Mandarin Sounds and Tones
Lesson 2

Initial Sounds

Most Mandarin initials are intuitive for native English speaking learners.  Below are a couple examples of sounds with the easier initial sounds.  Most of these will share the same final sound and tone.

B

D

F

G

H

K

L

M

N

P

R

T

W

Y

bang4 dang4 fang4 gang4 hang4 kang4 lang4 mang3 nang4 pang4 rang4 tang4 wang4 yang4
bao3 dao3 fan3 gao3 hao3 kao3 lao3 mao3 nao3 pao3 rao3 tao3 wan3 yao3

If you have difficulty with any of the above sounds, you can go to the Pinyin Chart for that initial sound by clicking on the letter above the sound examples.

Difficult Initials

Some of the initial sounds are more difficult for native English speakers than others.  The more difficult initials tend to be c, ch, q, s, sh, j, z, and zh.  Most of these are not really difficult in and of themselves, they are difficult because they are hard to distinguish from another sound in Mandarin.  Below these more difficult sounds will be contrasted with other initials what may sound similar.

Initials 'C', 'Ch', and 'Q'

The initial 'C' differs from 'Ch' and 'Q' more than the latter two differ from each other.  'C' is not pronounced like any C-sound in English, but rather as a sound similar to 'ts-'.  This is a sound that occurs in English at the end of words (e.g. 'dentists', 'mats', 'huts'), but not at the beginning.  Because of this, many speakers change it to sound like a 'Ch', which is a common English initial sound.

'Ch' and 'Q' essentially do sound like the initial 'Ch' in English.  However, the 'Ch' is a retroflex initial while 'Q' is not.  There are only 3 final sounds that 'Ch' and 'Q' have in common, the rest are split between them.  The chart below gives the three sounds which are shared by both 'Ch' and 'Q' as well as other sounds to contrast with the 'C' initial.

chi2

@

chu4

@

chun2

@

cai1

@

@

chai1

qi2

qu4

qun2

cao3

@

@

chao3

ci2

cu4

cun2

cuan4

@

@

quan4

Pay special attention to the sound in chi2 as opposed to qi2.  Retroflex initials add an "r" sound to the end of certain finals.  More will be said about that in a later lesson.

Initials 'S' and 'Sh'

'S' and 'Sh' are not actually difficult.  The one difficult things is that 'Sh' is a retroflex initial.  This means that final sounds following 'Sh' will be pronounced differently than final sounds that are not preceded by a retroflex initial.  The initial 'S' is used here as a contrast.

sha3

sa3

shao3

sao3

@

shun3

sun3

shai4

sai4

she4

se4

shuo1

suo1

shan1

san1

shui3

sui3

shi3

si3

shang1

sang1

sheng1

seng1

shuan1

suan1

Pay special attention to the sound in shi3 as opposed to si3.  Retroflex initials add an "r" sound to the end of certain finals.  More will be said about that in a later lesson.

Initials 'Z', 'Zh', and 'J'

The initial 'Z' differs from 'Zh' and 'J' more than the latter two differ from each other.  'Z' is not pronounced like any Z-sound in English, but rather as a sound similar to 'dz-'.  Some dialects of English will use this pronunciation for the "soft G" sound, but it still closely resembles an English "J".  Because of this, many speakers change it to sound like a 'J'.

'Zh' and 'J' essentially do sound like the initial 'J' in English.  However, 'Zh' is a retroflex initial while 'J' is not.  There are only 3 final sounds that 'Zh' and 'J' have in common, the rest are split between them.  The chart below gives the three sounds which are shared by both 'Zh' and 'J' as well as other sounds to contrast with the 'Z' initial.

zhi3

@

zhu1

@

zhun3

@

zai1

@

zhai1

ji3

ju1

jun3

zao3

@

@

zhao3

zi3

zu1

zun3

zuan4

@

juan4

Learning Helps

Practice and re-practice these sounds and tones.  Simply seeing them on paper or hearing them once will not help you, you must same them.  Pay particular attention to specific differences between tone levels and similar sounds.


Lesson 1 | Lesson 2

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