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My First Chinese Lesson

The Chinese language is for many people the reason to come to China. At the same time lots of people are being put off by the difficulty of learning and understanding it. If you wold like to learn some useful Chinese phrases before you visit our country, have a look at the overview below. It's not as hard as you might think!

Chinese Pronunciation

In general, pronunciation cannot be derived from looking at Chinese characters, although sometimes characters with common parts have similar pronunciation. Unlike other current written languages, Chinese characters are not primarily phonetic, and certainly not alphabetic, but pictographic or ideographic (displaying combinations of pictures or symbols to convey meaning) like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Hence there has needed to be a way of representing in writing the pronunciation of each character when teaching the language. Several systems have been used, but pinyin is the current standard way of writing Chinese pronunciation.

Alternative Pronunciation Systems

Before pinyin was developed there were other systems for writing the pronunciation of Chinese words using the English alphabet. The most notable is the Wade-Giles system, settled in 1892. However, since the standardization of the Chinese language in the latter half of last century, many of the pronunciations that these old systems represent are no longer valid in China (though there are many Wade-Giles names still in common use in Taiwan). For example Peking used to be a way to pronounce China’s capital, but now in China it is pronounced Beijing. Likewise Canton used to be a way to pronounce Guangdong, a province in the southeast of China. While superseded in China, some of these old pronunciations are still in common use around the world.

An English Speaker's Chinese Pronunciation System

In the tables below is a pronunciation system that is (roughly) true to standard Chinese pronunciation (without tones), but uses the letters of the English alphabet in an intuitive way, instead of assigning new sounds to the alphabet. This system uses the alphabet to represent Chinese sounds in a way that English speakers are familiar with. The system takes no time at all to use, and could be used as a quick guide to pronunciation for those unfamiliar with Chinese.

English

Pronounced Chinese
Hello Nee haoww 你好
How are you? Nee haoww mah? 你好吗
Good/ok Haoww
Not good Boo haoww 不好
Have you eaten? Nee chrr luh mah? 你吃了吗
I've eaten. Wor chrr luh 我吃了
I've not eaten yet. Wor hi may chrr 我还没吃
Good morning Dzaoww-shung haoww 早上好
Good afternoon Sshyah-woo haoww 下午好
Good evening Wan-shung haoww 晚上好
Bye-bye. Bye-bye 拜拜
See you later. Dzeye jyen 再见
What is your surname? (formal) Neen gway sshing? 您贵姓?
My surname is ... Wor sshing ... 我姓……
What's your name? (informal) Nee jyaoww shnn-muh ming-zuh? 你叫什么名字?
I'm called ... Wor jyaoww ... 我叫……
Do you want ...? Yaoww-boo-yaoww 要不要……?
I want ... Wor yaoww ... 我要……
I don't want ... Wor bu yaoww ... 我不要……
I want to go to... Wor yaoww chyoo... 我要去……
I want to go to the toilet. Wor yaoww chyoo tser-swor. 我要去厕所。
Where is ...? ... dzeye nah-lee? ……在那里?
Where is the bathroom? Sshee shoh jyen dzeye nah-lee? 洗手间在那里?
I'm hungry. Wor urr luh 我饿了
I'm thirsty. Wor ker luh 我渴了
I'm tired. Wor lay luh 我累了
What is this? Jer shrr shnn-muh? 这是什么?
This is ... Jer shrr ... 这是……
I like... Wor sshee-hwan... 我喜欢……
I don't like ... Wor boo-sshee-hwan ... 我不喜欢……
Please help me. Ching bung-joo wor 请帮助我
Have Yoh
Don't have May-yoh 没有
I have... Wor yoh... 我有……
Do you have...? Yoh-may-yoh...? 有没有……
Yes Shrr
No Boo-shrr 不是
Right/correct Dway
Wrong/incorrect Boo-dway 不对
No, thanks Boo-yong luh, sshyeah 不用了,谢
Thank you Sshyeah-sshyeah 谢谢
You are welcome Boo-yong sshyeah 不用谢
Excuse me/sorry Dway-boo-chee 对不起
I don't understand Wor ting boo-dong 我听不懂
1 Ee
2 Urr
3 San
3 yuan/RMB (formal) San ywen 三元
3 yuan/RMB (informal) San kwhy 三块
4 Srr
5 Woo
6 Lyoh
7 Chee
8 Bah
9 Jyoh
10 Shrr
11 Shrr-ee 十一
20 Urr-shrr 二十
23 Urr-shrr-san 二十三
100 Ee-bye 一百
125 Ee-bye-urr-shrr-woo 一百二十五
How much money (does it cost)? Dwor-sshaoww chyen 多少前
Too expensive Tie gway luh 太贵了
How long (time)? Dwor jyoh? 多久
One hour (hour) Ee-guh sshyaoww-shrr 一个小时
2 hours Lyang (urr) guh sshyaoww-shrr 两个小时
30 minutes San-shrr fnn-jong 三十分钟
What time? / What's the time? Jee-dyen jong 几点种
07:00 Ling-chee dyen jong 零七点种
14:30 Shrr-srr dyen san-shrr 十四点三十

 

According to this system, Beijing would be written Bayjing and Guangdong would be written Gwungdong. Although the pronunciation is instantly recognizable, in cases like the Chinese word yue, written youair for ease of pronunciation recognition, the system is not as efficient as pinyin in the number of letters used. There is also the conundrum of how to represent the ow in cow, without it being mistaken for the ow in low. Pinyin is a more efficient system. It only takes a few hours to learn, and is well worth it.

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

The International Phonetic Alphabet could also be used to represent Chinese pronunciation (see the pinyin pronunciation tables below), but it requires a ready knowledge of the symbols. Though more efficient and foolproof than trying to mimic Chinese sounds with an intuitive combination of English letters, it is not as easy to write, either by hand or typing. Therefore pinyin is a better system.

Pinyin

Pinyin means to join together, or spell out, sounds. Pinyin was developed for Chinese speakers and those learning standard Chinese pronunciation, and is an efficient way of representing Chinese sounds with the Roman alphabet. It serves the same purpose as the international phonetic symbols used in dictionaries to show how English words are pronounced.

Pinyin was developed during the People’s Republic of China era (from 1949). It was first approved by the Chinese government in 1958, and the International Organization for Standardization adopted it as a world standard in 1982.

It is obvious that pinyin wasn’t developed for, and is often misunderstood by, the English-speaking world. This is in evidence whenever English speakers try to pronounce pinyin words without any previous study. About half the time letters in pinyin represent different sounds from what they would in a typical English word, and most of the time the vowels have peculiar sounds.

Pinyin is a very useful tool to learn to get around China. The Chinese view their characters as the true Chinese written language, but pinyin can be seen on many maps, road signs, and other notices. Pinyin is much easier to learn, use and remember than characters, particularly if tones are ignored. Pinyin notation can be thoroughly learnt in a few hours (though the tongue may not be fully trained in that time - that takes days or weeks of practice), but a working knowledge of Chinese characters (3,000 characters for basic literacy) takes years of hard study.

Tones

All Chinese words have a tone of some sort. The Chinese language has four pronounced tones, which in pinyin are marked with a little symbol above the vowel to which they relate, and a short, less pronounced tone, called the ‘light tone’, which is given no tonal marker (see table below).

Tone number Tone name Tone symbol Alternative tone name
Tone 1 high tone ā soprano tone
Tone 2 rising tone á enquiring tone
Tone 3 falling rising tone ă sarcastic tone
Tone 4 falling tone à emphatic tone
No tone number light tone a (no symbol) quiet tone

 

The tones could also be given alternative names according to what they sound like in English. It would seem from these names that one can’t convey meaning by one’s tone of voice in Chinese, as it is tied to standard pronunciation. However, this is not the case.

Often spoken Chinese is so fast that it is difficult to pick out individual tones. Overemphasizing or mispronouncing tones as a beginner can sound quite hideous. Including tones (though vital to true pinyin) makes writing or typing Chinese a more tedious process. So, Chinese words, when adopted into other languages, are relieved of their tones. For these reasons, in this pronunciation guide, and the majority of this website, we ignore tones when writing “pinyin”.

Chinese Syllables

The standard unit of the Chinese language is the syllable. Each Chinese character is spoken as one syllable. Chinese words are made up of one, two or more characters and hence one, two or more syllables. Each syllable is either a ‘final’ or an ‘initial’ followed by a ‘final’.

There are only 413 syllables in common use, which represent thousands of Chinese characters (see below). 

    1. a, ai, an, ang, ao
    2. ba, bai, ban, bang, bao, bei, ben, beng, bi, bian, biao, bie, bin, bing, bo, bu
    3. ca, cai, can, cang, cao, ce, cei, cen, ceng, cha, chai, chan, chang, chao, che, chen, cheng, chi, chong, chou, chu, chua, chuai, chuan, chuang, chui, chun, chuo, ci, cong, cou, cu, cuan, cui, cun, cuo
    4. da, dai, dan, dang, dao, de, dei, den, deng, di, dian, diao, die, ding, diu, dong, dou, du, duan, dui, dun, duo
    5. e, ê, ei, en, er
    6. fa, fan, fang, fei, fen, feng, fo, fou, fu
    7. ga, gai, gan, gang, gao, ge, gei, gen, geng, gong, gou, gu, gua, guai, guan, guang, gui, gun, guo
    8. ha, hai, han, hang, hao, he, hei, hen, heng, hm, hng, hong, hou, hu, hua, huai, huan, huang, hui, hun, huo
    9. ji, jia, jian, jiang, jiao, jie, jin, jing, jiong, jiu, ju, juan, jue, jun
    10. ka, kai, kan, kang, kao, ke, kei, ken, keng, kong, kou, ku, kua, kuai, kuan, kuang, kui, kun, kuo
    11. la, lai, lan, lang, lao, le, lei, leng, li, lia, lian, liang, liao, lie, lin, ling, liu, long, lou, lu, luo, luan, lun, lü, lüe
    12. m, ma, mai, man, mang, mao, mei, men, meng, mi, mian, miao, mie, min, ming, miu, mo, mou, mu
    13. n, na, nai, nan, nang, nao, ne, nei, nen, neng, ng, ni, nian, niang, niao, nie, nin, ning, niu, nong, nou, nu, nuo, nuan, nü, nüe
    14. o, ou
    15. pa, pai, pan, pang, pao, pei, pen, peng, pi, pian, piao, pie, pin, ping, po, pou, pu
    16. qi, qia, qian, qiang, qiao, qie, qin, qing, qiong, qiu, qu, quan, que, qun
    17. ran, rang, rao, re, ren, reng, ri, rong, rou, ru, rua, ruan, rui, run, ruo
    18. sa, sai, san, sang, sao, se, sei, sen, seng, sha, shai, shan, shang, shao, she, shei, shen, sheng, shi, shou, shu, shua, shuai, shuan, shuang, shui, shun, shuo, si, song, sou, su, suan, sui, sun, suo
    19. ta, tai, tan, tang, tao, te, teng, ti, tian, tiao, tie, ting, tong, tou, tu, tuan, tui, tun, tuo
    20. wa, wai, wan, wang, wei, wen, weng, wo, wu
    21. xi, xia, xian, xiang, xiao, xie, xin, xing, xiong, xiu, xu, xuan, xue, xun
    22. ya, yan, yang, yao, ye, yi, yin, ying, yong, you, yu, yuan, yue, yun
    23. za, zai, zan, zang, zao, ze, zei, zen, zeng, zha, zhai, zhan, zhang, zhao, zhe, zhei, zhen, zheng, zhi, zhong, zhou, zhu, zhua, zhuai, zhuan, zhuang, zhui, zhun, zhuo, zi, zong, zou, zu, zuan, zui, zun, zuo