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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 6: Aspirated sounds p, t, k 

Examples: peng2 you3 (friend)
jin1 tian1 (today)
kuai4 le4 (happy, happiness)
This is one of the more important sections in the course and you should not go on to the next section until you are very clear about the distinction between aspirated and non-aspirated sounds in Chinese.
We have seen in the previous sections that b in pinyin has the English sound of p, d has the sound of t while g has the sound of k. But pinyin also uses the letters p, t, k. How then are p, t, k pronounced in pinyin? Well, you really have to force them out of your mouth when you pronounce them in pinyin. This is because they are what is known as "aspirated" or "voiced" sounds in pinyin. This is a very important aspect of pinyin. I am referring to the sharp distinction between aspirated and non-aspirated sounds in the Chinese language. Or if you prefer, voiced and unvoiced sounds. Get this right and you are on your way to success in speaking understandable Chinese. Get this wrong and you will find yourself in deep waters struggling against the fast-flowing current. Ok, I am exaggerating, you will not drown, be rest assured!

Do you want me to beat him
or did he beat you?

How important it is to make the distinction between the aspirated and non-aspirated t sound can be seen from the following two sentences: da3 ta1 which means "Beat him" and ta1 da2 wo3 which means "He beat me". Not quite the same thing, eh?
Let's take another example to see how the sense of a whole sentence can change if an aspirated sound is not pronounced with force. I'm taking the two words gan4 and kan4 (the first word is not aspirated while the second is and should therefore be spoken with force). Listen gan4, kan4
And here is how they are often used: ni3 gan4 shen2 me? which means "What are you doing?"
and ni3 kan4 shen2 me? meaning "What are you looking at?"
Apart from the three aspirated sounds mentioned above (p, t, k) there is a fourth aspirated sound in pinyin represented by the letters q, c, ch which gives a lot of headache to students but which can be treated as the equivalent of the aspirated ch sound in English. This sound will be treated in detail in Section 8 so I am only mentioning it here in passing.
To go back to what you have already learnt first. The b, d, g sounds of pinyin that you practised in Sections 2, 3 and 4 are all non-aspirated (or unvoiced) sounds. In this section we will talk about the same sounds when they are aspirated (or voiced).
The best explanation will be by demonstrations. Listen to the pronunciation of the following pairs of syllables and you'll see what I mean:
bu1, pu1 (both have basically the p sound of English)
da1, ta1 (both have basically the t sound of English)
ge1, ke1 (both have basically the k sound of English)
Did you hear the difference between the two sounds in each of the above three pairs? If so you would have noticed that the initial consonant in the first word is non-aspirated (unvoiced) while that in the second word of each pair is aspirated (voiced). Try this little exercise:

A test for aspirated sounds

You can know if you are pronouncing the aspirated sounds correctly by doing this little test. Get a thin piece of paper and hold it just in front of your lips. When you pronounce a non-aspirated consonant (the words starting with b, d, g in the above examples) the paper should not stir while if you pronounce the aspirated sounds (the words starting with p, t, k) it should stir a bit as you are forcing air out of your mouth.
I will be using meaningful words in the examples below to bring out the differences between aspirated and non-aspirated sounds. Unfortunately it is not always possible to use pairs of words that have the same tone but I think that by now you should have no more problems with the four tones so the difference in tone in the examples below should not hinder your understanding.

Comparing the b and p sounds

A comparison of these two words will give you an idea of the difference between the b and p sounds in pinyin: bao3 and pao3. Listen bao3, pao3
The word bao3 means "to be full" as in wo2 bao3 le (I am full i.e. I have eaten enough) while pao3 means "to run".
Compare ba4 and pa4. Listen ba4, pa4
These syllables are found in ba4ba (daddy) and pa4 (afraid) eg. wo3 bu4 pa4 ni3 (I'm not afraid of you).
Let's now compare bi3 and pi2. Listen bi3, pi2
They don't normally stand alone but is used in combination with another word. Thus pi2 jiu3 means "beer" and bi3 jiao4 means "relatively" or "quite" as in bi3 jiao4 gui4 (quite expensive).
We'll now compare bu4 and pu3. Listen bu4, pu3   These syllables are found in bu4 yao4 pa4 (Don't be afraid), pu3 tong1 (common, ordinary) and pu3 tong1 hua4 (literally common-speech) which is another name for Mandarin. (As you probably know, the same Chinese characters in written form are pronounced differently in various dialects such as Cantonese, Xiamen, Hakka, etc. giving the speakers regional identities.)
Let's look at ban and pan. Listen ban1, pan1   A plate is pan2 zi while a half of something is yi2 ban4
And what about bang and pang? Listen bang1, pang1 They are used in pang2 bian1 meaning "side" as in lai2, zuo4 zai4 wo3 de pang2 bian1 (Come, sit by my side) and bang1 mang2 which, as we have seen earlier, means "to help".
One word you will be likely to use is peng2 you3 meaning "friend". Make sure you pronounce the p with force as it is an aspirated sound.
The same goes for pang4 meaning "fat". When you put your hand close to your mouth and say the word, you should feel a gust of air on your hand otherwise you're not pronouncing it correctly. So ta1 hen3 pang4 means "He/She is fat".
Like to take up a double challenge? See if you can pronounce bian4 and pian2. First you have to be aware of the difference in the aspirated and non-aspirated sounds and then the difference in the tones. Give it a try before you check the answer here: bian4, pian2 . You would have noticed that the second word (which is a very common word as the Chinese word for "cheap" is pian2 yi2) is aspirated while the first is not. Of course they don't also have the same tone.
If you can follow up to now, I'll have to take my hat off to you because you would have mastered two major difficulties in speaking Chinese:
(i) the difference between aspirated and non-aspirated consonants, and
(ii) the difference between the tones.
By the way the above two words are used as follows:
ta1 gai3 bian4 le (He has changed) and
zhe4 ben3 shu1 hen3 pian2 yi2 (This book is very cheap.) If you are one of those students who want to know the meaning of every word you see, the sentence is (literally) this-classifier-book-very-cheap.

Comparing the d and t sounds

What is the difference between the d and t sounds in pinyin? Let's see, a few examples will make it clear. For a start let's see the difference between di4 and ti2. In di4 di (younger brother) we have the non-aspirated t sound while in wen4 ti2 (problem) we have the aspirated t sound. So basically both have the t sound. You will often hear wen4 ti2 in such sentences as mei2 wen4 ti2 or mei2 you3 wen4 ti2 (No problem) or in the question you3 shen2 me wen4 ti2 (What's the problem?)
Let's look at this sentence where both da4 (big) and ta1 (he) are used: ta1 hen3 da4 (He is very big.) The first t sound is aspirated while the second is not.
Let's now compare dao1 (knife) with tao3 which is often used in tao3 lun4 (to discuss).
Now let's compare dang and tang. Listen dang1, tang1 The first word is used in dang1 ran2 meaning "of course" while the word tang1 means "soup" (word to remember when you are in a Chinese restaurant!)
Please note that there's a world of difference between tang1 (first tone) and tang2 (second tone) as while the first means "soup", the second means "sugar"! So if you don't pronounce the tone correctly you might be given sugar instead of soup (or vice versa). So while it could be true, as some people say, that you could still be understood if you don't get the tones right, yet in some cases such as this, a wrong tone could give a totally different meaning.
A common word in Chinese is dou1 meaning "all", as in zhe4 dou1 shi4 gei2 ni3 de (All this is for you) or ta1 men2 dou1 shi4 zhong1 guo2 ren2 (They are all Chinese) while tou1 (aspirated and first tone) means "to steal" as in ta1 tou1 wo3 de qian2 (He stole my money). In its second tone tou2 means the head.
Let's now compare dian and tian. Listen dian1, tian1 When we are asking for the time we say ji2 dian3 le and if it is three o'clock the answer is san1 dian3 while if it is four o'clock the answer is si4 dian3 - yes, just replace 3 or 4 with the appropriate hour! But if you are at a restaurant then the same word has another meaning and that is "to order" (dishes). So if you hear the waiter asking you nin2 yao4 dian3 shen2 me cai4? he is simply asking you what dishes you wish to order. (By the way did you notice that the waiter uses the respectful nin2 instead of ni3 when addressing the customer?)
But here we are more concerned with the aspirated t sound which we find in tian1 meaning "day" as in jin1 tian1 (today) or in the sentence jin1 tian1 de tian1 qi4 hen2 hao3 (Today's weather is fine indeed). As you have guessed tian1 qi4 means "weather". But note that when tian has the second tone (tian2) then it means "sweet".
Compare dai and tai: Listen dai1, tai1 We see them used in dai4 biao3 meaning "to represent" or "a representative" and tai4 tai meaning "madam".
Compare ding and ting: Listen ding1, ting1 The first word is used in yi2 ding4 meaning "surely, certainly" as in wo3 yi2 ding4 lai2 (I am sure to come). The second word ting1 means "to listen", as in ni3 ting1 wo3 shuo1 (Listen to me or literally you-listen-I-speak!)
Get the idea? See if you can pronounce tai4 da4 meaning "(It's) too big". Here's how it should be pronounced: tai4 da4 . Don't confuse it with tai4 tai (madam) that we saw earlier in this section.

Comparing the g and k sounds

(kang1 ding4 qing2 ge1) also known as (from the first line of the song) is a traditional folk song of Kangding, Sichuan Province, that has become popular throughout China.
Another pair of sounds that is similar yet different in pinyin is g and k . We have already seen the difference between gan4 and kan4 earlier on in this section.
Now let's compare gou3 and kou3. Listen gou3, kou3 The first word gou3 (non-aspirated) means "a dog" while the aspirated kou3 means the "mouth".
Let's now compare gao1 and kao3: Listen gao1, kao3 . The word gao1 means "tall" or "high" while kao3 shi4 means "examination".
Compare guo4 and kuo4. Listen guo4, kuo4
guo4 qu4 means "in the past" while kuo4 means "wide" or "broad".
Compare ge4 and ke4. Listen ge4, ke4
yi4 ge4 ren2 means "one person" while ke4 ren2 means "a guest" and ke4 qi4 means "polite". So if you want to tell your friend not to stand on ceremony you will say bie2 ke4 qi4 (literally don't-polite)
Compare gu1 and ku1. Listen gu1, ku1
gu1 niang2 means "a girl" or "a maiden" while ku1 means "to cry".
Compare guai1 and kuai4. Listen guai1, kuai4
guai1 is used to describe a child who is obedient while kuai4 means "fast" or "rapid". By the way these single-word adjectives are seldom used alone but usually with hen3 (very). Thus you would normally say hen3 guai1 (very obedient) and hen3 kuai4 (very fast). The same word used in kuai4 le4 means "happy" as well as "happiness".
Now let's compare gai1 with kai1. Listen gai1, kai1
ying1 gai1 means "should" (do something) as in wo3 ying1 gai1 qu4 kan4 ta1 (I should go to see him) while kai1 means "to open" as in qing3 kai1 men2 (Please open the door). By the way you are likely to hear kai1 shui3 everywhere in China as it is boiled water that is found in every Chinese household and supplied free in trains.
See if you can bring out the difference between gui4 and kui1 (there is also a difference of tones). Listen gui4, kui1 . The word gui4 means "expensive" while kui1 ben3 means "to lose money (capital)" in business.
I hope that the numerous examples in this section have shown you that, apart from the fact that one is aspirated while the other is not, you have basically the same sounds for b and p, d and t and also g and k in pinyin.

Summary of Section 6 (with Chinese characters)

Back to Section 5 On to Section 7