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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 -  Section 3: Pronounce d as t  

Example 1: dui4 bu4 qi3  (Sorry)
Example 2: duo1 shao3  (How much?)
Memory aid: If you like to eat dim sum you will know that it's pronounced as tim sum so d -> t.

When you come to think about it, the pinyin is quite a wonderful system because by just using 25 of the 26 letters of the English alphabet it is able to allow anyone to pronounce Chinese words phonetically without the use of a single phonetic symbol. In the English language one cannot know the pronunciation from the spelling (just see how these words are pronounced differently despite the fact that all of them contain the same group of letters ough: though, thought, through, tough, cough, bough, hiccough, etc.) And how about the ear in heart, beard, and heard?
But English-speaking students will need some time and plenty of practice to get over the fact that in pinyin (that is in Chinese) the d is not pronounced as the d in deem but as the t in teem. So when you see a word like da in Chinese don't be afraid to pronounce it as ta. As a matter of fact you have no choice - you just have to pronounce the d in pinyin as if it is t if you want to be understood. Yes, habits die hard, I know. In fact it's been a week already since I removed the clock from the left side of the room to the right and yet on each occasion when I need to look at the time I still continue to turn my head to the left for the clock! So be patient with yourself if you continue to pronounce d as d for some time still! Your patience will be rewarded in the end, I'm sure.

What's this? tui tuo ta?
(or dui duo da in pinyin)

One of the first expressions in Chinese that you will have to learn by heart is dui4 bu4 qi3 , the Chinese equivalent for "Sorry" (expressing apology). One cannot avoid committing all kinds of blunders or goofs in a foreign country where the culture and etiquette are often quite different from ours and being able to say dui4 bu4 qi3 instantaneously and spontaneously will certainly help to improve matters.
Just as useful to commit to memory (if you are going to buy anything at all in China) is duo1 shao3  meaning "How much?" or if you prefer duo1 shao3 qian2  (literally how-much-money?)
Another very common word starting with d is da4 meaning "big". So, as you can see from the above three examples, in pinyin "dui" is pronounced "tui", "duo" is pronounced "tuo" and "da" is pronounced "ta"! The word da4 meaning "big" is also used for a university, the Chinese word for it being da4 xue2 (literally "big school"). And if you are a university student you are a da4 xue2 sheng1 (literally "big school student").
From this it follows logically that a primary school is a "small school" (xiao3 xue2 ) and a primary school student is a "small school student" (xiao3 xue2 sheng1 ). Similarly a secondary school is zhong1 xue2 (literally "middle school") and a secondary school student is a zhong1 xue2 sheng1 ("middle school student"). Can anything be simpler than this?

Changing of Tones: 3-3 becomes 2-3

We have seen that da when it carries the fourth tone i.e. da4 means "big" but when da carries the third tone then it means "to beat" (not in the sense of defeating a rival team in sports but in the sense of striking someone) eg. Ta1 da2 wo3 means "He beat me". If you are very observant you might be wondering if I have made a typing error by giving da3 the second tone here.
No, there is no typing error, I can assure you. Which brings me to the rule which says that when two words both of which have the third tone follow each other (in this case da3 wo3), then the first word changes its tone from the third to the second. That is why da3 wo3 becomes da2 wo3 in that sentence. (But some textbooks prefer to leave the original tone i.e. Ta1 da3 wo3 and leave it to the speaker to convert it when speaking but I think it is easier for beginners if I change it to the tone in which it should be pronounced).
Difficult to remember? Not really. In fact this rule is quite easy to remember because it is really very difficult to pronounce two words, both of which are in the third tone, immediately one after the other since after the first word the voice is already at quite a low pitch and to make it descend further is quite tiring. So it is quite comforting to know that in such a case (where two third-tone words follow each other) you are allowed to change the first third-tone word into a second-tone word for the occasion.
Another good example of this rule is in the expression of greeting ni2 hao3 (literally you-good) meaning "Hello", "How are you?" or "How do you do?" which originally was ni3 hao3 since the Chinese word for "you" is ni3 with the third tone as in the question ni3 yao4 qu4 ma? (Do you want to go?).
In the previous lesson we have seen the rule which says that when two words are both in the fourth tone and follow each other the first word becomes a second-tone word (in other words 4-4 becomes 2-4) but there I said that it's not too important to remember and even if you should pronounce both words in the fourth tone not much harm is done. But in the present case of 3-3 becoming 2-3 it is better to follow the rule. Besides, some two third-tone words have become so inseparable as a pair that it is unthinkable to pronounce both of them in the third tone. One such example is the very commonly-used ke3 yi3 (meaning "can, possible") which, applying the 3-3 to 2-3 rule to the letter, is always pronounced as ke2 yi3 eg. "Can you help me?" is
ni3 ke2 yi3 bang1 mang2 wo3 ma? (literally you-possible-help-me-?)
By the way the two Chinese words bang1 mang2 together as an entity stands for the verb "to help" (as you probably would have guessed).

Very difficult? (hen3 nan2)? - Not really!

Here are some more examples. The word for "very" in Chinese is hen3 and it has the third tone. You can see that it is pronounced with the third tone in these phrases:
    - "very expensive" is hen3 gui4
    - "very fast" is hen3 kuai4
    - "very busy" is hen3 mang2
    - "very big" is hen3 da4
    - "very difficult" is hen3 nan2 and
    - "very tall" is hen3 gao1
In all the above phrases hen3 is used in the third tone - its normal tone. But if the word that comes after it is also in the third tone, as in hen3 hao3 meaning "very good" then you have to pronounce it as hen2 hao3 (in other words 3-3 becomes 2-3). The same goes for hen3 xiao3 ("very small") which should be pronounced as hen2 xiao3 and hen3 leng3 ("very cold") which should be pronounced as hen2 leng3 .
Note: Although the practice is to put the official tone in both words (eg. hen3 hao3) and not according to how they are pronounced (3-3 becoming 2-3) I am again bending the rule to make it easier for the student. Thus since it is pronounced hen2 hao3 I mark it as hen2 hao3 and not hen3 hao3.
So we'll add these to our list:
    - "very good" is hen2 hao3
    - "very small" is hen2 xiao3
    - "very cold" is hen2 leng3
By the way you might often hear hen3 bang4 used for describing someone who is very strong in something. Like hen2 hao3 it means "very good" or "excellent".

Names of Countries

Incidentally the Chinese word for China is zhong1 guo2 (literally "middle" kingdom, country or state) as in the ancient Zhou dynasty, the Chinese believed themselves to be the center of civilization. In fact guo2 meaning "country" is part of the name of a number of countries too as you can see from the table below.
zhong1 guo2
United States
mei3 guo2
fa3 guo2
de2 guo2
ying1 guo2
e2 guo2
tai4 guo2
*Russia is also called e2 luo2 si1
Other countries do not have guo2 in their names as these are mainly transliterations of their English names. From the list below just take note of the Chinese name for your country and ignore the other countries as you probably will not need to know them. (If your country is not listed please drop me an email for it to be listed.)
ao4 da4 li4 ya4
jia1 na2 da4
ma3 lai2 xi1 ya4
xin1 jia1 po1
New Zealand
xin1 xi1 lan2
bo1 lan2
ri4 ben3
yi4 da4 li4
xi1 ban1 ya2
ba1 xi1
yin4 du4
yue4 nan2
ba1 ji1 si1 tan3
tu3 er3 qi2
bi3 li4 shi2
jian3 pu3 zhai4
dan1 mai4
gu3 ba1
yin4 ni2
yi1 la1 ke4
yi1 lang3
mo4 xi1 ge1
mo2 luo4 ge1
he2 lan2
rui4 dian3
rui4 shi4
fei1 lü4 bin1
ai4 er3 lan2
nuo2 wei1
ni2 ri4 li4 ya4
yi3 se4 lie4
ao4 di4 li4
pu2 tao2 ya2
a1 er2 ji2 li4 ya4
fen1 lan2
xi1 la4
North Korea
chao2 xian3
South Korea
han2 guo2
South Africa
nan2 fei1
wu1 la1 gui1


If you know the name of a country then it is very easy to describe the nationality of the person of that country. This you do by simply adding the word ren2 (meaning "person") to the name of the country. Thus the United States being mei3 guo2, an American is called mei3 guo2 ren2 . Similarly France being fa3 guo2, a Frenchman or French woman is called fa3 guo2 ren2 . Simple, isn't it? Here are a few statements and questions that the more ambitious among you might want to learn. But before that let's learn the common pronouns in Chinese:

Personal Pronouns

I, me = wo3
You (for a single person) = ni3
He or she = ta1 (the Chinese character for "he" is while that for "she" is but both have the same pronunciation and the same tone).
To turn a singular pronoun into a plural pronoun all you have to do is to add the word men2 to it. Thus:
We, us = wo3 men2
You (when there are more than one person) = ni3 men2
They = ta1 men2
The first thing that many students of a foreign language want to learn is how to say "I love you" in the new language. Ok, I will be a sport and tell you how to say that famous sentence in Chinese. It is quite straightforward really, now that you know the Chinese words for "I" and "you". All you need to know now is the Chinese word for the verb "to love" which is ai4 .
So "I love you" in Chinese is wo3 ai4 ni3

Now let's use the pronouns to discuss nationalities:
I am American = wo3 shi4 mei3 guo2 ren2
I am French = wo3 shi4 fa3 guo2 ren2 etc., you get the drift.
He is German = ta1 shi4 de2 guo2 ren2
She is English = ta1 shi4 ying1 guo2 ren2
You are Russian = ni3 shi4 e2 guo2 ren2
You are Chinese = ni3 shi4 zhong1 guo2 ren2
So as you can see from the above sentences, to describe a citizen of a country you simply add the word ren2 to the name of the country. It's as simple as that!
If you are talking to a group of Chinese then you have to use ni3 men2 and the sentence becomes ni3 men2 dou1 shi4 zhong1 guo2 ren2 . (The word dou1 is very frequently used in Chinese and encompasses everyone in a group with the sense of "all, without exception". It's just like saying "You are ALL Chinese" or "All of you are Chinese".)

The possessive case

To indicate possession all you have to do is to use the word de4 (it's close to the fourth tone though most of the time it is light and brief, making it a "neutral" tone). Since we have already learnt the pronouns let's see how this word is used to indicate possession.
As you have seen wo3 means I or me so wo3 de means "mine" or "belongs to me". It can also come before a noun as in zhe4 shi4 wo3 de mao1 for "This is my cat" or zhe4 shi4 wo3 de che1 for "This is my car". Another example is ta1 shi4 wo3 de ba4 ba (= He's my daddy.)
Similarly ni3 means "you" so ni3 de means "yours". The sentence zhe4 shi4 ni3 de means "This is yours".
The same goes for "his" or "hers". From ta1 (meaning "he" or "she") we have ta1 de for "his" or "hers" according to the context. Thus the sentence "This is his, not mine" is zhe4 shi4 ta1 de, bu2 shi4 wo3 de .
The same rule applies for plural pronouns. Thus "we" being wo3 men2, "ours" is wo3 men2 de and "yours" (when there are more than one person) is ni3 men2 de . Similarly "they" being ta1 men2, "theirs" is ta1 men2 de .

Asking questions in Chinese

How about a little break now to listen to one of my all-time favourite Chinese songs called Lü4 dao3 xiao3 ye4 qu3 (Green island serenade). This version is by Vienna Teng.
Now how do you ask a question like "Are you Chinese?"
It is really very simple if you look at it this way. You just assume that the person to whom you are asking the question is Chinese (he or she might not be but it doesn't matter) so you make the statement "You are Chinese" (ni3 shi4 zhong1 guo2 ren2).
Now all you have to do to turn that statement into a question is to add the question tag ma1 to the end of the statement. In fact ma here has no tone or rather it has a "neutral" tone as it is light and brief (but to make it easy for the student I'm giving it the first tone here as it is quite near to the first tone).
So we now have the question ni3 shi4 zhong1 guo2 ren2 ma? (Are you Chinese?) The short answer to that question is either shi4 (Yes) or bu2 shi4 (No, I'm not) or simply bu4 (No).
Now how do you translate this question into Chinese: Is he American?
Answer: ta1 shi4 fa3 guo2 ren2 ma?
This makes asking questions a real breeze in Chinese. Let's take another example. Let's say you want to ask "Do you want to go?". Start by making a statement such as "You want to go" (ni3 yao4 qu4). Then add the question tag ma1 to it. That's all. Your question becomes ni3 yao4 qu4 ma? (Do you want to go?) The short answer to that question is yao4 (want) if you want to go and bu2 yao4 if you are not going.
You have already seen the sentence "This is yours" above which in Chinese is zhe4 shi4 ni3 de. To turn it into a question just add the question word ma at the end. Thus zhe4 shi4 ni3 de ma? means "Is this yours?" The short answer to that question is either shi4 (Yes) or bu2 shi4 (No, it's not) or simply bu4 (No). Not too difficult, is it?

More vocabulary (words starting with d)

ji1 dan4 = an egg
di4 di = younger brother
di4 tie3 = subway, underground
yi4 dian3 = a (little) bit
dian4 = electricity. This word is found in the names of common everyday objects such as:
    - computer ( dian4 nao3)
    - TV ( dian4 shi4)
    - cinema ( dian4 ying3)
    - telephone ( dian4 hua4)
dian4 (with the same pronunciation as above but with a different character in Chinese) means "a shop".
Thus a "bookshop" is shu1 dian4 .
die1 = dad (also fu4 qin1 or ba4 ba)
du2 shu1 can mean either to read a book or to study
duan3 = short (not of height but of length)
dui4 = correct, right
I think by now you should be used to pronouncing the d in pinyin as t and not as d!

Four tones: four meanings
Different tone: different meaning

I have to keep on stressing the importance of tones in Chinese. When you study a language like French or Spanish you have to spend hours and hours studying the conjugation of verbs. There is no conjugation of Chinese verbs but in its place you really have to master the four tones. Let's see if you can give the four tones for hui. To start you off here is the first tone: hui1
Try to give the other three tones and see if you get them right. Check here: hui1, hui2, hui3, hui4
Let's see the four different meanings of hui according to which of the four tones you pronounce it with:
With the first tone: hui1 means "ash".
With the second tone: hui2 as in hui2 lai2 means "to return" or "to come back".
With the third tone: hui3 as in hou4 hui3 means "to regret".
With the fourth tone: hui4 means "can" or "be able to". So if you want to say "I can (am able to) speak English" the Chinese version is wo3 hui4 jiang3 ying1 yu3 . As you can see from the sentence the Chinese word for "speak" is jiang3. So if you want to ask someone if he/she can speak English you will say ni3 hui4 jiang3 ying1 yu3 ma? (Can you speak English?)
Let's take another word: dao. When it carries the first tone (dao1 ) it means a knife while if you should pronounce it with the fourth tone (dao4 ) then it means "to arrive" as in Ta1 dao4 le meaning "He has arrived" (you will be learning later that le is often used after a verb to indicate that the action has been performed, or if you prefer, le is often an indicator of the past tense in Chinese).
Now let's compare deng when it has the first tone and when it has the third. In the first tone deng1 means a lamp eg. Ni2 you3 deng1 ma? (Do you have a lamp?) while in the third tone deng3 it means to wait as in qing3 deng2 wo3 (Please wait for me). You will note that in keeping with the 3-3 to 2-3 rule mentioned above deng3 wo3 has become deng2 wo3 .

Summary of Section 3 (with Chinese characters)

Back to Section 2On to Section 4