How to Pronounce Tricky Sounds in the Chinese Language

5 of 10 in Series: The Essentials of Chinese Words and Phrases for Traveling

The Chinese language has some distinct sounds that are can be tricky to pronounce. To be understood in Chinese, you need to know how to pronounce these sounds, which tend to give English speakers some trouble. Once you get the hang of it, the Chinese sound system isn’t as difficult as you may have thought.

Tricky vowel sounds

Vowel sounds can be especially troublesome. The table gives you some pronunciation cues so you have something to compare them to in English.

Vowel English Equivalent Example in Chinese
a The "a" in father. māma (mother)
e The "e" in bed or yes. yĕ (also)
e The sound you make if someone punches you in the stomach. hé (river); è (hungry)
i The "ee" sound in me or tea. tí (kick)
i Like the "schwa" sound, but made in the back of your throat. Only follows s, c, and z. sì (four)
o Like the "aw" sound in bald or bawdy. wŏ (me, I)
u Like the "oo" sound in moon or group. lù (street) bù (no; not)
ü Someone once said it is like saying an "ee" through an "oo" hole. Only j, x, q, and y. yú (fish) yŭ (rain) qù (go)

Tricky consonants

Some consonant sounds can be really tricky either because there is a subtle difference with the English sounds or because English doesn’t have the same sound. The following table highlights some.

Consonant Sound in English Example in Chinese How to
zh A "j" sound, but with your tongue curled up toward the roof of your mouth. zhĭ (paper) Keep the lips relaxed for the Chinese sound.
ch A "ch" sound, but with your tongue curled up to the roof of your mouth. chī (eat) Same as zh.
sh An "sh" sound, but with your tongue curled up to the roof of your mouth. shì (be); shí (ten) Same as zh.
j A "j" sound. jĭ (several) Your tongue is down behind your bottom teeth, and your lips are unshaped.
q A "ch" sound. qí (ride) Same as the j.
x A "sh" sound. xiăo (small) Same as j and q.
z "dz," as in suds. zăo (early)
c "ts," as in cats. căo (grass)
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The Essentials of Chinese Words and Phrases for Traveling

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