When learning Chinese, you may discover to your surprise that many aspects of the language are relatively simple, and Chinese pronunciation is one of them.
With a few exceptions, most of the sounds in Chinese are not too difficult for English speakers to reproduce – but at the same time, Chinese pronunciation is very different from English, so speaking it accurately will take some practice.
To help you start pronouncing Chinese right, in this post, I will give you a comprehensive overview of Chinese phonetics, with the main part focusing on pronouncing the individual sounds of Chinese.
You will find many examples of words, and to hear them, I recommend you refer to whichever electronic dictionary you usually use. For example, the Pleco app is an extremely popular one that will allow you to do this.
Note that although I touch briefly on tones at the end of this post, I haven’t dealt with them in-depth. If you want more information about tones, I have written another post on this topic that you can find here.
So now let’s jump in and learn all about Chinese pronunciation!
By the way, if you want to learn Chinese fast and have fun, my top recommendation is Chinese Uncovered which teaches you through StoryLearning®.
With Chinese Uncovered you’ll use my unique StoryLearning® method to learn Chinese through story… not rules. It’s as fun as it is effective – click here for a 7-day FREE trial.
Chinese Syllables – Initials And Finals
Chinese syllables can be broken down into two parts, the “initial” and the “final”.
Initials are consonant sounds at the start of the syllable, and finals come after the initial – they can be either a vowel alone or a vowel with a nasal ‘m’, ‘n’ or ‘ng’ ending.
Other than these nasal sounds (and ‘r’, which I deal with below), Chinese syllables can’t end with any other consonants.
All syllables in Chinese must have a final, but many syllables exist with no initial. Here are some examples to show you how it works:
- 冰 bīng (ice) – initial ‘b’, final ‘ing’, pronunciation: ‘bing’
- 水 shuĭ (water) – initial ‘sh’, final ‘ui’, pronunciation ‘shui’
- 爱 ài (love) – no initial, final ai, pronunciation ‘ai’
With all the available combinations of initials and finals, Modern Standard Chinese has just over 400 possible syllables, so the first step in mastering the pronunciation is learning to produce the sounds of all the initials, finals and combinations accurately.
Fortunately for learners of Chinese, there is an excellent tool to help with this – the pinyin system of romanisation. However, there are a few things you need to know about pinyin right from the start, so let’s talk about that now.
Pinyin (拼音 pīnyīn in Chinese) is the official system of romanisation in use in mainland China and many other places where Chinese is spoken (although notably not in Taiwan), and it was developed in the 1950s.
Since people growing up in different parts of the country have different accents and speak different Chinese dialects, pinyin serves to teach children the correct pronunciation of Standard Chinese. It also allows them to begin writing before they have mastered enough characters.
However, the important thing to bear in mind is that pinyin is for Chinese speakers, not for non-natives.
The result is that while the sounds of some letters will be more or less familiar to English speakers, many are quite different – and some are unrecognisable from their English counterparts.
This means that to make the most of pinyin, you have to learn the sounds that the letters of pinyin represent and learn to produce them. When you have done this, pronouncing any of the possible sounds in Chinese will become much easier.
So now let’s take an in-depth look at all the possible initials and finals in Chinese to help you learn how to pronounce the sounds represented by pinyin correctly.
Chinese Initials – Aspirated And Unaspirated Pairs
Several Chinese initials come in pairs, and the only difference being them is that one is “aspirated” while the other is “unaspirated”.
An “aspirated” sound is where you release a puff of breath when you pronounce it whereas, with an “unaspirated” sound, there is no puff of breath.
To understand this, place a small piece of paper on your hand in front of your mouth and say the English words “please”, “child” or “phone”.
Because these sounds are aspirated, you’ll see the paper move when you pronounce them – but if you pronounce unaspirated sounds, the paper stays where it is.
Here are the aspirated and unaspirated pairs in Chinese:
B And P
Pinyin ‘p’ is aspirated and is pronounced like the ‘p’ in the English word “pie”.
Pinyin ‘b’ is unaspirated and is pronounced like the ‘p’ in “spy”. Don’t pronounce it like the ‘b’ in “bye”.
- 帮bāng (help)
- 胖 pàng (fat)
D And T
Pinyin ‘t’ is aspirated and is pronounced like the ‘t’ in the English word “tie”.
Pinyin ‘d’ is unaspirated and is pronounced like the ‘t’ in “sty”. Don’t pronounce it like the ‘d’ in “die”.
- 东 dōng (east)
- 同意 tóngyì (agree)
G And K
Pinyin ‘k’ is aspirated and is pronounced like the ‘c’ in “car”.
Pinyin ‘g’ is unaspirated and is pronounced like the ‘c’ in “scar”. Don’t pronounce it like the ‘g’ in “garden”.
However, both are pronounced slightly further back in the throat.
- 看 kàn (look, watch)
- 干 gān (dry)
J And Q
These two sounds may take a little practice since they’re not quite the same as anything in English – although they’re not too difficult to master.
Pinyin ‘j’ is similar to the ‘ch’ in “chicken” or “cheek” but is unaspirated. However, it is also softer than the English ‘ch’ – to pronounce it, make sure your tongue is flat and then try to pull your lips further back than when pronouncing the English ‘ch’.
Pinyin ‘q’ is completely different from the English pronunciation of this letter. In Chinese, it is pronounced the same as the ‘j’ but is aspirated. To pronounce it correctly, first, try to master the ‘j’ sound and then practise making the same sound but with air coming out of your mouth.
- 教 jiāo (teach)
- 桥 qiáo (bridge)
ZH And CH
Pinyin ‘zh’ is similar to the ‘ch’ in “chill” but is unaspirated. To pronounce it correctly, you also need to curl the tongue back further.
To pronounce the pinyin ‘ch’, use the same mouth position as for ‘zh’ but make the sound with air coming out of your mouth.
- 张 zhāng (surname Zhang, measure word for beds, desks, paper etc.)
- 长 cháng (long)
You may hear some learners pronounce ‘j’ and ‘zh’ the same way – but they are different, so don’t fall into this trap. For ‘j’, the tongue should be close to your front teeth whereas for ‘zh’ it should be further back.
- 张 zhāng (surname Zhang, measure word for beds, desks, paper etc.)
- 姜 jiāng (ginger (the food))
You'll also hear many learners pronounce ‘q’ and ‘ch’ the same way – but these are also different, so avoid this mistake. For example, in the two syllables of the city Chongqing:
- 重庆 Chóngqìng (Chongqing)
Z And C
These two letters in Chinese are quite different from their English counterparts.
Pinyin ‘z’ is pronounced like the ‘ds’ in “lads” and is unaspirated. Try making the ‘ds’ sound from “lads” but hold it for longer. It is not pronounced like the ‘z’ in “zebra”.
Pinyin ‘c’ is the same but is aspirated. It is most similar to the word “tsunami” with the ‘t’ pronounced. It is not pronounced like the ‘c’ in “car”.
- 自己 zìjĭ (oneself)
- 刺激 cìjī (exciting, stimulating)
Some Tricky Initials In Chinese Pronunciation
There are a couple of other initials in Chinese that are different from their English counterparts and may present some challenges, so let’s look at these now.
S, SH, X
Pinyin ‘s’ is close to the English ‘s’ in “sing” but is pronounced with the tongue touching the bottom teeth and with the lips pulled further back.
The ‘sh' in pinyin is close to the English ‘sh’ in “shy” but is pronounced with the tongue curled back.
Pinyin ‘x’ is tricky since it doesn’t exist in English. Perhaps the best way to describe it is as being half-way between ‘s’ and ‘sh’ – to pronounce it, try to pronounce a ‘sh’ sound but with your tongue flat and with your lips drawn back as far as possible.
Many people make the mistake of pronouncing ‘x’ the same as either ‘s’ or ‘sh’, but it is a distinct and separate sound. For example, 西 xī (west) doesn't sound like the English “she” or the English “see” but rather somewhere in between.
In any case, this is a sound you are likely to need to spend time practising.
- 四 sì (four)
- 是 shì (be)
- 西 xī (west)
Pinyin ‘r’ is another difficult one, both to explain and to master. It has nothing to do with an English ‘r’, so don’t try to pronounce it like one. Rather, it’s somewhere between the ‘s’ in “pleasure” and the ‘z’ in “zebra” – and the tongue should be curled back when you say it.
To give you an idea of how different it is from the English ‘r’, when French president Emmanuel Macron tried to learn a sentence in Chinese for a speech he was giving, he thought the Chinese word 让 ràng (make, let) sounded like the French name “Jean”.
In fact, much of the difficulty often comes from trying to reconcile the pronunciation with what you think a letter ‘r’ should sound like.
The best advice is to forget the written form and listen to the sound – if you stop thinking of an English ‘r’ and concentrate on reproducing the sound you hear, you will find it much easier.
- 认识 rènshi (know (a person))
Pinyin ‘h’ is a little easier. The best way to describe it is as being like the ‘ch’ in the Scottish word “loch” or ‘j’ in the Spanish name “Jose”.
However, the pronunciation varies between speakers and regions, and sometimes it can be closer to the English ‘h’ in “hello”.
- 河 hé (river)
And Some Easier Ones – F, L, M, N
You’ll be pleased to know that the pinyin letters ‘f’, ‘l’, ‘m’, and ‘n’ are more or less the same as in English.
One point to note, though, is that in Received Pronunciation (RP) English, there are two subtly different ways of pronouncing ‘l’. However, in Chinese, ‘l’ should always be pronounced as in “long” rather than “full”.
- 份 fèn (portion)
- 龙 lóng (dragon)
- 门 mén (door, gate)
- 年 nián (year)
Now let’s go through all the possible finals in Chinese.
Beginning With ‘a’
The finals beginning with ‘a’ are relatively easy to pronounce since they are quite similar to the corresponding sounds in English.
However, they are not exactly the same, so listen carefully to your audio and produce what you hear rather than just saying the nearest English equivalent.
Here, I will give you the closest English (RP) approximation, but generally speaking, all of these are more “open” and are produced further back in the throat and with the lips pulled further back.
Pinyin ‘a’ is similar to the ‘a’ in “car” but is slightly closer to the ‘u’ “cut”.
- Example: 他 tā (he)
Pinyin ‘ai’ is similar to ‘I’.
- Example: 爱 aì (love)
Pinyin ‘ao’ is similar to the ‘ow’ in “how”.
- 到 dào (arrive)
Pinyin ‘an’ is similar to the ‘an’ in “ban” but is slightly closer to the ‘un’ in “bun”.
- 慢 màn (slow)
Pinyin ‘ang’ is similar to the ‘ang’ in “bang” but is slightly closer to the ‘ung’ in “bung”.
- 汤 tāng (soup)
Beginning With ‘e’
As with the ‘a’ finals, I will give you a rough approximation of how these sound, but again, they are generally pronounced further back in the throat than the English equivalents. Some of them are quite different from English, so make sure you listen to your audio carefully.
Pinyin ‘e’ is like the ‘e’ in “her”, but the sound comes from the back of your throat.
- Example: 饿 è (hungry)
Pinyin ‘ei’ is like the ‘ay’ in “day” but further back in the throat and with the lips pulled slightly further back and closer together.
- Example: 黑 hēi (black)
Pinyin ‘en’ is between the ‘en’ in “happen” and the ‘un’ in “under” but more nasal.
- Example: 问 wén (ask)
Pinyin ‘eng’ is similar to ‘en’ above but with a ‘g’ at the end like in “thing”.
- Example: 城市 chéngshì (city)
Beginning With ‘o’
There are just three finals that begin with ‘o’.
Pinyin ‘o’ is like the English ‘our’ in “four” (but don’t pronounce the ‘r’ like in American English). You should push your lips further forward than when pronouncing the English equivalent.
- Example: 摸 mō (touch, feel, stroke)
Pinyin ‘ou’ is like the ‘o’ in “go” – but less “rounded”. Think of when Homer Simpson says “d’oh!” – but longer.
- Example: 都 dōu (all)
Pinyin ‘ong’ is like the ‘ong’ in “long”. To pronounce it correctly, make the ‘ou’ sound as above but with a nasal ‘ng’ at the end.
- Example: 龙 lóng (dragon)
Beginning With ‘i’
Quite a lot of finals in Chinese start with ‘i’. When the final is not combined with an initial, the ‘i’ is replaced by a ‘y’ in pinyin, although this doesn’t affect the pronunciation. I’ve included examples of this below where relevant.
Pinyin ‘i’ has two different pronunciations.
When Preceded By Z, C, S, ZH, CH, SH, R
When preceded by ‘z’, ‘c’, ‘s’, ‘zh’, ‘ch’, ‘sh’ ‘r’, it is almost not pronounced. Rather, you just pronounce the consonant sound alone and then vocalise in the back of your throat. It is unlike anything in English, so you’ll need to listen to your audio.
- 四 sì (four)
- 日子 rìzi (day)
- 十 shí (ten)
When Preceded By Anything Else
When preceded by anything else, it is pronounced like the ‘ea’ in “tea” but with the lips pulled further back.
- 一 yī (one)
- 七 qi (seven)
Pinyin ‘ia’ is most like the German ja (yes).
- 下 xià (down)
Pinyin ‘iao’ is like the ‘eow’ in “meow” but the ‘ee’ sound is shorter.
- 叫 jiào (call)
Pinyin ‘ie’ is like the ‘ie’ in the French name “Pierre”.
- 街 jiē (street)
Pinyin ‘iu’ is a little difficult for some people at first, but that’s partly because its spelling looks wrong to English speakers. It sounds similar to the exclamation “yo!” in English but with a hint of an ‘ee’ sound at the beginning.
To make this sound, put your mouth in the position to say ‘ee’ but then say “yo!”.
- 旧 jiù (old, former)
Pinyin ‘ian’ is pronounced like “yen” (as in the Japanese currency) but with a hint of ‘ee’ at the beginning.
- 先 xiān (first)
- 烟 yān (smoke)
Pinyin ‘iang’ is pronounced like English “young” but further back in the throat and with the lips pulled further back. The sound is more “open”.
- 强 qiáng (strong)
- 羊 yáng (sheep)
Pinyin ‘ing’ is like the ‘ing’ in “sing” – but with a hint of ‘ee’ at the beginning.
- 行 xíng (ok, fine)
- 英国 yīngguó (England)
Pinyin ‘iong’ isn’t a sound found in any English words – but it isn’t hard to pronounce. It’s how you would imagine ‘yong’ to sound (for a British speaker rather than an American) although with that hint of ‘ee’ at the beginning.
- 熊 xióng (bear)
- 用 yòng (use)
Beginning With ‘u’
There are also quite a few finals that begin with ‘u’. In the same way as above where ‘y’ replaces the ‘i’ if there is no initial, here a ‘w’ replaces the ‘u’ when there is no initial.
When a ‘u’ is preceded by a ‘j’, ‘q’ or ‘x’, it is pronounced ‘ü’ – see the section below for details about this sound.
When preceded by any other letter, pinyin ‘u’ is closest to the English ‘o’ in “do” – but in fact, English doesn’t really have the correct sound. A closer approximation is the ‘ou’ in the French word vous (you). In any case, listen carefully to your audio and try to replicate what you hear.
- 不 bù (not)
- 五 wŭ (five)
Pinyin ‘ua’ is most like the ‘ua’ sound in “suave”.
- 花 huā (flower)
- 青蛙 qīngwā (frog)
Pinyin ‘uo’ is like the English word “war” (RP, with the ‘r’ not pronounced).
- 脱 tuō (take off (clothes))
- 我 wŏ (I, me)
Pinyin ‘uai’ sounds like the English word “why” but is slightly more “open”.
- 快 kuài (fast)
Pinyin ‘ui’ is most similar to the English word “way” but more “open”.
- 贵 guì (expensive)
Pinyin ‘uan’ is most like the English word “one” – but with a short ‘oo’ sound at the beginning.
- 软件 ruănjiàn (software)
- 碗 wăn (bowl)
Pinyin ‘uang’ is similar to the ‘uan’ sound above – but with a nasal ‘ng’ ending.
- 黄 huáng (yellow)
- 王 wáng (king)
U And Ü
As well as ‘u’, pinyin also uses the letter ‘ü’, and the sound is quite different. This, in itself, is no big problem, but there is a further complication.
Since the letters ‘j’, ‘q’ and ‘x’ can never be followed by the regular ‘u’ sound and are only ever used with ‘ü’, the dots aren’t written above the ‘u’ when it appears with these letters. However, the words are still pronounced as if they were written as ‘ü’.
Furthermore, like finals beginning with ‘i’, if a final beginning with ‘ü’ does not have an initial, the ‘ü’ is replaced by a ‘y’.
Here are some examples:
- 去 (go) is written qù but is pronounced qǜ
- 许 (a surname) is written Xŭ but is pronounced Xǚ
- 鱼 (fish) is written yú but is pronounced yǘ
Depending on your point of view, this system is either logical or unnecessarily complicated, but in any case, it’s just something you’ll have to remember!
Finals With ‘ü’
So now let’s look at how to pronounce the finals with ‘ü’.
Pinyin ‘ü’ in pinyin is tricky to explain since there’s nothing quite like it in English. For French speakers, it is quite close to the word ‘eu’.
If you don’t speak French, perhaps the closest in English is the ‘eu’ in “pneumatic” – but with the lips pulled back as far as possible.
- 绿 lǜ (green) – compare with 路 lù (road)
- 女 nǚ (girl) – compare with 努力 nŭlì (try hard, make a big effort))
- 区 qū (area, district)
Pinyin ‘üe’ is another tricky one. Start by pronouncing the ‘ü’ followed by a shorter, clipped version of the English word “air”.
- 决定 juédìng (decide)
- 学 xué (study)
Pinyin ‘üan’ is pronounced like ‘ü’ followed by a shorter, clipped version of the ‘en’ in “end”.
- 全 quán (whole, entire)
- 选择 xuănzé (choose)
Pinyin ‘ün’ is pronounced like ‘ü’ but with an ‘n’ at the end.
- 裙子 qúnzi (skirt)
鲁迅 LŭXùn (Lu Xun) – a famous Chinese writer (note here that the first character is pronounced with a ‘ŭ’ but the second is pronounced as ‘ǜ’)
Finally, note that when typing Chinese, ‘ü’ is represented by ‘v’ on the keyboard.
One Last Letter To Note – r
To finish this section on pinyin, there is a letter that deserves a mention that is only found at the end of words: ‘r’.
This ‘r’ is quite different from the initial ‘r’ and is pronounced like a strong ‘r’ at the end of the American pronunciation of words like “car”.
A few words always include this sound – for example, 二 èr (two).
However, it is added to the end of many other words by people who speak with a Beijing accent (as well as most foreigners who have learnt Chinese in Beijing or lived in the Chinese capital).
In some words pronounced in the Beijing accent, it also replaces the final consonant of the syllable although the letter it replaces is retained in the spelling.
To indicate this pronunciation, the character 儿 is added to the end of the word – and pinyin, it is indicated by an ‘r’.
- 那儿 nàr (there) – 那里 nàlĭ is used in other parts of China)
- 这儿 zhèr (here) – 这里 zhèlĭ is used in other parts of the country)
- 玩儿 wánr (play) – the ‘n’ not pronounced, so it sounds like wár – in other parts of the country, this word is pronounced wán
- 门儿 ménr (door, gate) – the ‘n’ is not pronounced, so this sounds like mér – elsewhere, this word is pronounced mén
So now we have seen all the initials and finals of Chinese, and as I mentioned before, this gives Chinese just over 400 possible syllables. This is quite a low number compared to many other languages, but Chinese makes up for this through the use of tones.
You can pronounce each syllable with one of four possible tones. The first tone is flat and is pitched higher than your normal speaking voice; the second starts low and rises; the third starts high, drops then rises again; and the fourth tone starts high and falls.
For some syllables, a neutral version with no tone is also possible.
The concept of tones is different from intonation. In English, you can change the meaning of a sentence by changing the intonation of what you say, so by using a rising intonation, you can change a statement to a question. Similarly, you can also use intonation to express surprise or anger while still using the same words.
However, in Chinese, pronouncing a syllable with a different tone changes the meaning of the word completely, so if you say 买 măi with a third tone, it means “buy”, but the same syllable with a falling tone, 卖 mài, means “sell”.
I don’t have space here to go into tones in more depth, but as I mentioned at the beginning, if you want to know more, you can check out my post on the subject here.
However, tones in Chinese are not optional, so as well as working on the correct pronunciation of the initials and finals, you should also make sure you spend plenty of time practising the tones.
For many people, mastering tones is one of the most difficult aspects of Chinese.
Tips For Chinese Pronunciation Success
To finish, here are a couple of tips that will help you nail Chinese pronunciation.
Don’t Let Pinyin Trick You
Pinyin was designed for Chinese people, so pronouncing Chinese words the way you think they should sound in English is a sure route to poor pronunciation. Don’t let what you see on the page fool you.
For example, 很 hĕn (very) is pronounced nothing like the English word “hen” (as in “chicken”), and if you are American, don’t pronounce 用 yòng with the long American ‘o’ vowel sound.
Instead, listen to the Chinese word and repeat what you hear – don’t let the way you think it should sound according to the way English is written lead you astray.
Close Enough Is Not Good Enough
A common problem when trying to learn the pronunciation of any foreign language is that many people try to find the closest sound in the language and think that will do. However, again, if you do this, your Chinese pronunciation will always sound horribly foreign.
Instead, listen carefully to the sounds and try to repeat them accurately – and spend as much time as you need on the ones you have trouble with.
For example, the name of China’s current president is 习近平 Xí Jìnpíng. You will often hear newsreaders pronounce it like ‘she gin ping’ or ‘sea gin ping’ (or sometimes just Mr C!), but this is not how you should say it.
It might be good enough for non-Chinese speaking newsreaders, but it’s not good enough for you as a student of the language, so make an effort to pronounce it accurately.
Chinese Sounds Are Formed Further Back In The Throat
The sounds of different languages are produced in different parts of the mouth. English is pronounced towards the front of the mouth, but Chinese is spoken further back in the throat.
If you try to form the sounds in the part of your mouth where you speak English, it won’t sound like Chinese – instead try to find the part of your mouth where Chinese should be spoken and make the sounds there. If you can master this, your Chinese pronunciation will improve dramatically.
Practise Chinese Pronunciation
With any language, you need to spend a certain amount of time at the beginning practising the sounds and pronunciation of words and sentences, and with Chinese, this is especially important.
Start by practising individual words, referring to this guide to help you master the ones you have most trouble with. Always speak out loud, and make sure you spend plenty of time on tones.
Then start practising sentences, building them up word by word, gradually putting them together and building up your speed. Reading out loud is also a helpful technique to use.
Chinese pronunciation is very different from English, and it may take you some time to become good at it. However, it’s not impossible, and the time you put into will eventually pay off, leaving you with much clearer and more accurate pronunciation.
Make An Effort To Practise – And It Will Come With Time
Hopefully, in this post, I have given you all the information you needed and answered any questions you had about Chinese pronunciation.
My best advice is to make a conscious effort to work on your pronunciation, especially at the beginning. Listening to Chinese will help too.
At first, the sounds you need to produce may seem strange and alien, but with a little determination, you will be able to speak Chinese clearly, fluently and accurately.