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 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
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
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 má 麻 “to have pins and needles”
Third Tone: a drawling tone falling
then rising represented by “v” as in mǎ 马 “horse”
Fourth Tone: a sharp falling tone
represented by “\” as in mà 骂 “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”!