If you’re an English-speaker learning Chinese, we have good news for you. The Chinese Pinyin (phonetic) system can tell you the pronunciation of a Chinese character using the Latin alphabet. Chinese pronunciation isn’t as difficult as you might have thought.
However, there is still some phonology within Mandarin that isn’t represented by any letter of the Latin alphabet. Some consonants in Chinese Pinyin, such as C, Q, R, X, and Z, don’t represent the same sound as they do in English.
Let’s walk through these 5 letters.
If you’re looking for a good video course to help you learn, check out Fragrant Mandarin’s pinyin for beginners article!
In English, we know this letter to represent the /k/ or /s/ sound.
But in Mandarin, it’s pronounced /ts/, the same as the sound you hear on the end of the word “hats.”
Tongue placement: Touch your tongue to the top of your mouth just behind your top front teeth. Say /t/.
Now, say /s/. Same position right? The difference is that the tip of your tongue is touching the roof of your mouth for /t/, but for /s/ your tongue is curled, allowing air to move through.
To pronounce “c”, start by touching the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth to say /t/ and then slightly curling your tongue to pronounce /s/ in the same motion. This will give you the /ts/ sound.
Sorry! In Mandarin, “q” doesn’t make the /kw/ sound. It makes a very light version of the /ch/ sound.
It isn’t exactly the /ch/ sound though, and there aren’t any parts of an English word that mimic it’s sound.
Tongue placement: Touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth and say “choo choo” like a train.
See how there’s a big space between where your teeth and where your tongue touches the roof of your mouth? Now move your tongue closer to your teeth, as close to your teeth as possible without touching them. Now say “choo choo” with your tongue in that position.
You will notice how the sound becomes a very light version of /ch/, almost like the sound of a bird. This is the sound of the Mandarin “q”.
The sound for “r” doesn’t have any English equivalent. It’s sound sits between the English pronunciation of /r/ and /y/.
Tongue placement: Pronounce /r/. You’ll notice your tongue is curled against the roof of your mouth in the very back of your mouth.
Now, say /y/. Your tongue is still curled against the roof of your mouth, but in the very front of your mout.
Now, keep your tongue curled against the top of your mouth where you placed it for /y/.
With your tongue in this position, try to pronounce the English /r/ sound. This will give you the Chinese pronunciation for “r”.
Mandarin “x” also has no English equivalent. It’s sound is halfway between English /sh/ and /s/.
Tongue placement: Feel how your tongue curls in the back of your mouth for /sh/ and in the front of your mouth for /s/.
Now place your tongue halfway between these two positions, in the middle of your mouth.
Pronounce /sh/ from this position, and you will achieve the Mandarin “x” sound.
The Mandarin “z” is exactly like the /ds/ sound in “reads.”
This is a different sound than the /z/ sound in “zebra.” In English, /z/ can be pronounced without touching your tongue to the roof of your mouth. In Chinese, it can’t.
Tongue placement: Your tongue should be exactly where you would place it to say /d/.
Pronounce the /d/ and /s/ sound together in one motion, just as you would for “ds” in “reads.” Voila! You’ve got the Mandarin “z.”
Need help deciding which Chinese language school is best for you? Read our guide that helps you think through what factors to consider.