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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 5: Pronounce xi as sea  

Example 1: xi3 huan1 (to like)
Example 2: xian4 zai4 (now, this moment)
Memory aid: Someone said that not visiting this city when one is in China is like visiting Egypt and not going to see the Pyramids. Which city in China is he referring to? Go here for the answer.

Yes in pinyin you have to pronounce xi as if it is spelt "sea" (or "see " if you prefer, in English). Actually the word xi1 (with the first tone) means "west". This is easy to remember indeed but what is not so easy to remember is that when you see si in pinyin you should not pronounce it as "sea" (since the "sea" sound is already spelt xi). How si is pronounced in Chinese will be mentioned later in the lesson. But first let's see how other common Chinese words starting with xi are pronounced:
xi1 wang4 (to hope)
Example: wo3 xi1 wang4 ni2 you3 shi2 jian1 lai2 kan4 wo3 (I hope you will have time to come to see me.)
xi2 zao3 (to bathe, take a shower)
xi3 huan1 (to like)
Example: ta1 xi3 huan1 chi1 bing1 qi2 lin2 (He likes to eat ice-cream.) The Chinese word for "ice-cream" is bing1 qi2 lin2 as has already been mentioned in Section 2. More words starting with xi:
xin1 (new)
xia4 yu3 (to rain)
xia4 ci4 (the next time)
xia4 wu3 (afternoon)
xian4 zai4 (now)
xiong1 di4 jie3 mei4 (brothers and sisters). These four words are usually used together to refer to siblings. Actually the first word means elder brother (ge1 ge is the more common word though), the second word means younger brother, the third elder sister and the fourth younger sister. So if you want to ask someone if he has any brothers or sisters you would say ni2 you3 xiong1 di4 jie3 mei4 ma?

Let me introduce you to Wang Mr.*

xian1 sheng1 (Mr.)
In Chinese the Mr. title comes after the name, not before as in English. Thus "Mr. Wang" is called wang2 xian1 sheng1 (literally "Wang Mr.") Same for Mrs. ( tai4 tai4) and Miss ( xiao2 jie3 ). So Mrs. Wang is wang2 tai4 tai4 (Wang Mrs.) while Miss Wang is wang2 xiao2 jie3 (Wang Miss). Let's look at more words starting with xi:
xiang1 xin4 (to believe or have faith in someone or something)
Example: wo3 xiang1 xin4 ni3 (I believe you.)
In its third tone xiang3 means "to think"
Example: wo2 xiang3 yao4 xia4 yu3 le (I think it is going to rain.)
Or again wo2 xiang3 qu4 kan4 dian4 ying3 (I am thinking of going to see a film.)
*No, there is no error in the above sub-heading. The Chinese do not say "Mr. Wang" but "Wang Mr". Thus wo3 gei2 ni3 jie4 shao4, zhe4 wei4 shi4 wang2 xian1 sheng1 (literally I-give-you-introduce-this-one-is-wang-mister).

x can only be followed by either i or u and nothing else
(If you don't believe me just look at all the
Chinese words starting with the letter x here.)

The only other vowel that can come after x, apart from the i vowel, is the u vowel when it has not got the oo sound but rather the ee sound made by pursing the lips (as in the French u or with the diaeresis mark i.e. with two dots above the u). Such words are few and far between but you will have to know how xu or xue are to be pronounced when you come across them.
The following examples will help to make it clearer:
xu1 yao4 (to need)
Example: ni3 xu1 yao4 wo3 de bang1 zhu4 ma? (Do you need my help?)
The answer is either xu1 yao4 if you need help or bu4 xu1 yao4 if you don't.
By the way, bang1 zhu4 is used just as much as bang1 mang2 that we have seen earlier. Both of them are used equally as a verb as well as a noun.
ye2 xu3 (perhaps)
Example: ta1 ye2 xu3 bing4 le (Perhaps he is ill.)
xue2 xiao4 (school)
xue2 xi2 (to study)
So at the risk of repeating myself please note that x can only be followed by either i or u and nothing else. If you can just remember this it will help make your learning of pinyin so much easier.

If xi is pronounced as sea it follows
that si cannot be pronounced as sea

Since xi is pronounced as "sea", it follows that si in pinyin CANNOT be pronounced as "sea". Simple enough yet this is the cause of numerous headaches if this difference in pronunciation from the English spelling is not well grasped from the very beginning.
This is how si is pronounced in the first tone: si1. You should now be able to pronounce the four tones of si which are as follows: si1 si2 si3 si4.
Depending on the Chinese character used, si1 (first tone) can mean silk, private (as in si1 ren2 ), a company (gong1 si1 ) or a driver/chauffeur (si1 ji1 ). So despite having the same pronunciation and the same tone si1 can have three or more different Chinese characters to represent the same sound. As a matter of fact homonyms are very common in Chinese, as you will find out when you start learning Chinese characters.
To come back to the syllable si. If it carries the third tone, si3 then it means "dead", as in ta1 si3 le (He is dead) while if it has the fourth tone si4 it means "four" (what is more normal than for "four" to have the fourth tone, if it helps you to remember!). So just treat the consonant s as the s in English and pronounce it accordingly (the contrast with the sh sound will then be so much easier).
By the way just as si cannot be pronounced as the word "sea" in English so too ri cannot be pronounced as the first syllable of the English word "reason" (for a few more exceptions see "When i is not ee" sub-heading below). So how do you pronounce xing1 qi1 ri4 which in Chinese Mandarin means "Sunday"? (you can hear its pronunciation in Section 8 under "Days of the week" sub-heading).

Difference between si and shi
(No, I'm not talking about Sushi, sorry.)

There is a sound quite close to s and that is sh. English-speaking students will not find it too difficult to distinguish between the two sounds if they were to pronounce them as they are pronounced in English. You can see the difference between "sip" and "ship", can't you?
When I say that the sh sound in pinyin is pronounced like the sh sound in English (i.e. with rounded lips) I am reminded of the sentence we had to say over and over again in school: She sells sea shells on the seashore. You didn't? Well, lucky you! Or perhaps you're not so lucky after all, because this comes in handy now with the s and sh sounds in pinyin.
Try to see the difference between the numerals "fourteen" and "forty": shi2 si4 (14) and si4 shi2 (40)

shi2 = 10

How about a little break now to listen to one of the most popular Chinese folk songs around the world. It's called Mo Li Hua (jasmin flower) and it's sung here by Singapore actress Phyllis Quek.
You can find a more "classical" rendition of the song by Chinese soprano Song Zuying at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington here.
You can easily see that the above sound belongs to the second tone from the four tones for shi here: shi1 shi2 shi3 shi4. Quite a number of common everyday Chinese words have this sound. The more common ones are given below:
First tone: Using it in the first tone, we have lao3 shi1 meaning "a teacher" while shi1 diao4 means "to lose" (something) and shi1 bai4 means "to fail" as well as "failure".
Second tone: In the second tone shi2 means "ten" and shi2 jian1 means "time" eg. wo3 mei2 you3 shi2 jian1 qu4 kan4 dian4 ying3 (I have no time to go to the movies).
Third tone: The Chinese word (or should I say words as we need two words together) for "to start" or "to begin" is kai1 shi3 as in the sentence: shen2 me shi2 hou4 kai1 shi3 ne? (At what time does it start?).
Fourth tone: When shi has the fourth tone shi4 it can have at least four different meanings, again depending on the Chinese character used. The most widely-used among them is shi4 when used alone. It means "Yes" as when you give a positive reply to a question. Other common words with shi4 are: shi4 chang3 meaning a market, shi4 jie4 meaning the world and shi4 qing2 meaning "business" or "matter".
So you see that the same syllable sound shi can have so many different meanings according to whether it's pronounced with the first, second, third or fourth tone. If you want to say 10 then make sure you pronounce it with the second tone shi2 while if you reply "Yes" to a question make sure you pronounce it with the fourth tone shi4

shi2 means "ten", shi4 bu4 shi4 (yes-not-yes?)

shi4 bu4 shi4 (literally yes-not-yes) in the above sub-heading means "Yes or not?" or "Is it true or not?". As shi2 indeed means "ten" your answer will be shi4 ("Yes".)  Quite tricky, I know, changing the same sound from one tone to another to give it a different meaning, but then everyone knows that Chinese is not an easy language (despite my efforts at simplifying it in this course). So soldier on and I am sure your efforts will bear fruit one day!
In fact shi4 bu4 shi4 is a good example of how questions that can have only TWO possible answers can be asked in Chinese in a very simple way by repeating the same adjective (or verb) with the word of negation bu4 (meaning "not") in-between them. A few more examples will make this clearer:
e4 bu4 e4? (hungry-not-hungry) for "Are you hungry or not?"
hao3 bu4 hao3? (good-not-good) for "Is it good or not?". (It can also mean "Is it alright or not?")
nan2 bu4 nan2? (difficult-not-difficult) for "Is it difficult or not?"
yuan3 bu4 yuan3? (far-not-far) for "Is it far or not?"
lei4 bu2 lei4? (tired-not-tired) for "Are you tired or not?"
xing2 bu4 xing2? (alright-not-alright) for "Is it ok or not?"
mai3 bu4 mai3? (buy-not-buy) for "Are you buying it or not?"
lai2 bu4 lai2? (come-not-come) for "Are you coming or not?"
gou4 bu4 gou4? (enough-not-enough) for "Is it enough or not?"
yao4 bu4 yao4? (want-not-want) for "Do you want it or not?"
dui4 bu4 dui4? (correct-not-correct) for "Is it correct or not?"
dong3 bu4 dong3? (understand-not-understand) for "Do you understand it or not?")
The same structure can be used when two words are used together as an entity eg. gao1 xing4 (happy), xi3 huan1 (to like) or zhong4 yao4 (important).
Thus "Is it important or not?" is simply zhong4 yao4 bu4 zhong4 yao4? (important-not-important).
"Are you happy or not?" is gao1 xing4 bu4 gao1 xing4? (happy-not-happy)
and "Do you like it or not?" is xi3 huan1 bu4 xi3 huan1? (like-not-like)
Although not really necessary you can always start many of the above questions with ni3 (you) eg.
ni3 e4 bu4 e4? (you-hungry-not-hungry) for "Are you hungry or not?" or
ni3 lai2 bu4 lai2? (you-come-not-come) for "Are you coming or not?"

When i is not ee

Let's look at these two groups of words all of which have the vowel i. The vowel i in all the words in the first group have got the ee sound while those in the second group do not.
First group: bi, di, li, mi, ni, pi, ti, yi as well as ji, qi and xi (don't worry, I will be discussing the pi, ti, ji and qi sounds later). Listen to the first group.
Second group: chi, ci, ri, shi, si, zhi, zi Listen to the second group.
The aspirated chi and ci do not have the ee sound because if they do, they would be spelt qi. (More on these sounds in Section 8).
The same goes for the non-aspirated zhi and zi sounds. They cannot have the ee sound as they would otherwise be spelt ji. (More on these sounds in Section 7).
As for ri remember not to pronounce it as ree in the first syllable of the English word "ridicule". Chinese is not English, right?

More vocabulary (words starting with x)

xiu1 xi (to rest) e.g. ni3 tai4 lei4 le, xiu1 xi yi1 xia4 ba (You are too tired, take a short rest.)
xi2 guan4 (accustomed or used to something)
xiao3 (small)
xiao4 (to laugh)
xie3 (to write)
xin4 (a letter)
xue2 (to learn)
xia4 tian1 (summer)
xiu1 li3 (to repair)

What Languages Do You Speak?

Herewith are the names of some of the common languages in Chinese:
fa2 yu3 (French)
ying1 yu3 (English)
han4 yu3 (Chinese)
ri4 yu3 (Japanese)
de2 yu3 (German)
e2 yu3 (Russian)
xi1 ban1 ya2 yu3 (Spanish)
In Section 3 we have learnt the Chinese names for a number of countries. In general the Chinese word for the language of a country is simply the name of the country followed by yu3 meaning "language". Thus Sweden being rui4 dian3 the Swedish language is rui4 dian2 yu3. (But when we talk about languages in general the Chinese word for it is yu3 yan2 ).
You can now easily replace the language in the questions below with the language that you want.
ta1 hui4 shuo1 e2 yu3 ma? (Can he speak Russian?)
dang1 ran2, ta1 shi4 e2 guo2 ren2. (Of course, he is Russian.)
ni3 hui4 shuo1 ying1 yu3 ma? (Can you speak English?)
The answer to this question is either hui4 (Can) or bu2 hui4 (Cannot.)
ta1 men2 hui4 shuo1 fa2 yu3 ma? (Can they speak French?)
bu2 hui4, ta1 men2 bu2 hui4 shuo1 fa2 yu3. (No, they can't speak French.)
ni3 hui4 shuo1 shen2 me yu3 yan2? (What languages can you speak?)
wo3 hui4 shuo1 ying1 yu3 he2 xi1 ban1 ya2 yu3 (I can speak English and Spanish.)

Summary of Section 5 (with Chinese characters)

Back to Section 4On to Section 6