Chinese Pronunciation Guide

I’ve already written a couple of posts for people who’d like to learn Mandarin so I’ll link those below. This post is just a basic guide to help people better pronounce the names of the teas I write about.

 

The pronunciation system in Mandarin is called pinyin. The word pinyin is actually an amalgamation of the words for “spell” and “sound.”  To help Mandarin learners better visualize the sounds combinations, educators have created a pinyin chart.

Image of a pinyin chart

A typical pinyin chart

The Pinyin Chart is organized based on where in the mouth the sound is produced. For example, ‘b’,’p’,’m’ and ‘f’ all rely on movement of the lips while ‘d’,’t’,’n’,’l’ are all produced by cupping the tongue against the roof of the mouth (the hard palate).

Drawn image of a labeled human mouth

The areas of the mouth we use to produce vowels and consonants. Source: duolingo

 

Looking at the chart itself is not very helpful, but once you’ve learned the basic rules of pronunciation, it helps to look at the chart and practice the different sounds combinations. Some of the phonemes are very rare. There are a couple on the chart that I’ve never used before. For people who are learning to type Mandarin, pinyin is helpful because these letter combinations will bring up the characters you want to type. For instance, typing “da” will bring up 大 (big). This chart does not take tones into account (there are four main tones in Mandarin) but this post is not intended to be a crash course in Mandarin; I’m writing it to help people with an interest in tea speak knowledgeable about what they’re drinking.

 

Yabla Chinese, one of my favorite online Chinese dictionaries, has a free resource that allows people to listen to the pinyin chart.

Yabla Audio Pinyin Chart

 

Mandarin speakers don’t move their lips very much. Instead, most of the sound comes from moving the tongue and changing the space within their mouths. A few of the sounds do not exist in English, and one must be careful when pronouncing them. The ‘q’ sound is similar to “ch” in English, but instead of laying the tongue flat against the roof of the mouth, one should curve the tongue and make a little space behind the teeth. ‘J’, ‘q’ and ‘x’ all use similar tongue placement. ‘Zh’, ‘ch’ and ‘sh’ all for a flattening of the tongue and mouth. ‘Z’, ‘c’ and ‘s’ are produced by flattening the tongue and mouth while creating a little space with the tongue behind the teeth.

 

One way to make sure you are pronouncing the words correctly is to abandon everything you know about English or your native language. Though there may be some similarities, it’s better to start from scratch and really listen to the vowel and consonant sounds. The Yabla pinyin chart should help. I’ve embedded a video below that demonstrates the pronunciation of a few tricky syllables.

 

I don’t really have a magic formula for learning a new language system. All I can say it practice makes perfect. 😀

 

Other Mandarin Posts:

3 Books to Kick-Start Your Mandarin Learning

Intermediate and Advanced Mandarin Resources

 

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