With Pinyin – the Romanization of Chinese – it would be easy to think that Chinese pronunciation would be simple as there are Romanised ‘pronunciations’ of all of the sounds. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as there are many sounds in Pinyin for which the ‘best fit’ Romanisation has been selected, whereas in fact those sounds don’t exist in Romanic languages. These make up the most difficult sounds in Chinese to master but, fear not, we’re here to guide you…
X, J, Q – Tongue Behind Front Teeth!
X – x sounds like the word “she” but you put your tongue behind your front teeth and have a wider mouth.
Q – q resembles the “chee” in “cheese”. Again, your tongue would be behind your front teeth and your mouth wide.
J – j again requires your tongue to be behind your front teeth and mouth wide. There is no real English equivalent, so we’d suggest listening to some native pronunciation of the j sound in Chinese.
The above sounds also vary depending on which vowel follows the consonant. If you would like to hear some of these words pronounced, head over to our sample lessons to practice. You can click any word to bring up the live dictionary and can then click to hear the word. You can also listen to the human spoken audio in full using the audio control bar at the bottom of the lesson.
Hint: Use the Pinyin toggle to find the relevant words if you struggle recognising the characters!
Zh, Ch, Sh, R
The zh, ch and r sounds in Chinese are very similar to their English equivalents. Again, it takes some adjustment with your tongue and mouth position. For each of these sounds, take your tongue and place it behind your front teeth (further back than on the x, j and q sounds). You should then slightly curl your tongue on either side so that they both curl up to the roof of your mouth.
With your tongue in the above position you should be able to follow the English pronunciation roughly to make the sounds. Again, check our sample lessons for some examples!
Mastering these difficult sounds in Chinese will help you sound much more effective when speaking Chinese to native speakers. As always, practice is essential!
Heading on a trip to China? Why not read our top tips for guest etiquette in China?