Chinese Pinyin

By OptiLingo

If you want to know how to learn Chinese, you need to begin with a solid strategy. I say this all the time, but learning a language is a lot like working out. You need a plan of attack to make sure you’re working efficiently and effectively.

In most cases, my advice is to begin with the alphabet of the language you’re looking to learn. In the case of Chinese, however, there is no alphabet, and it can be quite daunting to jump in with Chinese characters.

Fortunately, if you really want to know how to learn Chinese, there’s a short-cut—Pinyin.

Hanyu Pinyin, or simply Pinyin, is the official phonetic system used to convert Mandarin Chinese sounds into the Latin alphabet. The system was created in the 1950s and is a standard tool for teaching Chinese to non-native speakers.

While Pinyin is helpful for anyone who wants to know how to learn Chinese, it is not perfect.

Mandarin has sounds that have no equivalent in English and learning Pinyin is important if you want to know how to pronounce Mandarin properly.

In this system, one Pinyin is roughly the same as one syllable, and every Pinyin is comprised of three parts: initial, final and tone. For example, in the word “wǒ”, “w” is the initial, “o” is the final, and the mark above the “o” is the tone. You can think of initials as the equivalent of consonants in English and the finals as the vowels.

Here are the 21 initials (consonants) in Chinese:

b p m f g k h j d   t n l s zh ch sh r q x z c

The finals (vowels) are listed here:

a  ai ao  an  ang

o  ou  ong

e  er  ei  en  eng

i  ia  iao  ie  iu  iam  in  iang  ing  iong

u  ua  uo  uai  ui  uan  un uang ueng

ü  üe  üan  ün

Following is the Mandarin Chinese pronunciation based on Pinyin.

Pinyin
Approximate Sound
Example
b
like the ‘b’ in ‘bay’ but softened to closely approach the ‘p’ sound
p
like the ‘p’ in ‘pay’ but with more aspiration
m
like the ‘m’ in ‘morning’
f
same as the ‘f’ in ‘fan’
d
like the ‘d’ in ‘day’ but softened to approach the sound of ‘t’
t
like the ‘t’ in ‘tough’ but with more aspiration
n
like the ‘n’ in ‘none’
l
like the ‘l’ in ‘love’
g
like the ‘g’ in ‘grill but softened to approach the sound of ‘k’
gān
k
like the ‘k’ in ‘kit’ or ‘keen’ but with more aspiration
kāi
h
like the ‘h’ in ‘hay’ but with a heavier sound
j
close to the sound of ‘j’ in ‘jeep’ — the tongue touches the lower teeth
q
like the ‘ch’ in ‘chair’ — the tip of the tounge touches the lower teeth
x
close to the sound of ‘sh’ in ‘sheep’ — the tip of the tongue touches the lower teeth
xīn
zh
like the ‘j’ in ‘jump’ with the tongue curled upwards
zhā
ch
like the ‘ch’ in ‘cheap’ with the tongue curled upwards
chā
sh
similar to the ‘sh’ in ‘marsh’ with the tongue curled upwards
shá
r
close to the ‘r’ in ‘rough’ with the tongue curled upwards
rāo
z
like the ending ‘dz’ sound in ‘kids’
c
like the ‘ts’ in ‘cats’
s
like the ‘s’ in ‘sun’
i
like the ‘ee’ in ‘see’ (with an exception — see below)
i
after r, sh, zh, ch — like the ‘ir’ in ‘shirt’ but the ‘r’ has a lighter sound
chī
i
after z, c, s, — like the ‘I’ in ‘sit’
u
like the ‘oo’ in ‘broom’
iu/yu
similar to the ‘yo’ in ‘yoyo’
yŏu
a
like the ‘a’ in ‘father’
o
like the ‘o’ in ‘more’
e
similar to the ‘uh’ in ‘duh’
er
like the ‘e’ in ‘teacher’
ér
ie/ye
like the ‘ye’ in ‘yellow’
léi
ai
like the ‘eye’
pài
ei
like the ‘ay’ in ‘pay’ or the ‘ei’ in ‘weigh’
tēi
ia/ya
combines ‘ee’ + ‘a’ — you must pronounce this very quickly to blend the two vowels
lià
ao
similar to the ‘ow’ in ‘cow’ but longer
báo
ou
like the ‘ou’ in ‘dough’
mōu
an
like the ‘an’ in the ‘fan’
kàn
en
like the ‘en’ in the ‘taken’
dĕn
un
combines ‘oo’ + ‘en’ and sound like ‘uen’
gūn
in
like ‘een’ in ‘teen’
nín
ua/wa
combines ‘oo’ + ‘a’
guā
ui/wei
combines ‘oo’ + ‘ay’
dūi
uo/wo
combines ‘oo’ + ‘o’
duō
ang
combines the sound of ‘a’ in ‘father’ and the ‘ng’ in ‘sing’
lāng
eng
combines the sound of ‘uh’ in ‘duh’ and the ‘ng’ in ‘sing’
zēng
ong
combines the sound of ‘o’ in ‘more’ and the ‘ng’ in ‘sing’
gōng
ing
combines the sound of ‘ee’ + ‘ng’
līng
iao/yao
combines the sound of ‘ee’ + ‘ow’ in ‘cow’
diáo
ian/yan
combines the sound of ‘ee’ + ‘an’
dián
iong/yong
combines the sound of ‘ee’ + ‘ong’
giōng
iang/yang
combines the sound of ‘ee’ + ‘ang’
niáng
uai/wai
combines the sound of ‘oo’ + ‘eye’
kuái
uan/wan
combines the sound of ‘oo’ + ‘an’
guān
uang/wang
combines the sound of ‘oo’ + ‘ang’
guāng
ueng/weng
combines the sound of ‘oo’ + ‘eng’
ü
say ‘cheeeeese’ while rounding out your lips, no similar English sound
üe/yue
combines ü + ‘e’ in ‘yet’
nüe
üan/yuan
combines ü + ‘an’ in ‘fan’
jüan
ün/yun
combines ü + ‘en’ in ‘taken’

Of course, this is just a bit of a crash course on how to learn Chinese using the Pinyin system, but I hope you found it helpful.

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