Pinyin is the most common system of using the Latin alphabet to write Mandarin Chinese. Pinyin is extremely helpful when you are starting out, as not only is it something that looks slightly more familiar than Chinese characters, but you also will be able to identify tones.
Do not get overly confident too soon.
Just because pinyin may look like English with the added tones to you, you will quickly learn that Mandarin contains many sounds that simply do not exist in English. Pinyin will require some work before you begin to master it.
Similar to English:
These consonants will be similar to how you would pronounce them in English:
f, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, s, t, w, y
These sounds will be slightly different than what you would expect but still common in English:
- b- a softer sound than the English “b”, resembling the “p” in “space.”
- d- a softer sound than the English “d”, resembling the “t” in “stick.”
- g-is like “g” in “get”, never “giant.”
Below are some sounds you may be unfamiliar with and will need some time and practice.
- c- like “ts” in hats
- ch- like “ch” in chat, but make sure your mouth is rounded, and place your tongue at the back of your mouth.
- q- a hybrid between the Pinyin “c” and “ch”, this is like “ch” in chat, but with the tongue closer to the front of your mouth.
- r- one of the more difficult sounds for non-native speakers, it will sound like a mix of the English “r” in rat and “z” in zoo. Think about curling your tongue as your teeth meet.
- sh- think of the “sh” in “shall”, but bring you tongue up to meet the top of your mouth as your lips close in a little.
- x- a hybrid between the Pinyin “s” and”sh”, think about placing the front of your tongue between your teeth.
- z and zh – The closest equivalent would be the letter ‘j’, so 中国 (zhōng guó, ie., “China”) is pronounced like “joong guo”, and 坐 (zuò, ie., “sit”) is pronounced a bit like “juo”. The difference is similar to the difference between ‘ch’ and ‘c’, where “zh” has more of a tongue sound, with the tongue placed further in the mouth (closer to the English ‘j’), and “z” has more of a teeth sound, with the tongue placed against the teeth.
The best way to master these unfamiliar sounds is to practice and listen. Whether this is background noise while you are cooking to active listening of Chinese television shows or popular movies, the more you listen, the more these sounds will begin to pick up in your head.