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Pinyin: A Chinese Alphabet Learning System

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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:

Pinyin English approximation
Explanation
b spit unaspirated p, as in spit
p pay strongly aspirated p, as in pit
m may as in English mummy
f fair as in English fun
d stop unaspirated t, as in stop
t take strongly aspirated t, as in top
n nay as in English nit
l lay as in English love
g skill unaspirated k, as in skill
k kay strongly aspirated k, as in kill
h loch English h as in hay or, more closely in some American dialects, hero is an acceptable approximation. The best way to produce this sound is by very slowly making a “k” sound, pausing at the point where there is just restricted air flowing over the back of your tongue (after the release at the beginning of a “k”)
j churchyard No equivalent in English, but similar to an unaspirated “-chy-” sound when said quickly. Like q, but unaspirated. Not the s in Asia, despite the common English pronunciation of “Beijing”.
q punch yourself No equivalent in English. Like punch yourself, with the lips spread wide with ee. Curl the tip of the tongue downwards to stick it at the back of the teeth and strongly aspirate.
x push yourself No equivalent in English. Like -sh y-, with the lips spread and the tip of your tongue curled downwards and stuck to the back of teeth when you say ee.
zh junk Rather like ch (a sound between choke, joke, true, and drew, tongue tip curled more upwards). Voiced in a toneless syllable.
ch church as in chin, but with the tongue curled upwards; very similar to nurture in American English, but strongly aspirated.
sh shirt as in shoe, but with the tongue curled upwards; very similar to marsh in American English
r ray Similar to the English z in azure and r in reduce, but with the tongue curled upwards, like a cross between English “r” and French “j”.
z reads unaspirated c, similar to something between suds and cats; as in suds in a toneless syllable
c hats like the English ts in cats, but strongly aspirated.
s say as in sun
w way as in water.
y yea as in yes. Before a u, pronounce it with rounded lips.

 

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
uoo 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-)
uü 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
Interjections
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.

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