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80/20 Guide to Chinese Pronunciation -- Part 1

By Kah Joon Liow

"Just give me the basics!"

That's what this Chinese pronunciation guide is all about.

It's all that you need to know Chinese pronunciation to get by.

The 80% that's important.

To speak Mandarin, the first thing to learn is Chinese pronunciation of words using the system known as pinyin.

Pinyin is the Romanized Chinese phonetic system and is the most effective aid to learning Mandarin today.

(Romanized means using English alphabets.)

Pinyin was invented in the 1950's so that anyone, especially English speaking people, could learn Chinese pronunciation easily.

Most of the letters in pinyin have the same sounds as letters of the alphabet - with only a few exceptions.

It's really a very practical pronunciation system.

Can you imagine an English speaker trying to pronounce Chinese characters without pinyin?

(By the way, pinyin is less complicated that the other forms of Romanization for Chinese pronunciation, Wade-Giles and Yale.)

First, "The Four Tones"

Chinese is a tonal language.

Each Chinese character is a syllable with a fixed tone.

A different tone is a different Chinese character and hence a different meaning.

Chinese pronunciation involves four tones, each indicated by a tone mark.

The tone marks are placed over the vowels. (If the letter "i has a tone mark over it, the dot is removed."

First Tone: a high, level tone represented by "- as in mā 妈 "mother"

Second Tone: a rising, questioning tone represented by "/ as in m 麻 "to have pins and needles"

Third Tone: a drawling tone falling then rising represented by "v as in mǎ '532; "horse"

Fourth Tone: a sharp falling tone represented by " as in m '554; "to scold"

Each syllable is written as a combination of consonants and vowels, plus the tone mark. Some syllables don't start with consonants. And the only consonants that come after vowels are are the nasal "n or "ng".

(note: from here on, I'm just going to use 1, 2 3, 4 to represent the four tones)

You can see the importance of getting the tones right to avoid misunderstandings and comic situations.

A friend of mine just learnt the words for "secretary "mi4 shu1 and instead said "mystery book "mi2 shu1"

I bet you've heard stories like that.

It will take some time to get the tones right cause they're not "natural to English speakers.

(English is my first language and I went through the same process even though I'm an Overseas Chinese.)

Don't be put off by the tones.

Eventually you'll get it. But just so you know, you don't have to be perfect.

I have American friends living in Shanghai who get by fine with a flat tone.

Of course, breakdowns in communication arise now and then, but the Chinese people can see you're a foreigner learning Chinese (i.e. their language) and they"ll try hard to make sense of what you say.

So, they're doing all the "hard work"!

Get the rules and tips of using pinyin at

About The Author

Kah Joon Liow

Want to learn Chinese for pleasure and profit in less time? Like to discover the culture of Chinese characters and enhance your life? Liow Kah Joon is your guide. Sign up for his free Chinese Symbols ezine at


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