The 6 most commonly mispronounced sounds in Chinese — and how to pronounce them like a native
Most people think that the hardest part about Chinese is learning tones, but in reality, many of the Sounds in pinyin are just as, if not more difficult to perfect then tones. Here, I’m going to go over 6 of the most difficult and most commonly mispronounced sounds in Chinese, and show you how to pronounce them like a native speaker.
- the “r” sound
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.
How do you develop muscle memory? Reps. Reps. More reps. Take a break, then do more reps. You are strengthening previously unused neural pathways that connect your brain with your mouth — this doesn’t happen overnight. Go to sleep, wake up, then do more reps.
What is a rep? How do you do a rep? A rep is short for “repetition” — a deliberate action or movement that trains your mind-body (or in our case, mind-mouth) connection. For basketball players, a rep is taking a jump shot. For a chef, a rep is one single stroke of the knife blade. The question we should be asking ourselves is not, “Am I talented enough to speak Chinese fluently?”, it’s “How many reps do I have to do to train my mouth to produce the sounds of Chinese fluently?”
As you read the rest of this article, remember that you will not pronounce these sounds perfectly on the first try. You probably won’t even get it on the second try, or the third, or the tenth, or the 50th, or even the 100th. You need to say these sounds over and over again until those neural connections between your brain and your mouth turn into high-speed fiber optic cables.
How many times should you practice each of these sounds? Probably more than you currently imagine. Practicing these sounds in isolation, it may take anywhere from 100–500 reps before you are able to produce them accurately and instantaneously on command. Then you have to practice saying these sounds in words, phrases, and sentences! It may take another 1000–2000 reps before you can fluently execute each sound in all of its different possible contexts.
If that sounds like a lot, think about how many reps it takes for a basketball player to “fluently” execute a jump shot? Remember that basketball players don’t just practice free throws — they practice taking jump shots from all over the court, with and without defenders, with and without time pressure, from a stand-still, after a pass, off a pick-and-roll, and all the other possible scenarios that they may encounter in a game. High level basketball players may take 300–500 shots over the course of a single practice! And it takes many, many practices before they are able to shoot accurately. So just be glad that you’re learning Chinese and not playing basketball, because if it takes 2000 reps for you to accurately pronounce “xu”, it may take you 200,000 reps to fluently shoot a jump shot.
The most commonly mispronounced sounds in Chinese
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.
So how do you pronounce these sounds in Chinese like a native? Let’s start with the “sh”:
- Start by saying the “ssssss” sound. Notice the position of your tongue.
- Slowly curl your tongue backwards towards the roof of your mouth until the “ssssss” starts to sound a little bit more like “sh”.
- 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.
- 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!
Notice that your lips aren’t puckered at all — whereas they would be if you were saying “sh” in English.
Practice with this sentence:
Shān shàng yǒu bù shǎo shū (There are many books on the mountain).
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!!!
- Start by saying the “zzzzzz” sound. Notice the position of your tongue.
- 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”.
- Notice that if you keep curling your tongue back, it will start to sound more like the English “r” sound.
- There is a range of acceptable tongue curling: the Chinese r is somewhere between the “s” in “measure” and the English “r” sound.
- 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.
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”:
- Pronounce the English word “yes”, but elongate the initial “y”, so that you’re saying “yyyyyyyyes”
- 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.
- 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.
- Once you can pronounce the “x” sound, pronouncing the “j” and “q” sounds is easy because the tongue position is the same!
Practice with this sentence:
Xíjìnpíng xǐhuān xǐ xīguā (Xi Jinping likes to wash watermelons).
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.
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!
The pinyin “wen” sounds like a cross between the English “won” and “when”. Start by repeatedly saying “won”, and each time, change the vowel sound ever so slightly towards the sound of “when”. The correct pronunciation of “wen” is somewhere in the middle of these two sounds.
If you’re familiar with the international phonetic alphabet (IPA), “wen” is spelled “u̯ən” and “dun” is spelled “du̯ən” — so if you can pronounce “wen”, pronouncing any word that ends in “-un” is just a matter of adding “wen” to the end of the first consonant.
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:
- Say “eeeeeeee” like in “cheese”
- Without moving your tongue at all, slowly purse your lips as if you were saying “oooooo” as in “moose”
- You should hear the sound change from “eee” to the umlaut “ü”.
Check out the video at the top for a nice explanation of how to make the umlaut sound.
My name is Akshay Swaminathan, and I’m interested in finding the most efficient ways to learn languages. Take a look at my website and YouTube channel for more language-related content.