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Sensible Pinyin Course: Introduction and Pinyin Chart

This is part of our Sensible Pinyin Course. To see an overview of the course check out this Sensible Pinyin Course homepage

Just want to jump in? Start with Basic Vowels here. Make sure you download the pinyin chart from this page first though! 

What is pinyin?

Pinyin is the phonetic system used to transcribe Chinese into the Latin alphabet.

It is not an alphabet but instead a way to help non-Chinese pronounce Chinese. It’s also used to teach Chinese children (in Mainland China) before the characters are introduced. In a Chinese bookshop you’ll find that a lot of books aimed at children will have pinyin written above the characters to help with pronunciation – it’s a sort of stepping stone that allows a more gradual approach to Chinese literacy.

Why you need to learn it

There is debate about whether you, as an adult foreigner learning Chinese, should learn pinyin. It’s seen by some as an unnecessary crutch that stops you from digging in and using the Chinese characters. Worse, some think it teaches bad habits that will then take time to shake as an intermediate and advanced learner.

There’s some validity to these complaints but we’re going to go ahead and use this course to get a grounding in basic pinyin anyway. Why is that?

The main reason we’re going to ignore these experts is because they are experts. Sounds weird?

These guys know Chinese – they know a lot about it. The history of the language, its linguistic structure and development over time; the guys who knock pinyin are often experts in these kind of things. Good for them.

This expert status also means they don’t necessarily remember how incredibly hard it is to start off in Chinese. Those first couple of months tackling the tones, getting a sense of the pronunciation and (gasp) being introduced to the characters is already a nightmare.

Sure, pinyin is a “crutch” but during these couple of initial months having a crutch is not a bad thing, even if it’s not the most efficient way to learn.

Pinyin will allow us to start to imitate Chinese sounds and start to communicate with Chinese people in the shortest period of time possible. It’s a shortcut to starting to use and enjoy Chinese.

If you deny yourself this and instead decide to learn the characters straight off the bat (as purist experts may suggest) it’s going to take a lot longer to start enjoying  language. The result? You are more likely to throw up your hands and say “sod this, I’m going to play some video games instead.”

Starting out in Chinese is already a struggle so take any shortcut or life-aid you are offered, even if it will require you to fix some bad habits later. At least there will be a later – which there won’t be if you give up!

Just want to jump in? Start with Basic Vowels here.

Some basics about Pinyin

I’ll keep this short because Wikipedia actually has a great page about pinyin already. Sure, I could copy/paste stuff in here and look smart but it’s much better just to suggest you go check it out when you have some time. It goes into way too much detail though for practical purposes so just give it a scan.

Chinese sounds (and therefore pinyin) are made up of two pieces; an initial and a final.

For example the sound ba has the initial b- and the final -a

 b + a = ba. Easy.

All Chinese sounds are like these (except for a couple that are just the final by itself ie. a, e without an initial).

Initials are generally consonants (b, p, m, f etc.) and finals are generally vowels (a, e, i, o, u). I hesitate to say always because there are some finals like -an, -ing that have n/ng in them. We’ll look at these later though.

Because pinyin sounds are made of these combinations of initials and finals we can construct a wonderful chart of all the possible combinations. These are (imaginatively) called Pinyin Charts.

Here’s my pinyin chart (yes I have a personal pinyin chart…I know, I know I am that cool):

Sensible Pinyin Course: Introduction and Pinyin Chart

You can download the full sized PDF pinyin chart (plus pronunciation/tone guide) for free. The downloadable pinyin chart PDF can be printed and stuck on your wall as a useful reference. Click here to download.

The Pinyin Chart shows the finals along the top and the initials along the left hand side. All the possible sound combinations in Chinese are shown in the body of the chart. Notice the big blank spaces – these are sounds that don’t exist in Chinese.

The main reason for this is that there are some initials that are formed at the back of the mouth and some at the front of the mouth – the position of the tongue is different in each case. If the initial’s sound is made at the front of the mouth then the final must also be a similar “front sound” to exist. Don’t worry about understanding this now – it’s just a brief explanation of why there are so many gaps in the chart. In the future this will be useful.

Just want to jump in? Start with Basic Vowels here.

What about tones?

Tones are super important for Chinese pronunciation. That said, for now we going to ignore them. This is controversial so let me explain.

Starting to learn Chinese is hard. The first time you open a book you are confronted with a word like 你好. Even with the pinyin nǐhǎo there are a lot of  barriers in place before you even say your first word.

These barriers are the strange pronunciation system (pinyin), the tones and the characters. Trying to tackle all three of these at the same time is suicide. It’s possible to do but the chances are you’ll just get too frustrated and give up on this silly Chinese language. This happens to a lot of people and they go away and tell others that “Chinese is too hard” or “Chinese makes no sense”.

The problem is not that Chinese is necessarily hard. It’s more than a lot of the most difficult parts of Chines are presented in the very first hour of learning. European languages tend to keep these hard parts (normally grammatical structures) until later when you are a bit more ready. Not Chinese.

Chinese hits you with the hard stuff on day one and then becomes easier as you start to understand the logic of the language. But getting over that first hump is difficult.

So, to get over the initial hump I propose we do this. First we get a grip on Chinese pronunciation by using pinyin. Then we’ll add in the tones. Only after we are starting to get a grasp on spoken Chinese will we start to talk about the characters. We’ll deal with each of the difficult areas one at a time, get a decent grounding and then add the next one in on top of what we already know. This is what I like to call the Sensible approach to Chinese.

We learn one skill at a time, get it up and running and add another skill. If you’ve ever learned to juggle you know the only way is to build up from one ball to two to three and so on, each time using what you’ve already learned and increasing your skill by focusing on one skill at a time. Chinese is no different.

This means that for now we are going to really focus on pinyin. I should make a pinpoint focus related joke here but I’m too lazy. We’re going to get a grasp of the basic sounds of Chinese and be comfortable with the pinyin transliteration system.

When we are confident we’ll add in the tones. This doesn’t mean we’re going to ignore the tones for weeks and weeks – more like a few hours of your initial study. You can wait – there will be lots of fun to be had with tones later. Oh don’t you worry about that young padawan!

For practical purposes all the sounds in the subsequent sections will have the first tone. If you haven’t encountered the tones at all then all you need to know know is that the first tone is high and level – it sounds a little like you are singing the sound. The reason I’m choosing the first tone is because it is very clear and the sound of the initial and final is easy to understand.

Pinyin is not English

I’m going to ignore most of the traditional problems people have with pinyin (as explained above) but I do want to point out one important pitfall that can trap learners.

Pinyin is not English, no matter what it looks like.

Tattoo that (please don’t) to your writing hand. Maybe a post-it note instead.

Because pinyin uses the Latin alphabet our brains naturally assume that the sounds associated with the letters are the same as the ones we use in English (or Spanish, German, French, whatever your native language may be).

This is not the case. The Latin letters in pinyin are an approximation of the Chinese sounds. It wasn’t designed to mimic English or any particular European language. We just assume it does cause we (or at least our brains) think English is rad and of course it’s meant to be like English.

Perhaps the biggest problem here is that some of the letters used actually do sound like the English. This is a blessing and a curse. It makes these sounds easier for us to get a grasp on but it also lulls the learner into a false sense of security.

If b sounds like b in English then maybe this c sounds like the English c right? Wrong! The pinyin c sounds more like ts-, and even then that’s an approximation. It’s safer just to try to sever the connection between pinyin and the English alphabet as much as you can.

In every case always refer to the native recording of a sound and not the text that I’ve written. I’ll reiterate this through the course. Audio is King. If there’s a discrepancy between the text and audio always follow the audio.

How to use this course

Each page of this course will introduce some new sounds. Each page builds on the last so make sure you work through in order and have a good grasp of the earlier material. This said don’t get stuck trying to master any particular set of material – it’s better to keep moving and maintain a fast pace.

This foundation material should take a couple of hours tops to get through. If you feel yourself getting stuck don’t worry too much as the next sections will help you reinforce what you’ve already learned. Don’t try to master each section – just get comfortable and move on.

Each page will introduce the sounds and have some audio recordings. Listen to the recordings and repeat. Ideally have a Chinese native check your pronunciation. If you have someone with you whilst you study that’s great. If not you can find a language partner, record your voice whilst practicing and send the audio to them for feedback.

Alternatively check out WaiChinese to get a professional human teacher to provide feedback on Chinese pronunciation and tones all from a phone/web app – very convenient.

Each section has a quiz at the end. The quizzes are randomly generated so if you repeat a quiz the questions will be different. Use the quizzes to check your comprehension of the sounds before moving onto the next stage.

Let’s get started then with Basic Vowels in the next section.

This is part of our Sensible Pinyin Course. To see an overview of the course check out this Sensible Pinyin Course homepage