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English and Chinese Pronunciation have differences and similarities.

That’s the main reason for the mistakes English speakers make. Yet that also makes those mistake systematic and fixable if you know where to look.

This list includes 4 parts that cover all the phonetic aspects of mandarin pronunciation, including the tones, the initials, the finals, and the special cases.

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Part 1:
Tones

Mandarin is a Tonal Language.

Most words written in Pinyin that are spelled the same but have different tones also have completely different meanings.

Therefore, being able to say the different tones clearly is very important.

#1. When to Pronounce the Tone changes of the 3rd Tone

 

If you have studied Chinese for a while, you might have heard about the importance and difficulties in pronouncing the 3rd tone.

The thing is, most people can pronounce the 3rd tone right after some practice.

So pronouncing the 3rd tone is not really a problem.

However, always pronouncing the FULL 3rd tone is the mistake that a lot of people make.

The full 3rd tone, aka the original 3rd tone, is a tone that first drops from a 2 in pitch to a 1 then rises up to a 3 in pitch, 2-1-3.

However, the full 3rd tone is only used in 2 situations:

1. When a 3rd tone character is at the end of a sentence.

Example: 她喜欢你 (Tā xǐhuān nǐ)。

2. When a 3rd tone character is used by itself.

Example: 好 (Hǎo)。

So the full 3rd tone that drops and rises is only used in those situations. In most cases, the 3rd tone is pronounced with a change of tone.

When a 3rd Tone character is followed by a non-3rd tone character

The most commonly used pronunciation of the 3rd tone is a low-dropping tone where the pitch drops from 2 to 1. This tone change is used when a 3rd tone character is followed by a non-3rd tone character.

So when you make this sound, you only say the first half of a full 3rd tone, which drops from 2 to 1 in pitch.

In this word 好吃 (hǎochī),the 3rd tone character (hǎo) is followed by a first tone character (chī), so the pronunciation of (hǎo) changes into a low dropping 2-1 tone instead of a full 3rd tone.

When a 3rd tone character is followed by another 3rd tone character

When a 3rd tone character is followed by another 3rd tone character, the first character changes into a mid-rising tone with the pitch rising from 3 to 5.

In this word 你好 (nǐhǎo),the 3rd tone character (nǐ) is followed by another 3rd tone character, so the 3rd tone in (nǐ) changes to a 3-5 in pitch.

Do you think the character 好 (hǎo) in this word has a tone change too?

has a full 3rd tone in this case because there is no other character after it.

SUMMARY

The actual pronunciation of 3rd tone characters depends on the tone of the character after it.

 

  • If there is no character after it, the 3rd tone character has a full 3rd tone. (Ex.我买了新电。)
  • If there are characters following it, and the following character doesn’t have the 3rd tone, the 3rd tone character has a low-dropping 2-1 tone. (Ex.吃)
  • If the following character also has the 3rd tone, then the first 3rd tone character has a mid-rising 3 to 5 tone. The tone change of the second 3rd tone character depends on the tone of the character after it. (Ex.好)

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In the word 桌子 (zhuōzi), after saying the high flat tone (zhuō), quickly drop the pitch to 2 to say the short and soft (zi).

2. a Character with a 2nd Tone + a Character with Neutral Tone

When there is a 2nd tone character before a neutral tone character, the neutral tone has a pitch 3 tone.

In the word 葡萄 (pútao), first say the (pú) that rises from the middle to the high pitch, then drop the pitch back to 3 to say (tao).

3. a Character with a 3rd Tone + a Character with a Neutral Tone

When there is a 3rd tone character before a neutral tone character, the neutral tone has a pitch 4 tone.

In the word 我们 (wǒmen), start by saying (wǒ) which has a low-dropping 2-1 tone due to the tone change, then raise the pitch to 4 to say (men) with the neutral tone.

4. a Character with a 4th Tone + a Character with a Neutral Tone

When there is a 4th tone character before a neutral tone character, the neutral tone has a pitch 1 tone.

In the word 爸爸 (bàba), start by saying the first (bà) which has a 4th tone that drops from the highest pitch 5 all the way to the lowest 1, then just maintain that low pitch and say the second (ba) short and fast.

TIP

In real life conversations, saying the exact pitch of the neutral tone is not that necessary. Because neutral tone characters are so short and quick.

So, if you can remember roughly which way to go, high or low, it’s good enough.

In the graph above, The boss is saying to his employee who is late to work: “上班不可以迟到”. (Shàngbān bù kěyǐ chídào。)

The employee responds: “对不起” (Duìbuqǐ). Pay attention to the “不” in this word, it has a neutral tone.

The 4th tone is 不’s original tone and the most commonly used one.

 

不’s Tone Change

不 only has one tone change, that’s when a 4th tone character follows it, then 不 has the 2nd tone.

There is One More Thing You Need to Know:

The tone marks in pinyin only show the original tone of the character. That means the tone marks are always the same and the tone change and the actual pronunciation of the word is not indicated.

Learn the tone changes for other characters on mandarhythm.com

Part 2:

Initials

The consonant at the beginning of a Pinyin syllable is the initial.

There are lots of initials in Mandarin that look identical to their English counterparts but sound completely different.

Here are some of the mistakes English speakers make.

Compare the 2 words 爸爸 (bàba) and “speak”, and think of the “p” in “speak” when saying the “b” in 爸爸 (bàba).

Part 3:

Finals

Finals are the second and final part of a syllable in Mandarin Pinyin, or just any sound that follows the initial.

Finals are the only part that’s necessary in a Pinyin syllable.

There are words that don’t have initials, such as 爱 (ài). But all Chinese syllables have “the final”.

TIP

To make the “ü” sound, you can start by making the “i” sound, but make it continuous and long.

Then, put your lips together the same as you would when making the “u” sound, then you will find yourself making the “ü” sound!

When “ü” Shares the Same Spelling as “u”

 

– When “ü” follows the letters “j, q, x, y”, the dots on ü are not shown.

– When “ü” follows the letters “n, l”, the dots are shown.

So you can see that actually about 2/3 of the time the dots on ü are not shown. It’s important to remember those 4 letters (j, q, x & y) that erase ü’s dots so you wouldn’t confuse it with “u”.

 

Compare the 2 words (hē) and “her” (in a British accent), think of the “er” sound when saying the “e” in the word (hē) in Mandarin. Remember to say it with the correct tone.

Compare the 2 words (háng) and “hung”, think of the “ung” sound when saying the “ang” in the Chinese word (háng).

But keep in mind that the “ang” in Chinese doesn’t have the excessive ending as the “ung” in English.

Learn more about the “-ng” ending in Mandarin on mandarhythm.com

Part 4:

Special Case

There are certain syllables in Mandarin that stand out more than the others.

Here is one of them that many people consider the hardest.

When “er” Has a 4th Tone

When “er” has the 4th tone, it’s actually pronounced slightly different than when it has one of the other tones.

The key difference is the mouth is opened even bigger vertically.

Compare the difference with 二 and 儿:

二(èr):

儿(ér):

 

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