The 6 most commonly mispronounced sounds in Chinese — and how to pronounce them like a native

  1. x/j/q
  2. the “r” sound
  3. fo/po/bo/mo
  4. –un/-en

The key to mastering pronunciation in any language

Before we get into each of the sounds, I want to share the secret to mastering pronunciation in any language: muscle memory. Whenever we want to train our body to repeatedly perform a new movement, we have to develop muscle memory. Basketball players, pianists, artists, and chefs all need muscle memory to smoothly and effortlessly execute the movements associated with their craft. Language learners need to develop muscle memory in their lips, tongue, vocal cords, and mouth in order to fluently speak a new language.

The most commonly mispronounced sounds in Chinese

1. sh/ch/zh

These three sounds are usually explained as equivalent to the english “sh”, “ch”, and “j” sounds respectively. This explanation will get you pretty close to the true pronunciation, but it’s not 100% of the way there. This is why: the Chinese sh/ch/zh requires a curled tongue and no puckered lips, whereas the English sh/ch/zh requires puckered lips and no curled tongue.

  1. Slowly curl your tongue backwards towards the roof of your mouth until the “ssssss” starts to sound a little bit more like “sh”.
  2. There is a range of acceptable tongue curling: If you stop at the very first resemblance of an “sh” sound, your pronunciation will resemble Taiwanese or southern Chinese speakers. If you keep curling a bit more, your pronunciation will resemble northern Chinese speakers.
  3. Once you can pronounce the “sh” sound with this method, pronouncing the “ch” and “zh” sounds is easy because the tongue position is the same!

2. The “r” sound

Once you can pronounce the sh/ch/zh sounds, learning the r sound is easy because the tongue position is exactly the same!!!

  1. Slowly curl your tongue backwards towards the roof of your mouth until the “zzzzz” starts to sound a little bit more like the “s” in “measure”.
  2. Notice that if you keep curling your tongue back, it will start to sound more like the English “r” sound.
  3. There is a range of acceptable tongue curling: the Chinese r is somewhere between the “s” in “measure” and the English “r” sound.
  4. The hardest sound to pronounce that starts with “r” is “ri”, but if you think of it as belonging to the same family as “shi/chi/zhi”, it should be much easier to understand and execute.

3. x/q/j

These sounds are ALSO usually explained as equivalent to the English “sh”, “ch”, and “j” sounds respectively. This explanation will get you pretty close to the true pronunciation, but it’s not 100% of the way there. Here’s how to pronounce these sounds accurately, starting with “x”:

  1. Notice the position of your tongue when you say the “y” sound. You should feel the back part of your tongue raised up, with the sides of your tongue touching the inner sides of your upper teeth.
  2. Hold your tongue in this “y” position, and try making an “sh” sound without moving your lips or your tongue. You’ll notice that the “sh” sound feels like it’s coming from the middle/top of your mouth, and not from the front of your mouth like when you say “sh” in English.
  3. Once you can pronounce the “x” sound, pronouncing the “j” and “q” sounds is easy because the tongue position is the same!

4. bo/po/mo/fo

This one is an easy fix. Even though these sounds are written as “bo/po/mo/fo”, they are pronounced like “buo/puo/muo/fuo”, and thus rhyme with “zuo/shuo/cuo/luo/tuo/duo/ruo” etc. Don’t be fooled by the pinyin! Make sure to add the “u” sound before the “o” for these syllables.

5. –un/-en

This sound is tricky. One hint right off the bat is that the pinyin “-un” rhymes with the pinyin “-en”. For example, “wen” rhymes with “dun”. If you’re very confused right now, it’s probably because you’re pronouncing “wen” as if it rhymes with “pen” — this is close but not correct!

6. ü

The qu/xu/ju/yu/lü/nü sounds all require pronouncing the umlaut. This is another sound that doesn’t exist in English, and so requires a LOT of muscle memory training to perfect. Luckily, learning to pronounce it is not so difficult:

  1. Without moving your tongue at all, slowly purse your lips as if you were saying “oooooo” as in “moose”
  2. You should hear the sound change from “eee” to the umlaut “ü”.

Resources:

https://resources.allsetlearning.com/chinese/pronunciation/Pinyin_gotchas

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Data scientist, global health researcher, language learner

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Akshay Swaminathan

Akshay Swaminathan

Data scientist, global health researcher, language learner

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