Pronouncing Chinese tonesThere are many sounds that exist in Chinese which do not have an easy equivalent in English, French, Italian or other common European languages.

Wrestling with these sounds can be a big challenge for language learners and, in my experience, leads to many blank stares in small Chinese restaurants as the confused locals struggle to understand what you’re saying.

Whilst there is no obvious English equivalent of these sounds, they do actually occur in English conversation – you just need to know how to find them. Here are the most common sound combination errors, and how to pronounce them correctly. The letters used in the titles below come from pinyin spelling.

B and P

Mandarin experts tell me that Italian and French native speakers have the most trouble with these sounds. In Mandarin, B is not aspirated, whereas P is. This means that B is pronounced softly, but P is pronounced more forcefully with an exhalation of air. If you held a piece of paper in front of your face, the paper would stay still when you pronounce B, yet would move with the exhaled air when you pronounce P.

The P in pò 破, meaning to break, is pronounced with more force and air than the B in bēizi 杯子, meaning cup. Wǒ dǎpòle bēizi 我打破了杯子 – I broke the cup.

D and T

With D & T, T is aspirated – pronounced forcefully with air, whereas D is pronounced more softly.

For example, 打听 dǎtīng – to ask about or inquire – the ’T’ of tīng is pronounced more strongly than the D of dǎ.

J, Q and X

English native speakers have the most trouble with these letters, which seem quite new and strange to us.

J is pronounced like the “Jee”in Jeep. 几点了? Jǐ diǎnle? What’s the time?

Q is like “jee” but aspirated – pronounced with a sudden exhalation of air. 起床 Qǐchuáng, to get up out of bed.

X is like the sh in “she.” 休息 Xiūxi, to rest.

Z, C and S

More letters which English natives often trip up over.

Z is pronounced like at the start of “zero.” 他在家, Tāzàijiā. He’s at home.

C is pronounced harder, like the ts in “cats.” 做菜 Zuò cài, to cook.

S is like the “s”at the end of books. Think the hiss of a snake! 我三十岁 Wǒ sānshí suì. I’m 30 years old.

Zh, Ch and Sh

Zh is like the ‘ge’ at the end of orange. 我知道 Wǒ zhīdào. I know.

Ch is like the end of church. 吃饭了吗?Chīfànle ma? Have you eaten?

Sh is like at the end of wash or cash. 身体. Shēntǐ, body.

In the above examples when ‘I’ follows Zh, Ch or Sh, the ‘I’ is unpronounced and doesn’t effect the sound.

Zhi = Zh.

Chi = Ch.

Shi = Sh.

The next time you encounter these letter combinations in pinyin in your text book or Chinese dictionary, go back to the English examples above and it will be much easier for you to pronounce these sounds correctly.

If you’re interested in looking at a few more Chinese language resources that we recommend, check out our mini-series on How To Learn Chinese In 4 Weeks.

Interested in learning more about Chinese language? See our post on how to improve your Chinese by using these 10 free resources, or learn these useful Chinese phrases for daily life. Already learning, see our post on how to study the world’s most frustrating language.