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Mandarin Chinese Pronunciation Guide

Go to the list of useful phrases

We have included here the Pinyin romanization for each of the Chinese phrases. Pinyin was originally developed in the U.S.S.R., based on the pronunciation of Cyrillic, so some of the pronunciations are not intuitive to English speakers. However, we use it here because it is the standard romanization system on the mainland, and by far the least confusing and most regular of the systems available.

Mandarin has five "tones." This means that a syllable spoken at a high pitch will often have a different meaning than a syllable spoken at a low pitch. Although this is not completely correct, you can think of the five tones being pronounced as follows:

TonePinyin MarkingPronunciation
1stMacron (ā)Say it as if you were singing it a little bit higher than the highest pitch you would ever comfortably speak at.
2ndAcute (á)Say it as if you were asking a question, with your pitch rising at the end?
3rdCaron (ǎ)Say it at the lowest pitch you can manage. While there's a little bit more to it than that, doing this will clearly distinguish what you're saying as 3rd tone.
4thGrave (à)Say it definitively, as if you were uttering an obscenity after something heavy fell on your foot.
5thNone (a)I never quite learned this one properly, but what seems to be involved is saying it quickly at a soft volume at neither a high or low pitch.

The hardest part about tones for English speakers seems to be remembering to pronounce them at all in the first place. When speaking naturally in English, one hardly needs to pay attention to the pitch of their voice, except sometimes to add emotion on top of a particular word. If you think you are having trouble pronouncing the tones, try to "sing" what you are saying, with the first tone being a high note, the second tone rising, the third tone being a low note, the fourth tone falling, and the 5th tone being kind of staccato -- short and punctuated, but soft.

When asking someone if your pronunciation is correct, remember to not ask as if you were speaking English. If you do that, you will almost certainly be using a very good 2nd tone, which might not be the one you are trying to use.

Every syllable in Chinese is composed of two parts, called the "initial" and "final." Pinyin has 35 finals, the pronunciations of which can be found in the table below. Note that the examples below are using a West Coast American accent for reference. Unlike the initials, most of the pronunciations for the finals are non-intuitive for an English speaker.

aThe "ahhhhh" that the dentist has you say, except for a shorter time.
oLike the "o" in "flow"
eLike the "e" in "problem" or the "o" in "some"
aiLike the "y" in "fly" or the "igh" in "sigh".
eiLike the "ay" in "say" or "way".
aoLike the "ow" in "wow" or "clown".
ouLike the "oe" in "toe".
anClose to the word "on" (ahn)
angClose to the "ong" in "song" (ahng)
enLike the "un" in "unlock" (ehn)
engLike the "ung" in "sung" or "flung" (ehng)
ongLike the "ow" in "own" followed by "ng" (owng)
uLike the "ue" in "blue"
uaClose to the "wo" in "won" (oo-wah)
uo(this entry needs an example) (oo-oh)
uaiLike "why"
uiLike "ue" in "true" followed by "way"
uanLike "ue" in "true" followed by "won" (oo-ahn)
uangClose to the "ue" in "true" followed by "ong" in "song" (oo-ahng)
un(this entry needs an example) (oo-uhn)
ueng"ue" in "true" followed by "ung" in "sung"
iLike the "e" in "me"
iaLike a Scandinavian "ja" or the "ya" in "yawn"
ie"e" in "me" followed by "ay" in "say"
iao"e" in "me" followed by "ow" in "clown"
iuLike the "u" in "cute"
ianLike the Japanese "Yen" or "yan" in "Mayan"
iang(this entry needs an example) (ee-yahng)
inLike the "ean" in "mean" or "bean".
ingLike the "ing" in "sing".
iong"e" in "me" followed by "ow" in "flow" followed by "ng" (ee-yo-ng)
üLike the French "u" in "tu" or the German "ü". Pronounced by puckering your lips (pulling the corners in like to whistle) and saying the "e" in "me"
üeü described above, followed by first "e" from "clever"
üanü described above, followed by something close to the word "on" (ü-ahn)
ünü described above, followed by normal "n" sound.

Pinyin has 21 initials, the pronunciations of which can be found in the table below. Note that the examples below are using a West Coast American accent for reference. The initials with less intuitive pronunciation for an English speaker are marked in bold. Those would be the first to study.

bLike the "b" in "barn" or "bat".
pLike the "p" in "pitch" or "pit".
mLike the "m" in "mat".
fLike the "f" in "fear" or "fish".
dLike the "d" in "done".
tLike the "t" in "touch".
nLike the "n" in "neck".
lLike the "l" in "left".
gLike the "g" in "go".
kLike the "c" in "carve".
hLike the "h" in "hurt".
zLike the "ds" in "squids".
cLike the "ts" in "spits".
sLike the "s" in "swim".
zhLike the "j" in "joke".
chLike the "ch" in "trench".
shLike the "sh" in "shirt".
rLike the "s" in "treasure".
jStick your tongue out past your teeth, and while leaving it stuck out, say the "ds" in "squids".
qStick your tongue out past your teeth, and while leaving it stuck out, say the "ts" in "spits".
xStick your tongue out past your teeth, and while leaving it stuck out, say "she".

Recommended Phrasebooks

Lonely Planet Mandarin, 4th Edition

For those in the beginning stages of learning the language, or even just hoping to get around in China, a good Mandarin phrasebook is essential. I have personally used the Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook, 4th Edition, which was indispensable on my first trip to China.

Lonely Planet Mandarin, 5th Edition

In particular, I recommend against the 5th Edition, simply because it has replaced romanizations in Pinyin, standard in any other modern book on Chinese (including the 4th edition), with its own incompatible homegrown variant.

Rough Guide Mandarin, 2th Edition

I haven't used the Rough Guide Mandarin Chinese, 2nd Edition in the "field", but I have flipped through it. The translations looked good, and phrases are organized alphabetically by "key word". This organization is better suited toward your communicating things to Chinese people than the other way around.