Why Pronunciation Matters


The standard Romanization system used for Mandarin Chinese.While most of the letters are the same or very close to the English usage, there are some important differences.


Pronunciation Basics


Mandarin Chinese may sound strange, but is actually relatively easy for English-speakers to pick up—much easier than it is for Mandarin-speakers to learn English. A large part of the reason is that Chinese has a very limited syllabary, meaning there are not many sounds in the language, and hardly any new ones if you already know English.


On the other hand, that means Chinese-speakers trying to grasp English must learn to create dozens of entirely new sounds—remember that as you proceed through these first lessons on pronunciation!


One very different aspect of Chinese is its use of tones. Because of its limited syllabary, pitches of voice are used to help differentiate words. While some dialects of Chinese have up to nine tones, Mandarin is comparatively easy with only four. It’s often difficult for beginners to distinguish the tone of a word, especially when not sure of the context.


Even if you have perfect pitch, it may be hard to follow or reproduce what can seem likea rollercoaster ride of tonal transitions. Don’t worry though, as you’ll improve with practice. These lessons will describe how to understand and reproduce all the syllables and tones of Chinese.


A note about IPA


The IPA, or International Phonetic Alphabet, is a standard set of symbols that can be used to write any sound from any human language. If you know the IPA, it will be used here to give you a grounding in pinyin—the most common Romanization system for Chinese, which will be used for the rest of the text.


The Mandarin syllable


There are three parts to all syllables in Mandarin; the initial, the final, and the tone. In pinyin, the tone, initial, and final are represented as follows:




The tone is represented by a tone mark placed on top of the syllable. There are exactly four tone marks:  ̄, ˊ, ˇ, and ˋ. The two dots on ü (like a German umlaut) do not have to do with the tone, so if you see , , , or , the symbol above the dots represents the tone.