Chinese Pronunciation : Pinyin is Not English

Don’t get me wrong, pinyin is a god-send for early Chinese language learning. You can use pinyin to get up and running and communicating in basic Chinese much faster than if you had to rely on characters.

However, the fact that pinyin looks like English causes confusion. Furthermore, the fact that some of the letters carry the same sound as English whilst others do not adds more complexity.

For example the pinyin b- is basically the same as the English b- sound. The pinyin c- though sounds nothing like our letter “c” and instead would be more closely approximated as a hissed “ts” sound. There’s no real consistency so the best approach to take is to assume that pinyin is nothing like English and try to break all associations with the English alphabet.

Otherwise you’ll end up with a large number of underlying mispronunciations like the very common mistakes of 很 hěn sounding like the English “hen” (as in female chicken hen).

To break associations use native recordings whenever reading a word in pinyin. Try to never read pinyin without also hearing it being said. Electronic dictionaries like Pleco have natural voice recordings (don’t use computer voices unless you want to sound like an answering machine!).

If you are still at an early stage take a decent amount of time to work on pinyin. It’s generally rushed through in the first chapter of a textbook and its intricacies never really explained. Having a firm grasp on the system and the subtle differences between j and ch, u and ü etc.

Get into good habits early by using a pinyin course that has a lot of native recordings and that carefully explains how to explain the different sounds. I’ve prepared a course over at Sensible Chinese that carefully goes through pinyin and makes sure you have a thorough. It’s totally free and available here: Sensible Chinese Pinyin Course.

If possible sit down with a native speaker (or find a free language exchange partner or paid teacher on iTalki) and have them run through the pinyin system with you.

Here is a pinyin chart (basically a chart than contains every combination of Pinyin sounds possible) that you can use for this practice. The basic process is to listen to them, repeat what they said and receive correction until you get it right. This is the basic feedback loop of all language learning. Getting as many corrections as possible is the only way you are going to successfully learn a language so make sure you find a language partner or someone you can work with for all of the advice in this book.

In fact I’m so militant on the idea of feedback and working with a native speaker that I’ve written another short free eBook that’s available here: Speak Chinese Today.