (péngyǒu; friend)
m as in “mother”
妈妈 (māma; mom)
f as in “father”  
飞机 (fēijī; airplane)
d as in “dog”  
大 (dà; big)
t as in “time”  
天气 (tiānqì; weather)
n as in “never”  
年 (nián; year)
l as in “like”  
篮球 (lánqiú; basketball)
g as in “great”  
高兴 (gāoxìng; happy)
k as in “kite”  
看 (kàn; look)
h as in “help”  
喝水(hēshuǐ; drink water)
  • palatal: j q x
  • retroflex: zh ch sh r
Initials Pronunciation Audio Sample Chinese Word
j put your tongue at the tip of your teeth and pronounce “gee”  
今天 (jīn tiān; today)
q put your tongue at the tip of your teeth and pronounce “chee”  
出去 (chū qù; get out)
x put your tongue at the tip of your teeth and pronounce “sh”  
上学 (shàng xué; go to school)
zh sounds like the “jur”  
中华 (zhōng huá; chinese)
ch sounds like the “chur” in “church.”  
成功 (chéng gōng; success)
sh sounds like the “sh” in “shower.”  
上海 (shàng hǎi; Shanghai)
r sounds like “ur”  
人 (rén; people)

Great! Now you’ve learned pretty much all the initials with unique sounds in Pinyin. This is the most challenging part of all the Pinyin initials. So don’t feel discouraged if you find them a difficult. Use our tips above and try to observe how native speakers pronounce these sounds. With enough practice, you can definitely master them.

The last group of initials also have equivalent sounds in English. They are:

  • dental sibilants: z, c, s
  • y, w
Initials Pronunciation Audio Sample Chinese Word
z sounds like the “ds” in “woods”
自行车 (zì xíng chē)
c sounds like the “ts” in “cats”
草 (cǎo; grass)
s sounds like the “s” in “snake”
素食者 (sùshí zhě; vegetarian)
y sounds like the “y” in “yes”
一定 (yí dìng)
w sounds like the “w” in “water”
我 (wǒ)
Finals

Now let’s move on to pinyin finals (vowels).

single finals

The first group is the most basic single finals.

Finals Pronunciation in English Audio Sample Chinese Words
a ah
妈妈 (mā ma; mom)
o awe
我 (wǒ, I)
e uh
喝 (hē, to drink)
i ee
一 (yī; one)
u oo
书 (shū; book)
ü ew
鱼 (yú; fish)

Note that after the initials j, q, x, and y, the final ü is written as u.

compound finals

By grouping two single finals together, we get compound finals.

Finals Pronunciation in English Audio Sample Chinese Words
ai “eye”
爱 (ài; love)
ei “ay”
为什么wèishénme; why
ui “way”
水 shuǐ; water
ao “ow”
好的 (hǎo de; okay)
ou “oh”
够 gòu; enough
iu “yo”
秋天 (qiūtiān; autumn)
ie “yeah”
姐姐 (jiějie; older sister)
üe “yeh”
月亮 (yuèliàng; the moon)
er “r”
二 (èr; two)

Sometimes the single finals i and u can be followed by compound finals:

iao – This sounds like “yow”, like when you’re excited about something. Example: 小 xiǎo; small

uai – This sounds like “why”, like the question word. Example: 快 kuài; fast

nasal finals

By adding n after single finals, we get alveolar nasal finals:

Finals Pronunciation in English Audio Sample Chinese Words
an “ahn”
看 (kàn; to see)
en “un”
门 (mén; door)
in “in”
您 nín; formal you
un “uen”
准备 zhǔnbèi; prepare
ün “yuen”
云 yún; cloud

Sometimes the single finals u and ü can be followed by alveolar nasal finals:

ian – This sounds like “wan”, like the shortened version of “one”. Example: 鲜 (xiān, fresh)

uan – This sounds like “wan”, like the shortened version of “one”. Example: 算 (suàn, to calculate)

üan – This sounds like “ywan”, like the name of a person or place. Example: 选 (xuǎn, to choose)

velar nasal finals:

By adding ng after single finals, we get velar nasal finals:

Finals Pronunciation in English Audio Sample Chinese Words
ang “ah-ng”  
早上 (zǎoshang; morning)
eng “ung”  
朋友 (péngyǒu; friend)
ing “ing”  
请问 (qǐngwèn; excuse me)
ong “oh-ng”  
中午 (zhōngwǔ; noon)

Sometimes the single final i can be followed by velar nasal finals:

uang – This sounds like “wahhg”. Example: 光 (guāng; light)

iong – This sounds like “yohng”. Example: 熊 (xióng; bear)

Tones

Now we’ve learned the basic initials(consonants) and finals(vowels), next we’ll look at some thing pretty unique and essential for Chinese – tones.

Tones in Chinese not only dictates sound, but also meaning. So it’s very important to learn the tones of of each character correctly to avoid mistakes that impede understanding. For example:

妈 (mā) — mom (first tone)

麻 (má) — numb (second tone)

马 (mǎ) — horse (third tone)

骂 (mà) — to scold (fourth tone)

吗 (ma) — question particle (“fifth tone”)

As you can see, although these characters use the same pinyin initials and finals, they sound different have totally different meanings. That is because they have different tones.

Tones are represented by tone marks, the little mark above “a” in the above examples. Tone marks in a way mimic what each tone sounds like:

First tone: flat tone

The first tone is high and flat. It is distinguishable because it is a constant high pitch that often stands out in speech.

Second tone: rising tone

The second tone is a rising tone. Read “Do you want a cup of tea?” and repeat how you pronounce the word tea. It sounds pretty much the same as the 提 (tí) with a second tone. Remember what this rising tone sounds like and apply it to all second tone characters.

Third tone: dipping tone

The third tone is a dipping tone that first falls and then rises. In practice, however, the third tone is usually a low sound that is not very distinguishable in speech.

Fourth tone: falling tone

The fourth tone is a falling tone. Read “Let’s go!” and repeat how you said the word go. It sounds like 够 (gòu ) with a fourth tone. Remember what this tone sounds like and apply it to all fourth tone characters.

Tones might seem intimidating at first, but as you keep learning, you’ll see how simple the Chinese phonetic system really is!

Helpful tools for learning Pinyin

Pinyin charts

A pinyin chart is a visual representation of all the pinyin sounds and tones. It’s a great tool for beginners who are just starting to learn pinyin. You can print out a pinyin chart or use an online interactive one to use it as a reference when practicing your pronunciation.

Pinyin input method

A pinyin input method allows you to type Chinese characters using pinyin. It’s great for practicing your Chinese spelling and typing skills. If you are a serious Chinese learner, we suggest you practice typing in pinyin asap.

Apps

LingoDeer is a comprehensive language learning app that offers an interactive approach to learning pinyin and Chinese. With voice recognition and spaced repetition, you can practice pronunciation and retain new vocabulary easily. You can also choose a learning mode to learn at your own pace. If you’re looking to learn Chinese in a fun and effective way, download LingoDeer today and try for free!

Tongue twisters

Tongue twisters are a fun and effective way to practice Chinese pinyin. Start with simple ones like “四是四,十是十,十四是十四,四十是四十” and gradually move on to more challenging ones. You can find many interesting Chinese tongue twisters with audio on google. Read them slowly and gradually increase speed to practice your Chinese pronunciation. Try it out and have fun with this playful language learning technique!

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