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Learn Chinese Pronunciation: the 80/20 Guide, Part 1

By Kah Joon Liow

"I want to learn Chinese but just give me the basics!"

That's what this Chinese pronunciation guide is all about. It's all that you need to know about the pinyin system of Chinese pronunciation to get by.

The 80% that's important. (Spend 20% of time to learn the 80% that's important.)

To speak Mandarin, the first thing is to learn Chinese pronunciation of words using the system known as pinyin.

Pinyin is the Romanized Chinese phonetic system and is the most effective aid to learn Chinese pronunciation today. (Romanized means using English alphabets.) Pinyin was invented in the 1950's so that anyone, especially English speaking people, could learn Chinese pronunciation easily.

Most of the letters in pinyin have the same sounds as letters of the alphabet - with only a few exceptions. It's really a very practical system that reduces the time it takes to learn Chinese words.

Can you imagine an English speaker trying to pronounce Chinese characters without pinyin?

First, "The Four Tones" of Chinese pronunciation

Chinese is a tonal language. This means each Chinese character is a syllable with a fixed tone. A different tone is a different Chinese character and hence a different meaning. To learn Chinese, you'll have to learn Chinese characters individually.

Chinese pronunciation involves four tones, each indicated by a tone mark. The tone marks are placed over the vowels. (If the letter "i has a tone mark over it, the dot is removed."

First Tone: a high, level tone represented by "- as in mā 妈 "mother"

Second Tone: a rising, questioning tone represented by "/ as in m 麻 "to have pins and needles"

Third Tone: a drawling tone falling then rising represented by "v as in mǎ '532; "horse"

Fourth Tone: a sharp falling tone represented by " as in m '554; "to scold"

Each syllable is written as a combination of consonants and vowels, plus the tone mark. Some syllables don't start with consonants. And the only consonants that come after vowels are are the nasal "n or "ng".

(From here on, I'm just going to use 1, 2 3, 4 to represent the four tones in Chinese pronunciation.)

You can see the importance of getting the tones right when you learn Chinese pronunciation to avoid misunderstandings and comic situations.

A friend of mine just learnt the Chinese words for "secretary "mi4 shu1 and instead said "mystery book "mi2 shu1". I bet you've heard stories like that of people.

It will take some time to get the tones right because they're not "natural to English speakers. Do your best when to pick up the tones when you learn Chinese, but don't be deterred. Eventually you'll get it. But just so you know, you don't have to be perfect.

I have American friends living in Shanghai who get by fine with a flat tone. Of course, breakdowns in communication arise now and then, but the Chinese people can see you're a foreigner learning the Chinese language (i.e. their language) and they"ll try hard to make sense of what you say.

So, they're doing all the "hard work"!

Want to learn Chinese? Get more 80/20 rules and tips to help you learn Chinese at

About The Author

Kah Joon Liow

Want to learn Chinese for pleasure and profit in less time? Like to creatively enhance your life with Chinese characters and symbols? Liow Kah Joon is your guide. Sign up for his free Chinese Symbols ezine at


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