How to Improve Your Mandarin Chinese Pronunciation

As China becomes a leading world power of the 21st century, Mandarin is becoming an important language to know. Whether you're in business, politics, or another field, a basic knowledge of Mandarin can help you a lot. One of the hardest parts of learning Mandarin is the pronunciation. There have been several competing Romanization systems, and each is true in its own way. This article explains Mandarin pronunciation using the Hanyu Pinyin system now used in China.


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    Find someone from China to help you with tones! There are four main tones: ā, á, ǎ, à. (flat, rising, falling/rising, falling).
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    First tone is a high, flat tone. In pinyin, this is written as ā.
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    The second tone is most similar to the tone used to ask a question in English, as in "You asked who?". It starts in the middle of the voice and rises. In pinyin, second tone is written like á.
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    The third tone is a deeper rising sound. The tone starts low, and then rises. It is differentiated from a second tone because it starts lower, dips down just a little, and then rises. The closest approximation in English is probably "huh?" when said in disgust. In pinyin, third tone is written ǎ.
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    Fourth tone starts high and falls rapidly. It is the shortest tone. It sounds like an emphatic "No!" Sometimes fourth tone is described as a "scolding" tone because it is terse and quick.
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    Technically, there is a fifth or "neutral/zero" tone. Particles and the second syllables in some words lack a tone. The exact tone that these syllables take depends on the tone that came in the previous syllable, but the neutral tone is always short, about half the length of a full syllable. If it was a first tone, the neutral tone is a little lower than the first tone. If it is after a second tone, the neutral tone is near the same pitch as the high end of the second tone. If it is after a third tone, it is after a little higher than the end of the third tone. If it is after a fourth tone, the neutral tone is a little lower than the end of the fourth tone. Neutral tone words are not marked with anything in pinyin.
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    Learn the Pinyin alphabet. (Note that the letters are not pronounced as in English and that the pinyin is very different from English spelling!)
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    Consonants: B (bo) P (po) M (mo) F (fo) D (de) T (te) N (ne) L (le) G (ge) K (ke) H (he) J (ji) Q (qi) X (xi) ZH (zhi) CH (chi) SH (shi) R (ri) Z (zi) C (ci) S (si) Y (yi) W (wu)
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    Vowels. A (a) O (uo) E (e) I (i) U (wu) Ü (üe) AI (ai) EI (ei) UI (uei) AO (ao) OU (ou) IU (iu) IE (ie) ÜE (üe) ER (er) AN (an) EN (en) UN (un) ANG (ang) ENG (eng) ING (ying) ONG (ong)
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    Tonal accents go over the a, o, e, i, u , ü-- in this order. So, if a word has both A and I in it, such as XIA, the accent goes over the A when written. Exception: When U and I are in the same word, the accent goes over U.


  • If you are trying to sound more like you studied near Beijing make sure that your h's, as in hao and heng, are from the throat like the h is pronounced in German.
  • X and SH may also initially sound similar to English speakers. SH pronunciation is very similar to English, but when pronouncing X the tip of the tongue should be almost touching the bottom gum line.
  • J and ZH often sound similar, but J is pronounced with the tongue near the back of the teeth similar to English, and ZH is pronounced with the tongue touching the roof of the mouth and being somewhat curled.
  • Because the number of distinct sounds is so limited, tones and context are very important to convey meaning. Many Chinese proverbs and jokes are based off of the high rate of homophones and homonyms; if one word is pronounced with the wrong tone it could potentially change the meaning of the entire sentence, often in an insulting or confusing manner.
  • In words that are ian, like xian, it is said like the letters E N.
  • Q and CH is similar to J and ZH in that the tongue should be touching the roof of the mouth for CH and the back of the teeth for Q.
  • The pronunciation of certain vowels changes depending on the preceding consonant. J, Q, and X are ONLY used before I and U. When before a U, the U becomes a ü, but is still written as U. When before an X, the I (which is supposed to be pronounced ih) becomes an "ee." So, XI is pronounced "see/shee", whereas SI is "sih".
  • Choose early on what it is that you want out of Chinese.
  • J, Q, and X are probably the hardest to pronounce.
  • To properly pronounce the r you need to curl your tongue towards the middle of the roof of your mouth and just make the r sound. Begin by folding your tongue (as if you're pronouncing a Spanish or Korean r), but stop midway (don't touch the roof of your mouth). The sound is almost close to the soft "j" sound found in French, but with a harder "r" sound.
  • For the Pinyin Vowels, they are pronounced in ONE SYLLABLE. ex. For, UN, don't say oo...en. Say ooen, in one syllable.
  • The ü is said like eww (when something is gross) except your lips are in a small "o" shape. Try practicing by starting with holding out the "eh" sound like from the English word "bed," and then bringing the corners of your lips closer together making the "o" shape.
  • The consonant w is said without the weh sound, more like oo. Like when you see something that is interesting.
  • Remember, while some sound may seem so similar as to be interchangeable to non-Mandarin speakers, to native speakers of the language these sounds are clearly distinct so it's really important to work to hear the difference between these sound early on in your study of the language.
  • Listen to as much spoken Mandarin as possible. Chinese or Taiwanese dramas may be a fun way to do this.


  • When using a pinyin-based input method for typing Chinese, "ü" is often typed using the "v" key. For example, "nü" (woman) can be typed as "nv".
  • When talking about China in English, you can try to approximate how it sounds in Chinese. Do not say "Beijing" as "Beizhing" (with the "s" of "measure") anymore. It's better to approximate the "j" of Chinese with the "j" sound of English, even if they are a bit different.
  • Don't confuse the Hanyu pinyin system with the various other systems of Romanization for Mandarin, especially if you go to Taiwan or Hong Kong or read older books on topics related to China. For example, the Wade Giles system was very popular before Hanyu pinyin became standard, so you will find the capital of Taiwan spelled as "T'aipei" for example, although it now should be written as "Taibei" according to the Hanyu Pinyin system.

Things You'll Need

  • A dictionary (dictionaries follow the English alphabet). Online dictionaries include: Zhongwen[1], Yellowbridge [2], and Nciku [3].
  • A Chinese person: The best way to learn is to hear it from a native speaker. Bear in mind that speakers who are not from Beijing and the other Mandarin-speaking parts of China may not have standard accents because Mandarin may not be their native dialect/language.
  • Keep in mind that Mandarin as a standard dialect/language is a recent phenomenon: older speakers, especially in Cantonese-speaking areas, may consider it just as foreign a tongue as you do. Every speaker will speak with their own regional flavor derived from the local slang and whatever dialect/language they were first taught.
  • Patience and Dedication: Mandarin is very hard to learn for English speakers. Nevertheless, take heart that people have succeeded before you in learning this difficult and fascinating language.

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Categories: Accuracy | Chinese