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Pronunciation and Pinyin – The Foundations of Chinese

This is part of our How to Learn Chinese. Check out the How to Learn Chinese homepage to get a lot more tips on how to learn Chinese.

Update: Our free Sensible Pinyin Course is now available. First read through this article to see why Pinyin is so important and then head over to the Sensible Pinyin Course Introduction when you are ready! 

Before tackling Chinese characters make sure you have a firm grip on pinyin pronunciation and the tones. Trying to juggle pronunciation, tones AND characters all at the same time is a nightmare.

Make your first few weeks go a little smoother by nailing each skill individually and then combining them.

If you’ve started learning Chinese already you might know the horror of the first chapter of a Chinese textbook. The majority of textbooks start with a brief introduction to pronunciation and the tones and then immediately start throwing complete words and dialogues at you.

Before you can even say your first word – which will likely be 你好 – you need to understand pronunciation, tones and (depending on your book) struggle with the characters 你 and 好. Oh, and on top of that you’ve got two third tones in 你好. The third tone is already the most tricky but when you add two together we’ll have to learn some fun tone change rules too! And then the first phrase you’ll learn – 我很好 – three third tones! Surprise!

This is a lot to take in during your first ever lesson. Chinese is very front heavy in terms of difficult content. The traditional textbooks do not help to soften the blow. Some may introduce pinyin initials and finals gradually chapter by chapter but by then they’ve also been giving you words and dialogues every chapter! These first couple of weeks are rough!

Rest assured Chinese does actually get easier! However, getting through the beginner’s material of pronunciation, tones and working out the characters a bit is a struggle.

What to do?

One thing that I really wish I had done is to get a firm foundation in pronunciation. Then add the tones. With pronunciation and tones locked down it’s possible to start communicating and having a bit of fun with the language. Then, and only then, tackle the characters.

Trying to deal with pronunciation, tones and characters all at the same time is a nightmare. It’s certainly possible, and it’s the way we’ve all been learning for the most part. But it’s something that needs to be fixed to help ease the path towards learning Chinese.

First things first – Pinyin

First, get a good grasp of pinyin. There are a number of learning resources suggested in this article. In short, get yourself a pinyin chart and work on recognizing and being able to replicate all ~440 of the sounds. 440 isn’t too many because the vast majority are very simple and if you are an English speaker you already know the equivalent sounds. Instead it’ll be a small minority that will pose the majority of the difficulty.

Here’s a copy of the first three sheets from the Hanzi Quick Reference Sheets- the PDF has a pinyin table, a pronunciation guide and a tone reference sheet. It’s available in Simplified and Traditional PDF. The full pack is available at Hanzi WallChart.

Here’s what it looks like:

Pronunciation and Pinyin - The Foundations of Chinese

Full  resolution version: Simplified and Traditional PDF.

Working with a teacher is the best way to do this. A couple of hours just drilling the pinyin table, getting corrections and improving your pronunciation is a great investment of your time and energy early on in learning Chinese. This should only take a few hours – I’m not advocating ignoring the tones and characters for weeks and weeks – this is just the first few hours of your Chinese education.
Update: Our free Sensible Pinyin Course is now available. First read through this article to see why Pinyin is so important and then head over to the Sensible Pinyin Course Introduction when you are ready! 

Then add the tones

Once you’ve got a grip on the basic pronunciation it is time to add the tones. The basic idea is to go through the pinyin table again (I know!) but adding the tone sounds until you can replicate them all. Again, this might take a couple of hours to really nail but it’s a wonderful investment.

After this it is time to move away from isolated sounds. This requires knowing a little about tone change rules (especially the 3rd tone) which is a stumbling block for early learners. This is just something you need to learn and practice I’m afraid. Thankfully there are only a couple of rules.

This blog article introduces the basics of Chinese tones and the idea of tone-pair drills.

It’s possible to do all of this in person with a teacher (or Chinese speaking friend) with a pinyin chart and then word lists. This is the best way to get human feedback. Without feedback there’s no way to correct your errors.

If you don’t have anyone to work with you might want to check out WaiChinese (note, since writing this I’ve joined the team at WaiChinese – I think it’s that good!). It’s an app that hooks you up with a real human teacher for human feedback of your pronunciation and tones.

Once you have these skills nailed down you can begin to communicate with people. Communicating should be prioritized over the characters for now. Being able to have fun with the language by chatting to people, listening to music and other non-character based methods is important.

Learning the characters is a more solitary process for the most part. Just you and your paper or Spaced Repetition System, drilling and memorizing them. You’ll be spending a lot of time with the characters – don’t worry! – so enjoy your time without the characters for now and use this time to get a real feel for the language.

There are lots of other resources on this site about pronunciation and tones. For now work with a pinyin chart or on WaiChinese to get the basics down before worrying about all the small details.

This is part of our How to Learn Chinese. Check out the How to Learn Chinese homepage to get a lot more tips on how to learn Chinese.