Chinese teachers and educators almost unanimously agree that Chinese must be learned with Chinese characters, but most are also using the Pinyin Chinese alphabet system to help facilitate learning. While the Pinyin alphabet shouldn’t be used exclusively to learn Chinese or as a writing system, it can definitely help students with memorizing and perfecting pronunciation.
Now that we’ve covered how to explain Chinese characters to kids and why the written Chinese character system is not an alphabet, let’s take a look at a true alphabet that can be used for learning Chinese — the Pinyin alphabet.
Pinyin (拼音）is made up of “initials” and “finals,” which are clusters of letters. Add an initial to a final and you’ve got a complete word sound (although there’s no way to know which word it is without any context — which is why Chinese characters are the only real way to write Chinese).
One of the easiest ways to get a feel for how pinyin is pronounced is by playing our app, which includes words in pinyin and immerses the player into hearing the sounds without having to think hard about it.
Here’s a rough guide to pronouncing initials, based on English approximations based on Wikipedia’s list:
Got it? Now here’s a guide to pronouncing the end half of words, the finals:
|Pinyin||Form when no initial present||Explanation|
|-i||(n/a)||-i is a buzzed continuation of the consonant following z-, c-, s-, zh-, ch-, sh- or r-.
(In all other cases, -i has the sound of bee; this is listed below.)
|a||a||as in “father”|
|e||e||a diphthong consisting first of a back, unrounded semivowel (which can be formed by first pronouncing “w” and then spreading the lips without changing the position of the tongue) followed by a vowel similar to English “duh“. Many unstressed syllables in Chinese use the schwa [ə] (idea), and this is also written as e.|
|ai||ai||like English “eye”, but a bit lighter|
|ei||ei||as in “hey“|
|ao||ao||approximately as in “cow“; the a is much more audible than the o|
|ou||ou||as in “so“|
|an||an||as in “ban” in British English (a more open fronted a)|
|en||en||as in “taken“|
|ang||ang||starts with the vowel sound in father and ends in the velar nasal; like song in some dialects of American English|
|eng||eng||like e in en above but with ng added to it at the back|
|er||er||similar to the sound in “bar” in American English|
|Finals beginning with i- (y-)|
|i||yi||like English bee.|
|ia||ya||as i + a; like English “yard”|
|ie||ye||as i + ê; but is very short; e (pronounced like ê) is pronounced longer and carries the main stress (similar to the initial sound ye in yet)|
|iao||yao||as i + ao|
|iu||you||as i + ou|
|ian||yan||as i + ê + n; like English yen|
|in||yin||as i + n|
|iang||yang||as i + ang|
|ing||ying||as i + ng|
|Finals beginning with u- (w-)|
|u||wu||like English “oo”|
|ua||wa||as u + a|
|uo, o||wo||as u + o where the o (compare with the o interjection) is pronounced shorter and lighter (spelled as o after b, p, m or f).|
|uai||wai||as u + ai like as in why|
|ui||wei||as u + ei;|
|uan||wan||as u + an;|
|un||wen||as u + en; like the on in the English won;|
|uang||wang||as u + ang;|
|ong||weng||starts with the vowel sound in book and ends with the velar nasal sound in sing; as u + eng in zero initial.|
|Finals beginning with ü- (yu-)|
|u, ü||yu||as in German “über” or French “lune” (To pronounce this sound, say “ee” with rounded lips)|
|ue, üe||yue||as ü + ê; the ü is short and light|
|uan||yuan||as ü + ê + n;|
|un||yun||as ü + n;|
|iong||yong||as i + ong|
|ê||(n/a)||as in “bet”.|
|o||(n/a)||Approximately as in “office” in British accent; the lips are much more rounded.|
|io||yo||as i + plain continental “o”.|
It can be quite exhausting and overwhelming to try to learn Pinyin from charts like this, which is precisely why we’ve made the Chinese Fridge game app. It’s far easier and more enjoyable to see the pinyin writing and hear it repeatedly as you match word game pieces with their respective meanings.
Remember above all else that Pinyin is merely an alphabet used to help teach phonetics, but can’t teach Chinese writing, nor can it be used as a substitute for writing Chinese. The best way to learn is to use both pinyin alongside Chinese characters, as pretty much every school and class in America does these days, from preschool to college.