Learning Pin Yin

Saying Chinese words

This guideline on learning how to say Chinese words is taken from Usborne’s First Thousand Chinese Words.

To help students of Chinese, there is a standard system called pinyin which spells out the sounds of the words. Almost all Chinese language courses and Chinese-English dictionaries, as well as this book, use pinyin. Most of the sounds in pinyin are the same as English words, but there are some sounds in Chinese which are not like anything in English, and you can see how to say them on the page opposite.

In Mandarin Chinese there are four tones, which means that the vowel sounds a e i o u, or groups of vowels, can be said in different ways:

  • The first tone is high and level. In pinyin it is written ¯ as in (mother).
  • The second tone starts lower and then rises. It is written ´ ,as in chá (tea).
  • The third tone starts mid-range, falls and then rises. It is written ˘as in (drum)
  • The fourth tone starts high and then falls. It is written as ` , as in (big).
  • Some vowel sounds, often in the second syllable of a word, are pronounced without a particular tone and so are written without a tone mark. It is important to use the right tone as the same word can have quite different meanings when said with different tones – for instance, means “mother”, but means “horse”.
  • The best way to learn how to say Chinese words is to listen to someone who can speak Chinese and repeat what you hear.

Reading pinyin

Read the words as if you were reading English, but:

h has a harsher sound, like the Scottish ch in loch
q sounds like the ch in cheer
x sounds like the sh in shy
c sounds like the ts in cats
z sounds like the ds in heads

The next four are pronounced with your tongue rolled back:

ch sounds like the ch in cheer,
sh sounds like the sh in shy,
zh sounds like the dge in fudge
r sounds like the r in ring.

a sounds like the a in car
an sounds like the an in can’t
e sounds like the e in the or mother,
en sounds like the en in shaken,
i can sound like the ee in seen, or like the i in shirt, but
in sounds like the in in fin;
o sounds like the o in more, and
ong sounds like the ung in sung, but longer, more like soong.
u sounds like the oo in too
ü for this sound, round your lips to say oo, then try saying ee