How to learn Chinese

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.