How to read Chinese words in today’s newspapers

This activity can be done is groups of four, taking turns reading each section aloud:

Today’s system for writing Chinese sounds with English letters is called pinyin (that’s pronounced peen-een, with a silent y).  Here’s how it works:

About the letter X

The sound of our word “see” would be written “xi.” Therefore “x” sounds like “s,” and “i” is pronounced “ee.” On the list below, please speak the sound at the left, and then find the matching pinyin spelling at the right:

Bee                  yi (remember, y before i is silent)

Seen                bi

Gene               di

D                      xin

E                      jin

Pronounce “ping” like you would in our words ping pong.  Please read this name in pinyin: Xi Jin Ping.  (did you say “see Gene ping?”). It is the name of the president of China.

About ie

Please say “yet.” Now leave off the t, and it will sound like “yeh.”  Put “see” in front of it: “see-yeh.”  That sound is spelled “xie.” If you say it twice, it means “thank you.”  Please match:

Bee-yeh           mie

P-yeh               tie

Mee-yeh          bie

C-yeh               pie

T-yeh               xie

About the letter a:

In Pinyin, the letter “a” is usually pronounced “ah,” as in father or baa. The word “ma” means mother, and the word “ba” means 8. If you put “a” after “xi” you get “see-ah.”  That is “xia,” an early dynasty of China, about the time of Moses. The word “san” means 3.

About the combination zh

The sound of the name “Joe” would be written “Zhou,” the next dynasty of China, during the time of King David. So “zh” sounds like “J,” and “ou” sounds like “oh.”  The letter “u” when it is not with another vowel sounds like “oo.”  Please match:

Joo                   you (here the y is not silent)

Yo                    Zhuan

Do                    zhu

Joo-on             du

The letter Q

Say “cheese;” now say it without the “s.” That sound is written in pinyin as “qi.”  So “q” stands for our sound “ch.” Please match:

Cheen              zhou

Jo                     qia

Chee-ah           xin

Seen                qin

Qin (pronounced cheen) was the dynasty in China two hundred years before Christ. The English word “China” comes from that dynasty’s name. Qing (ching) was the most recent dynasty of China. Qi is the sound for number 7.

The combination -ian

When the combination “an” has an “i” in front of it, the “a” does not sound like the “a” of “baa.” Instead, it sounds like the “e” in “en.” So, BN is written in pinyin as “bian.”  Please match:

DN                   mian (means noodles)

GN                   ba (means number 8)

Yen                  dian

ba                    yan

Me-N               jian

The letter u

U in pinyin sounds like oo. Please match:

Joo-an             chuang

Chew on          duan

Chwang           zhuan

Dew on            chuan

The umlaut sound for u

Now here’s the fun one. Put your lips like “oo,” and while holding them there, try to say “ee.” This sound is called an umlaut. In German, it is written with two dots over the u, like this: ü.
Try these Chinese words: lü,  nü
The next set of words uses the umlaut sound, but the two dots are not written.
ju, qu, xu.  In the word “yu,” the y is silent, so all you hear is the umlaut sound.

When these words are followed by “an,” the “an” is pronounced like “en.”  Try:

Juan, quan, xuan, yuan (the y is silent). Yuan is the name of the Chinese dynasty around the year 1300, and also the word for money

Unexpected sounds

E is pronounced like “uh.” Try  de, te, ne, le. He (sounds like huh) means river.

The letter “o” sounds like “awe.” It is usually preceded by a “u.” Doo-awe is spelled duo. Goo-awe is spelled “guo.” Guo is the word for “country.” France is fa guo.   When there is no consonant in front of the “uo,”  a letter “w” replaces the letter “u.” The pinyin spelling “Wo” is pronounced “waw.” This is the word for one’s self.

If you want a “long” o, as in “owe,” you spell it as “ou.” For example, a female deer, “doe,” would be spelled “dou.”

When “r” is at the beginning of a word, it sounds like the s in measure. Try saying these Chinese words that start with that sound: re, ren.

The combination –ong is not an English sound. It is between ong (with a long o, as in own) and awng.  “Zhong” means “central.” The word for China is “Zhong-guo.”


Duh                  tuo

twaw              dong

Dee                  de

Dawng             di


• Pinyin “ai” sounds like the “ai” in aisle, or like the word “eye.” TaiDai sounds like tye-dye.
• Pinyin “ei” sounds like the “ei” in eight, rhyming with day. Pinyin “Bei” sounds like bay. America is “mei guo”
• Pinyin “ou” sounds like “oh,” rhyming with grow. Pinyin “You” sounds like Yo.
• Pinyin “ao” rhymes with “cow.” Pinyin “pao” sounds like pow.


Pay                  dao

Dow                 dou

Doe                  pai

Pie                   pei


Please say the word “fatso,” then say it again without saying the fa. It is easy for us to say ts, but we are not used to saying it at the beginning of the word. The “ts” sound is spelled as a “c.”

Pinyin “can” would sound like saying “puts on” without saying the first 2 letters.

Try to say these Chinese words starting with a “ts” sound:” ca, cai.

The letter z in pinyin sounds like “dz.” Please match:

dzo          ce

tson        zou

tsa           can

tsuh         ca


• Say li (lee) and add ou (oh) and you get the sound of the English word “Leo,” which in PinYin is Li plus Ou. Make a contraction by taking the letter “o” out of the “ou” combination. The PinYin spelling for English “Leo” is Liu. This is the sound of number 6.  Jiu is number 9.

• Take gu (sounds like goo) and add ei (sounds like ay), and you get guay. Take out
the e and it is written “gui.” Pinyin “due” sounds like “dew-A.”

• Take gu (goo) and add en (un); the result sounds like goo-uhn. Take out the e, and the contraction is written gun. Pinyin “dun” sounds like “dew-uh.”

• Take ju (pronounced jü) and add in (pronounced een). The result is jüeen and is contracted to jun.


Kway               mai

Geo                 pou

My                   jiu

Poe                  kui

SIlent i

After certain letters, the i is silent, and you just say the letter. In some, it sounds like you are saying an “r” after the letter.

• Chi sounds like Chirp, without the p.
• Zhi sounds like German, without the man
• Shi sounds like sher. It is the sound for number 10.
• ri sounds like “er”

In the next group, there is no “r” sound. There is no vowel at all.

• Ci sounds like “ts,” and zi sounds like “dz.”
• si sounds like a sizzle: sz. That is the sound of number 4.

You have finished learning all the Chinese sounds!

Here’s a Review Chart.

Combining words

Many Chinese words are made of two syllables. You need to know where the second syllable starts. The main thing to know is that Chinese words do not end with consonants (except for n and ng), so if you come to a consonant, you know that a new syllable has started.

For example, the combination “beiling” could not be beil plus ing, because a Chinese syllable cannot end with an L.  So it must be bei plus ling. If it is not obvious, the writer will put an apostrophe between syllables.

Supplementary activities


Say these two letter of the alphabet: E.R. You have just counted to 2.
You already know 1, the sound ee, is spelled yi, with a silent y.
Number 2 sounds like English “are”
Number 3 is san. (remember, the a is the a found in father.)
Number 4 is the sizzle, spelled si.
Number 5 is spelled wu, but it is a silent w, so it sounds like oo.
Number 6 is the sound Leo, spelled liu.
Number 7 is chee, spelled qi.
Number 8 is ba.
Number 9 sounds like jee-oh, and is spelled jiu.
Number 10 sounds like sher, and is spelled sher.

For a video of counting to 10, go to youtube and search for “learn chinese with emma numbers.” Here is a direct link:

Using Google Translate

In Google Translate, set the text box to the left on English, and the one to the right on Chinese (simplified and traditional will work equally well).  Type an English word at the left, and the Chinese characters will appear at the right, and under the text box you will see the spelling in Chinese. When you press on the speaker icon, you can hear the pronunciation.  As an example, to hear the –ong sound, which is not found in English, type in the word “dinosaur.” The Chinese pronunciation is “kong long,” which would demonstrate that sound. That sound is also found in the Chinese words for China (zhong guo) and for farmer (nong ren).

The pinyin spellings in Google translate include marks above each vowel. These indicate tones. It is not necessary to know the tones in order to read the newspaper or school books, since the tones are not included, but it would be necessary if you want to use a tourist guidebook.

Introduction to the tones:

There are four tones.

Second tone is indicated by a rising line drawn above a vowel. Your voice rises as though to ask a question, as in the last word of “Did you say ‘this is the life?’” Number 10 is in second tone.

Fourth tone is indicated by a falling line. Your voice falls as though making a definitive statement, as in the last word of “this is the life.” Number 2 and 6 are in fourth tone.

First tone is written as a straight line above a vowel. Your voice stars level at a relatively high pitch, going neither up nor down. In the English name “Popeye,” we natural say the first syllable in first tone. On the counting youtube, your will hear first tone in numbers 1, 3, 7, and 8.

Third tone is drawn as a v-shape. Your voice goes down and then up. Numbers 5 and 9 are in third tone, clearly demonstrated on the youtube video.

When two third tone words appear in a row, the first one is changed to second tone. You can hear this by typing “very good” into Google translate.

There is another tone, called neutral tone. It does not have a tone marker. It is pronounced softer and lower than the other tones.

You can hear all these tones pronounced correctly on Google translate.

Phone apps.

The app that I use is called Pleco. For any English word you type in, you can see the Chinese spelling in pinyin, with the tone marks, and press on the speaker icon to hear the word. You can also photograph or copy in a Chinese character, and you will get the translation and sound.

Click here to see Emma teaching counting in Chinese

More details about Chinese spelling systems

information for school administrators

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