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An unorthodox course in spoken Chinese: Bending the rules in order to make it easier to study Pinyin 
Introduction | Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5 | Section 6 | Section 7 | Section 8  

 Learn Chinese Pinyin - An Introduction 

A note about this course:
This course is not intended to be studied progressively but is meant to be used as a reference. My aim is to help you with the actual pronunciation of Chinese words based on pinyin so that when you come across them you will know exactly how they are to be pronounced. With this aim in view I have included as many commonly-used Chinese words as possible to give a more meaningful illustration of the various sounds. Don't try to learn them all by heart before you proceed to the next section as there are too many of them. So long as you know how they should be pronounced (and with the correct tone) by looking at them, you can proceed to the next section. You can always come back to refer to the words (or copy them in a small notebook) when you need to use them in an actual conversation.
Please note that in Taiwan the Wade-Giles system of romanization is often used and might create some confusion with Hanyu (mandarin) Pinyin. This course is confined to Hanyu Pinyin i.e. as used in mainland China. Go here for differences between pinyin and the Wade-Giles system.

The aim of this course is to make the study of spoken Chinese* as easy as possible. In order to do this I am stripping it down to its barest essentials - even if it means "bending" a few rules in the process. Thus:
  • My third tone does not rise. Theoretically the third tone consists of two parts - a falling tone at the beginning followed by a rising tone. I find that by making it rise again many students confound it with the second tone. (In fact the third tone that does not rise again is not exactly wrong as that is the case in 95% at least of the situations where a third-tone word is used. But because all textbooks emphasize the 5% where it rises at the end - usually when a third-tone word stands alone as when you reply "Hao" or at the end of a sentence - many students confuse it with that of the second tone.) It is for this reason that I am "bending" the rule in this course so there will be a clear and sharp distinction between each of the four tones.
    But let me assure you that the Chinese will understand you perfectly if you just let the third tone fall without ever letting it rise again under all circumstances.

    2nd tone

    The theoretical 3rd tone

    My 3rd tone (doesn't rise)
  • As for the neutral tone or the "fifth tone" it is not something that you need to worry too much about. It can be picked up very easily once you hear it being used. It should be more correctly called "toneless" as it does not have a specific tone and varies according to the tone carried by the syllable preceding it. It is light and brief as illustrated in the second syllable of the word ba4ba (father) . It has not got a tone mark above it, thus leaving many students perplexed as to its pronunciation. I sometimes give it one of the four tone marks if I think that it is sufficiently close to that tone.
  • I treat j, z and zh as the same sound (the non-aspirated or unvoiced ch sound, as in church, making no differences among the three of them.) English-speaking students would certainly find it much easier to handle if there is a one-to-one correspondence with existing English sounds than to try to produce foreign sounds. And despite the slight difference that might exist between the j, z and zh sounds (if you attend a Chinese class, your Chinese language teacher will gladly expound on this), I don't think it is worth all the trouble, time and energy spent on them as, I repeat, this course is essentially for those who just need Chinese at a survival level.
    (It is interesting to note that under the Wade-Giles system of romanization, no distinction is made between j and zh, as it represents both by ch (voiceless). Similarly it makes no distinction between q and ch, representing both by ch' (voiced). From this it can be seen that even for a big part of the Chinese themselves, what are represented as two different sounds under pinyin is actually the same sound. Again I ask, why be pedantic and see differences where the Chinese themselves do not?)
  • Similarly I treat q, c and ch as a single ch aspirated (or voiced) sound, the differences among them being negligible. Really, I can never understand why so much time is spent on oral practice over something that is hardly discernible, even to the Chinese ear.
    To my mind these 6 sounds (j, z, zh, q, c and ch) pose the biggest problem to learners of pinyin. Many students find themselves at a complete loss when they have to distinguish between them. Hence my efforts at simplifying things here.
  • I don't join words that normally are joined together eg. hen3gui4 is spelt as hen3 gui4 here (in two words, which they actually are when written with the Chinese characters). This again is to make the learning process easier.
  • In the case where the reading tone has to be changed (as when the first of two third-tone words becomes a second-tone word) I don't give it the official tone mark but give it the new tone that it actually has. Thus I spell hen2 hao3 the way it is actually pronounced though officially it is written hen3hao3 which is not how it is pronounced at all.
Consequently this course is not suitable for those who are after perfection. But then at the end of the day it is results that count. After all what is the use of being able to pronounce a word in the third tone as it should be theoretically or being able to make distinctions between the z and zh or the c and ch sounds if you cannot carry out a simple conversation in Chinese after years of study?
I will be providing the Chinese characters at the end of each section for those who might need them but I will not be going into the written aspect of the language. (Those who are more interested in learning the Chinese characters can go here.) The main aim of this course is to make the student able to read and speak Chinese based on pinyin (romanised spelling), and not on Chinese characters. Although it helps a lot to know the written characters I believe it is better to just start with spoken Chinese. The study of Chinese characters can proceed after a good knowledge of pinyin is acquired. Trying to do both at the same time is overly ambitious, if not foolhardy and is one of the principal reasons why many students give up the study of Chinese from the very beginning. To complicate matters further there are no tone marks in Chinese characters to tell the student which of the four tones to use when pronouncing them. Then again there are two systems in use in the writing of Chinese characters - simplified and traditional. So which one to study? The simplified system (with fewer strokes in many characters) is widespread in mainland China and for this reason it is the one shown here. However Taiwan still sticks to the traditional script.
But please don't let me scare you off by all the above talk. From now on we will get down to brass tacks and leave the theory part aside. The audio files are there to make things really simple for you. And, believe me, there is no reason at all why you cannot make yourself understood in Chinese - if you just don't try to be perfect!
I believe this unorthodox course would be particularly useful to students who have given up after trying to study Chinese for years. To them I say "Give yourself a second chance with this course." If you are willing to slog at it there is no reason why you cannot succeed. Mandarin is already a very difficult language and I don't believe we should make it even more difficult for the student by splitting hairs over trivialities, which is what discourages many students in the first place. This belief is behind the whole concept of this course.

*also known as Mandarin.  The Chinese term is han4 yu3  , zhong1 wen2   or pu3 tong1 hua4  .
Go to Section 1

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