In this lesson on Chinese pronunciation, we will:
Resources for further reading:
While Chinese might look a bit scary, we want to make sure your Chinese learning experience is the complete opposite of scary by approaching important grammatical and structural topics with plenty of examples and sentences that you can use in real life.
Being able to speak the language in any circumstance makes it less intimidating, and certainly helps boost your confidence! With Chinese becoming increasingly popular around the world, we are here to provide you with the right kind of knowledge and cultural insights, so you can have fun practicing. So without any further ado, let’s get started!
Now, if you haven't already noticed, Chinese is not an alphabet-based language. This means that words are not made of letters. So how are words formed? Well, with characters! Each Chinese “character” or 汉字 (Hànzì) is one syllable, and it takes up one full space on your digital device (whereas each Latin letter takes up half of a full space).
Words can also be comprised of “morphemes”, or 语素 (yǔsù), which are the smallest meaningful unit of a language. Morphemes can consist of one character or of more than one. Complicated? Don’t worry, we’ll dive right into some examples soon to illustrate.
Rocket Record lets you perfect your Chinese pronunciation. Just listen to the native speaker audio and then use the microphone icon to record yourself. Once you’re done, you’ll get a score out of 100 on your pronunciation and can listen to your own audio playback. (Use a headset mic for best results.) Problems? Click here!
morphemes (smallest meaningful unit of a language)
Let’s break down the word 汉字 (Hànzì) as an example. A single character is called a 字 (zì) while the character in front of it, 汉 (Hàn), actually depicts the biggest racial group in China, who are 汉人 (Hànrén), or “Chinese people.” When you put 汉 (Hàn) and 字 (zì) together, you get the word that means “Chinese characters.”
Chinese / Han
Here’s another modern-day example to help you grasp the concept.
One of the words for “computer” is 电脑 (diànnǎo), which is comprised of two characters: 电 (diàn) and 脑 (nǎo). Interestingly, the second character 脑 (nǎo) means “brains,” and the first character 电 carries the meanings of “electricity” and “electronics” when it is put with other characters in a word.
electricity / electronics
As we go along, you will see us providing “literal” meanings or translations from time to time to help you recognize what each character means. For now, just remember that each character represents a meaning, and we can put these characters together to create words and sentences.
Now it’s time to take a look at the other type of structure in a Chinese word: morphemes.
Morphemes are the most basic meaning-bearing unit that you can find in the Chinese language. They could be one character (one syllable) or more (more than one syllable). While a 字 (zì) is a single character, a morpheme can be two words or sometimes more that together formulate a meaning.
For example, these characters below all make up morphemes:
For the morphemes that are made up of more than one character, you can’t really separate the characters because they only carry the particular meaning when put together. Good examples of this are “tulip” and “daikon.”
daikon / Asian radish
At the same time, there are also “free morphemes.” These occur when the character in a morpheme can appear on its own with an individual meaning. For example, the word 蛋 (dàn) means “eggs” on its own and the word 糕 (gāo) means “pastries” on its own. But when you put them together, 蛋糕 (dàngāo) means “cakes.” Makes sense, right?
So now you know that Chinese in written form is actually no more than characters and morphemes. Nothing terribly hard on its own, really. The tricky part is learning how to recognize characters and pronounce them, which brings us to the topic of the next section: pinyin!
When native speakers start learning Chinese at home and at school, they don’t immediately start writing or reading the characters. In fact, when natives encounter a new character that they are not familiar with, they use 拼音 (pīnyīn) to help with the correct pronunciation and tone.
Let’s take the word 拼音 (pīnyīn) itself as an example. The Latin letters “pin” and “yin” indicate the pronunciation, while the accent marks above the vowels show you the tone they should be spoken in (in this case, it’s the first tone).
If we step back a little and look at the word 电脑 (diànnǎo) again, you will find that in 电 (diàn), the fourth tone is indicated with a ˋon top of the letter “a”, while in 脑 (nǎo), the third tone is indicated with a ˇ on the letter “a.”
Can you hear the difference in tone? Let’s find out more.
Chinese is different from alphabetic languages in that its written form is not directly related to its pronunciation.
The audible units of modern Chinese are "syllables" made up of three parts:
Chinese is a "tonal language", which means that the way a sound is pronounced directly affects its meaning. Other languages use tone as well, but in a different way; for example, in English, tone is used to convey the attitude or feeling of a speaker or whether they are making a statement, question, warning or command. Try saying these two examples aloud:
In the first example, you would have had a high tone to show that it’s a question, as in “Do you want some water?”
Whereas in the second example, you would have had a flatter tone to show that it’s a statement, not a question.
When writing, we use the following accent marks on the main vowel to indicate tone:
Neutral tone appears significantly less often than the other four, so we will be learning only the first to the fourth tones in this lesson.
For now, let's take a look at how things work. Let’s take the morpheme “ma” and hear it in the four different tones:
See how the meaning changes with each tone? Let’s try a few more:
short (when describing a person's height)
Sometimes you might see numbers used directly after the tonal vowel, instead of an accent. For example:
妈 (ma1) “mother”
麻 (ma2) “hemp”
马 (ma3) “horse”
骂 (ma4) “to curse”
埃 (a1i) “dust”
癌 (a2i) “cancer”
矮 (a3i) “short”
爱 (a41) “love”
Notice how the number comes right after each tonal vowel instead of at the end of every syllable? It’s the same as using accent marks to indicate the tone. But don’t worry too much about this, computers usually automatically display tones where they should be.
What you should keep in mind is that a difference in tone with the same pronunciation can drastically change the meaning of the character. The last thing you want is “I love you” to sound like “I cancer you!” So definitely try to do your best in distinguishing the tones in Chinese. But hey, this part really is as hard as spoken Chinese gets, so now that you know this, you know where and how to be accurate.
China has 56 recognized ethnic groups, using as many as 80 different languages. 汉语 (Hànyǔ), literally "Han (people)'s language", refers to the standard Chinese language, i.e., Mandarin Chinese, and is spoken by Han, Hui, Manchu and other ethnic groups that constitute over 90 percent of the population of China.
Chinese includes variants from seven main dialect groups. The northern or Mandarin dialect group covers over half of China's territory, is used by two thirds of the population and includes the dialect spoken in Beijing, the capital of PR China.
Standard Chinese is also known by its official designation, 普通话 (Pǔtōnghuà) “Putonghua”, which literally means "common speech." While the provinces and sometimes sub-regions have their own dialects, 普通话 (Pǔtōnghuà) “Putonghua” is the dialect of Chinese that is used by all institutions in China and is taught as the international standard - including by us here at Rocket Chinese!
Did you know that many languages around the world coexist with regional dialects? This can happen when a base language is spoken over a vast geographical area and people from different parts of this area start to develop their own ways of speaking. For Mandarin Chinese, this couldn't be more true, as it is a language used by more than 1 billion people scattered across a country that is 9.6 million kilometers square (3.7 million miles square)!
While we teach the Beijing dialect in all our Rocket Chinese courses, there are a few other dialects that might give you an insight into the diverse nature of Chinese culture. Let’s take a brief look at three of these dialects.
The first one is Cantonese. You may have already come across it if you've been bitten by the Asian film bug! This is because Cantonese is the dialect spoken in Hong Kong (as well as in Macau and Guangdong Province). Hong Kong has given the world some of cinema's best, from director Wong Kar-Wai to movies stars such as Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. And of course, there's the ultimate kung fu icon, Bruce Lee. Besides films, immigrants from Hong Kong to all over the world in earlier decades also played major roles in establishing Chinese communities (for example, building "Chinatowns") in the cities they later called home.
Another two dialects worth mentioning are Hokkien and Hakka. These two were originally spoken by people from Southeast China in impoverished places. As more and more peasants sought to build lives outside of China, they moved away to Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and other islands, bringing these dialects with them to spread across Southeast Asia.
An interesting benefit from being familiar with these dialects has to do with reciting classical poetry, which might come as a surprise to many. But bear with us. Chinese is a strictly tonal language, and the rules for composing classical poetry in the old days (we're talking about centuries ago) are some of the strictest to be found in comparative literature. Each character occupying each position in a poem is designated a certain tone, and they must be both written and recited according to these rules. While modern Mandarin Chinese went through some standardization and other changes over time, dialects such as Cantonese, Hokkien and Hakka have stayed close to the Chinese that was spoken when those literature classics were created. Thus, it is more accurate to read this beautiful poetry aloud in these dialects than it is to read it in Mandarin Chinese, for many characters now have different tones in Mandarin Chinese than they used to.
Zooming out to a more international perspective, these dialects have now been in the families of immigrants for generations. So it is not uncommon for a second-, third- or even fourth-generation Chinese immigrant to speak these dialects, but not a word of Mandarin Chinese! Whether it's in China, North America or Southeast Asia, Chinese is such a living language that it exists in different accents, scripts and - as you now know - even dialects!
Reinforce your learning from this lesson with the Rocket Reinforcement activities!