Pronunce Chinese Right

Know the Special Phonetic Sounds


Chinese sounds

Chinese pronunciation is very different from that of English.

In order to pronounce Chinese in the proper manner, it is important for you to find out its unique phonetic sounds. This will help you to speed up the learning process.

We may call the strategy 'manage by exception'.

So how does Chinese pronounce their words?

Chinese words are made up of characters. The Chinese word can consist of one or more characters. Each character is a syllable. For example, tian 天 is a character that means 'day'. When 天 is used as a single-character word, it is also a single-syllable word. On the other hand, jintian 今天, which means 'today', is made up of two characters. It is, therefore, a double-syllable word.

What are in the Chinese syllable?

Typically, a Chinese syllable consists of two components: an initial and a final.

An initial is like a consonant of English, and a final like a vowel. For example, the syllable da is made up of the initial d, and the final a; and pronounced as da. In order to acquire a good Chinese pronunciation, you must be able to pronounce Chinese initials and finals right. There are 21 initials and 36 finals in the Chinese phonetic system.

You may go to our free tutorial Guild to Pinyin to hear every initial and final in the Chinese phonetics.

Among the initials and finals, quite a few are similar to English. For example, b sounds like the ‘b’ as of bed, p like the ‘p’ for poor, and m like the ‘m’ of mother. There are, however, sounds that are distinctively different, and this is what you may have to find out first.

There are others that are apparently different from the pronunciation of English. These are some of them:

Video Tutorial: Distinctive Chinese Phonetic Sounds

Distinctive Sounds in Chinese


Distinctive initials

Now, let's look at the distinctive Chinese phonetic sounds among the initials. 

As you can see in the video presentation above, the first group of initials that require your special attention includes zh, ch, sh and r.

Zh, which sounds like j in Japan, but with the tongue going further backward.  For example zhīdao 知道, shùzhī 树枝

Ch, which sounds like ch in church, but with the tongue going further backward.   For example, chīfàn 吃饭, chídào 迟到

Sh, which sounds like sh in sheep, but with the tongue going further backward.  For example, lǎoshī 老师, shīfu 师傅

R, which sounds like r in road, but with the tongue loosely rolled in the middle of the mouth.  For example, rìzi 日子, xīngqīrì 星期日.

Another group of initials that you should be careful about consists of j, q and x.

J, which sounds like g in George, but with the tongue touching the hard palate of the mouth behind the upper teeth, unaspirated.  For example, jīqì 机器 , jīhuì 机会

Q, which sounds a bit like the ch in cheese, but with the tongue touching the hard palate of the mouth behind the upper teeth, aspirated.  For example, rìqī, 日期qīwàng 期望.

X, which sounds a bit like the si in situation, but with the tongue touching the hard palate of the mouth behind the upper teeth, unaspirated.  For example, xīwàng 希望, xīqí 稀奇.


Distinctive finals

As for the distinctive sounds among the finals, they include:

Er - which sounds like ir in Sir, but with a retroflex, i.e. the tongue pointing upward and backward.  Examples of the finals:  érzi 儿子, yíhuìer  一会儿.

Ü - the sound is made by making the mouth shaped like that of a goldfish.  Examples are xiàyǔ 下雨, jīnyú 金鱼.

The rest of the sounds should be quite straightforward to you. Although not exactly, they are close to, the sounds of English.


Go to the tutorial Quick guide to Pinyin to have a preliminary understanding of the Chinese sounds.

Read more about learning Chinese.

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