Beginner’s Guide To Learning Chinese Pronunciation

By OptiLingo

If you want to learn how to speak Chinese, the starting point is to understand that Chinese is a tonal language. This means that each syllable in Chinese can have a different meaning depending on the tone used by the speaker. Mandarin is comprised of five tones, including the neutral tone. These five tones require a bit of training and practice for non-native speakers. The first step is to train your ear to differentiate them and then train your tongue to replicate them.

When you’re first starting to learn the Chinese language, you must pay particular attention to your pronunciation of each word. By taking time now to fully understand the right way to say each word or phrase, you can create a solid foundation that you can continue to learn on. Get out your pen and paper and get ready to learn how to pronounce the Chinese language correctly.

Understanding Pinyin

Similar to the alphabet, pinyin is a way to help sound out all the sounds in the Chinese language. Unlike English which is a phonetic language, Chinese is not. One individual symbol doesn’t represent a unique sound. Rather, the entire pinyin or character will showcase three important parts that will help you to determine what sound the pinyin makes. These parts are comprised of the Initial, Finale, and Tone. The Initial and Final parts relate directly to the segmental phonetic portion of the language.

An Explanation Of Tones

The third component is the tone. Chinese is classified as a tonal type of language, meaning the way the sound is pronounced can drastically affect the meaning that is taken from the sound. This means that if you aren’t paying close attention to the tone that you’re using, you may end up confusing your listener as they believe you’re actually communicating something entirely different than you are intending to.

Chinese is comprised of one neutral tone, sometimes called the fifth tone, and four other tones. You’ll come to discover that each tone has its own pitch contour. Again, you’ll need to make sure you’re using the right pitch in order to communicate the right words to others. Let’s take a look at each different tone.

  • Tone One: This tone is distinctive by its naturally high and level pitch. It should be naturally prolonged when spoken. This can be identified by a horizontal line above the character.
  • Tone Two: This tone starts low and goes high. You’ll identify its pitch by seeing a rising diagonal line.
  • Tone Three: The third tone will start off with a falling pitch. Then, it will go up. You’ll notice there will be a curved dipping line over the character to signify this tone.
  • Tone Four: This tone is distinctive by its high pitch that falls sharply to a short pitch. You’ll find it identified by a dropping diagonal line.
  • Tone Five (Neutral Tone): This tone is pronounced very quickly and lightly. There is no tone mark identifying this type of pronunciation. It’s assumed when there is lack of other tone identifying marks.

It’s important to realize that the best way to learn Chinese pronunciation is to contrast and compare it from your native tone. As compared to the English language, Chinese is not pronounced based on the attitude of the speaker. It’s very common in the English language to detect feelings like uncertainty, anger, and disappointment in the tone of how the word is pronounced. In the Chinese language, the tone only changes based on the different meaning of the symbol.

Tone Rules To Keep In Mind

Just as the English language has its own quirks about silent letters and different pronunciations depending on where the letter falls in the word, the Chinese language has its own tonal quirks. To get better at pronouncing this complex language, you need to understand these quirks. For this reason, we’re going to provide you with some of the more common tone rules below.

Third Tone Sandhi

Imagine you have two words both with a third tone symbol. You should automatically pronounce the first third tone word as a second tone. This means instead of speaking in a pitch that goes from falling to up, you should speak in a rising tone. Realize that when writing Chinese, it’s imperative that you keep both the third tone symbols in their place. Don’t change the one third tone symbol to a second tone symbol.

Tone Sandhi

should be pronounced as a second tone when it’s followed by a fourth tone character.

Tone Sandhi “一”

When it’s by itself, “一” is pronounced in the first tone. If it’s used as a number or at the end of a word, it’s also pronounced in the first tone. In the event “一” is followed up by a first, second, or third tone, it is altered to the fourth tone. In the case that “一” comes before a fourth tone, it’s to be said in the second tone.

Why Should I Care About Tones?

Although tones can be a bit confusing to start out with, they’re truly important to discovering the best way to learn Chinese pronunciation. If you don’t master the five different tones of the Chinese language, it can be extremely difficult for you to understand what Chinese people are saying. In addition, you can find yourself in deep water if you use the wrong tone and end up saying the wrong thing.

Tips For Improving Your Chinese

Master The Basics

We can’t stress just how important it is to spend time learning the tones of this language. Far too often, learners tend to breeze over the tone section when learning. This can result in much confusion later as they try to determine what Chinese individuals are saying, but can’t due to their lack of knowledge about tones. In addition, you must understand the tone changing rules as they will make a big difference in the words that you’ll hear pronounced. If you don’t get these down, it will be like to trying to maneuver through a minefield in the dark.

Create A Productive Learning Evironment

Learning to speak Chinese is going to be a long process. Immersing yourself in a group of Chinese speakers, whether you have the luxury of studying in China or simply having friends to help, will do wonders for your learning. It’s important to stay level-headed and not to get frustrated when you can’t understand everything they’re saying. Just start by identifying the tones you do understand and work from there. Learning Chinese is a commitment that’s going to take some time and lots of energy.

Practice In Different Forms

Don’t commit to just learning how to write Chinese or how to pronoun characters. Instead, you want to focus on phrases, words, and sentences. It can be very helpful to start pairing words that you know to create phrases. Then, move onto creating sentences. Be clear with your speech. Don’t try to go too fast. Take your time and make sure your pronunciations are correct. Practice is key to being efficient in any language.

Examples of Chinese Tones

Below is a brief summary of the first four (non-neutral) tones of Chinese. Learning these tones and the concepts they represent is a critical component if you want to learn how to speak Chinese.

The First Tone

The first tone of Chinese is high pitched and even. When making this tone, try your best to keep your voice somewhat monotone and flat. In Pinyin, this tone is indicated by a horizontal line.

Pinyin
Chinese
Meaning
mother


The Second Tone

In contrast with the first tone, the second tone is not monotone. To the contrary, it begins with your voice starting at a low pitch and rising to a middle pitch. This is similar to the inflection that English speakers exhibit when posting a question. In Pinyin, it is indicated by an accent mark on top of the letter.

Pinyin
Chinese
Meaning
hemp


The Third Tone

The third tone in Chinese is produced by modulating pitch from a mid-range to a low range, then rising to a high range pitch. Given this “dipping” characteristic, it is indicated in Pinyin by a “dipping” or covey line above the letter it affects.

Pinyin
Chinese
Meaning
horse


The Fourth Tone

The fourth tone starts at a high pitch and drops quickly to a low pitch. For English speakers, it is roughly similar to the intonation used when barking an angry command. In Pinyin, it is indicated by adding a reverse accent mark on top of the letter it effects.

Pinyin
Chinese
Meaning
to scold


The Fifth tone – neutral

Of course, then there is the neutral tone of Chinese. Some argue that Chinese has only “four tones plus neutral”, but in my book, that amounts to five. The neutral tone is unstressed, which is where it derives its name. Since it lacks any stress, it has no indication in Pinyin, which is why there is no example below.

That’s it for today. I hope that you enjoyed this brief overview of Pinyin and that it’s helped you with how to learn Chinese.

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