How to read Chinese words in today’s English news stories and school books
© 2018 by Jim Found. Permission given to print with this citation.
(This activity can be done in groups of two to four, taking turns reading the sections aloud.)
Can you read words like “qiu” and “xue?” You will soon be able to!
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
Say the word “see” gently as you read this word: “xi.” This example shows that “x” sounds like “s,” and “i” is pronounced “ee.”
MATCHING. As you speak each of the five sounds listed below at the left, please find which one of the pinyin spellings at the right represents that sound. For example, the first sound, Bee, matches the pinyin spelling bi.
D yi (remember, y before i is silent)
As a next step after each matching exercise, cover up the left-hand sounds, and then read the right-hand list from top to bottom.
THE NEXT SOUND. Pronounce “ping” like you would in our words ping pong. Please read this name in pinyin: Xi Jin Ping. (did you say “see jeen ping?”). It is the name of the president of China.
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 say the five sounds at left below and match each to a pinyin spelling at the right:
About the letter a:
In Pinyin, the letter “a” is usually pronounced “ah,” as in father. 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 three thousand years ago. The “a” of father is also in the word “san” (which means 3). (Note that the s sound is sometimes written as an s, and sometimes as an x, which is more gentle.)
About the combination zh
The sound of the name “Joe” would be written “Zhou,” the next dynasty of China, about 2500 years ago. So “zh” sounds like “J,” and “ou” sounds like “oh.” (the sound J is sometimes written as zh, sometimes as j) Please match:
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:
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. (our sound ch is sometimes spelled with a q, and sometimes with a ch, as in cha, which means tea)
The combination -ian
When the combination “an” has an “i” in front of it, the “a” does not sound like the “a” of “father.” Instead, it sounds like the “e” in “en.” So, the sound tee-enn is written in pinyin as “tian.” Please match:
DN mian (means noodles)
GN qian (means money)
When a word starts with i in pinyin, a silent y is put in front of it. So the sound “ing” is spelled “ying.” But in the case of the ian combination, if there is no letter in front of the i, the letter i is replaced with a letter y. So the sound ee-enn, instead of being spelled ian, is spelled yan. Please match:
The letter u
U in pinyin sounds like oo (unless it is in the combination ou, when it sounds like “oh”). Please match:
Chew on duan
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 four 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 dollar. Please say and match:
jü enn yu (y is silent)
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.” English “yoyo” would be spelled “you you.”
The combination –”ong” should be pronounced with a long O, so pinyin “long” should have the “o” sound in “lone,” not the “o” sound in English “long.” “Zhong” (sounds like Joe with an ng at the end) means “central.” The word for China is “Zhong-guo,” which means central country.
Doe + ng di
(Four of the words that rhyme with duo are abbreviations; they leave out the u. bo sounds like buo, po sounds like puo, mo sounds like muo, and fo sounds like fuo.)
• In English, the sound of “eye” is spelled in pinyin as “ai.” English tie-dye in pinyin would be spelled Tai Dai.
• In English, the “ei” in eight, rhymes with day. Pinyin also uses “ei” for that sound. English Bay would be spelled in pinyin as “Bei.” You need this sound to say the capital of China. It is Bei jing. Bei means north, and jing means capital.
• The English sound “ow” is spelled in Pinyin as “ao” English “cow” would be spelled “kao.” English “pow” would be spelled “pao.” You need the “ao” sound to say “hi.” Saying “hi” sounds like “nee how.” In pinyin spelling, that is “ni hao.” Ni means you, and hao means good, so you are saying “you good,” by which you mean “I hope you are well.”
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 a 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 sound “dz” is spelled in pinyin as “z.” Please match:
dz + eye zou
You need z to say goodbye. Saying goodbye would be written with English sounds as “dz+eye (rhymes with eye), followed by the sounds G.N.” The pinyin spelling is “zai jian.” Zai means again, and jian means see, so you are saying “see you again.”
• 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 “dui” sounds like “dew-A.”
• Take gu (goo) and add en (pronounced un). The result sounds like goo-uhn. Take out the e, and the contraction is written gun. Pinyin “dun” sounds like “dew-uhn.”
• Take ju (pronounced jü) and add in (pronounced een). The result is jüeen and is contracted to jun.
After certain letters, the i is silent, and you just say the letter, without a vowel. In some, it sounds like you are saying an “r” after the letter. For example:
• Chi sounds like Chirp, without the p.
• Zhi sounds like the first half of German
• Shi sounds like sher. It is the sound for number 10.
• ri sounds like “er” (some pronounce it like the second half of “measure.”)
Please match the sound at the left to the correct pinyin spelling at the right:
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’s the sound of number 4. Please match:
You have finished learning all the Chinese sounds!
Here’s a Review Chart. From now on, when you see a Chinese word in a newspaper or book, compare with others to see if you agree on how to pronounce it.
What about those two words at the beginning? Try to match the pinyin at the left with the sounds at the right:
But you need to know about 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. For example, a famous city in China is Xian. But is it a one syllable word, pronounced see-enn, or is it made up of the two words “see” and “on?” In this case, it is two words, so it should be written this way: xi’an.
End of Chinese Sounds Introduction.
(A review of each letter of the alphabet is at the bottom of this page.)//
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 spelling is “kong long,” which would demonstrate that -ong 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.
Introduction to the tones:
In spoken Chinese the meaning of a word changes depending on whether your voice goes up or down. There are four possibilities, and these are called the four 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.
First tone is written as a straight line above a vowel. Your voice stays 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. Numbers 1 (yi, pronounced “ee”), 3 (san), 7 (qi, pronounced chee) , and 8 (ba) are all in first tone.
Second tone is indicated by a rising line drawn above a vowel. It looks like an accent mark. Your voice rises as though to ask a question, as in the last word of “Would you like some tea?” A rising sound is called “second tone.” The word for tea (cha) is in second tone, and so is the Number 10 (sher)
Fourth tone is indicated by a falling accent mark. Your voice falls as though making a definitive statement, as in the last word of “this is the life.” Number 2 (er, pronounced “are”) and 6 (liu, pronounced lee-oh) are in fourth tone.
Third tone is drawn as a u-shape. Your voice goes down and then up. Numbers 5 (wu, pronounced “oo,”) and 9 (jiu, pronounced “G.O.) are in third tone.
You can learn the tones easily by listening to the words you type into Google translate.
Say these two letters 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. It is first tone.
Number 2 sounds like English “are,” and is written “er.” It is second tone.
Number 3 is san. (remember, the a is the a found in father.) It is first tone.
Number 4 is the sizzle, spelled si. It is fourth tone.
Number 5 is spelled wu, but it is a silent w, so it sounds like oo. It is third tone.
Number 6 is the sound Leo, spelled liu. It is third tone.
Number 7 is chee, spelled qi. It is first tone.
Number 8 is ba. It is first tone.
Number 9 sounds like jee-oh, and is spelled jiu.
(abbreviated from ji and ou). It is third tone.
Number 10 sounds like sher, and is spelled shi. It is second tone.
For a video of counting to 10, with correct sounds and tones, go to youtube and search for “learn chinese with emma numbers.” Here is a direct link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WoKI-FUQRGw
For a video to learn basic words like hello, thank you, and goodbye in correct tones, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2WN_AH_4bo&t=56s
click here for More about tones:
Using Chinese: the Chinese provinces
It’s neat to find the meanings of the names of the provinces. Each province name is made of two or three Chinese characters. In Pinyin, these sounds are joined together with no spaces in between. Search online for “Chinese Provinces in pinyin.” Many maps will appear; choose one that is easy to read. Here is one that is easy to read. Then try to find the meaning of each province, using the code below. For example, near the middle of China is a province named Henan. From the list below, you will discover that He means river and nan means south. This province gets its name because it is south of the Yellow River. Here is the entire list, with a reminder of the sounds:
An rhymes with upon, means Peace
Bei sounds like bay, North
Chang a rhymes with upon Long
Chuan (chew-on) River
Dong (O like in most( East
Fu foo Blessing
Gan rhymes with upon Sweet
Guang goo-and (a like father) Vast
Gui (pronounced “gway.”) Valued
Hai High Sea
He huh River
Hei hay Black
Hu hoo Lake
Huang hoo-ing Yellow
Hui hway) Emblem
Jiang Border (used in xinjiang), or
…………….river, used in the others.
Jian jee-enn Establish
ji jee Lucky
Jing jing Capital
Lin leen Forest
Long O as in most Dragon
Liao Name of a dynasty from 907 to 1125
Nan a as in father South
Nei nay Inner
Ning ning Peaceful
Meng gu mung goo Mongolia
Qing ching Green
Shan rhymes with upon Mountain
Shaan Revive (see note below this list)
Si sz Four
Su Revive (used in Jiangsu), or
……………respect (used in Gansu)
Tai tie Terraced
Wan like “once” with the ce Bay
Yun (pronounced ü-een) Cloud
Xin seen New
Xi see West
Xia name of a dynasty before 1600 BC
Zang (pronounced dzang) Tibetan )
Zhe short for zhejiang, the name of a province
Zhou pronounced Joe. administrative district
Note: Shaan is not a pinyin spelling. It is the word shan but it is written with two a’s to remind us that it in a different tone from the other word shan.
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.
More details about Chinese spelling systems
information for school administrators
Review each letter of the alphabet
A – like a in father, except the combination -ian is pronounced ee-enn. (likewise after the umlaut sound: pinyin “juan” is pronounced jü – enn). To get the sound “joo-ahn,” the pinyin spelling is “zhuan.”
B – like English
C – used for the sound ts. The combination “ch” sounds like the ch in English chew.
D – like English
E – prononcer “uh.” Some words, like Chen and gen, rhyme with English “pen.”
F – like English
G – always at “hard” g, as in Go
H – like English, some people pronounce it with a catch in the voice, like the sound of the German “ach.”
I – pronounced ee, except ping sounds like in ping pong. If i is found alone after certain sounds (zh, ch, sh, r, s, c, z) it is silent. (write “13” in google translate to hear the sound shi san. write 14 to hear shi si)
J – sometimes written as j, sometimes as zh
K, ,L, M, N – like English. -ng is like in English sing.
O – like aw. Usually found in the combination oo-aw. The sound “too-aw” is spelled tuo. The sound “uo” (with no consonant in front of it) is pronounced oo-aw, but is spelled wo, with the w taking the place of the u.
The English sound of long ‘O,” as in local, is written in pinyin as “ou,” so the English word “Joe” would be spelled “Zhou” in pinyin.
The pinyin sound -ong is pronounced with a long “o,” so the pinyin “dong” will sound like “doe, plus an ng sound,” and will not sound like the word in English “ding-dong.” Write “dragon” or “China” in Google translate to hear the pronunciation.
Note that the city of Hong Kong is not in a pinyin spelling. It is Cantonese. In Cantonese, the words Hong Kong do rhyme with English “long.”
P – like English. For those studying Chinese, it is good to note that pinyin “b” has a little more force than our English B, and pinyin “p” has a little more force than our English P.
Q – used for the sound “ch” when before an i or ü.
R – For English speakers reading the newspaper pronouncing it like English “r” is OK. For those studying Chinese language, it is good to know that at the beginning of a word, different people pronounce it differently,. Some Chinese speakers pronounce it like r, some like L, and some like the s in measure, pronounced more or less lightly. The word “ri” is pronounced by some like “er” and by others like the second half of “measure.” For English readers, saying “er” is OK. The word means day. Sunday is pronounced “Joe er,” which is spelled “zhou ri.”
The letter r at the end of the word sounds like an English r. Number two is pronounced “are,” and is spelled “er.”
S – a little more forceful than English. Sh is pronounced as in English.
T – like English.
U – pronounced “oo.” The umlaut sound ü (put your lips like oo but say ee) is said for the u in ju,qu,xu, yu.
W – is used to replace u when there is no consonant in front of it. The sound ua (sounds like oo-ah) is spelled in pinyin as Wa. In some cases the w is silent. Examples: wu is pronounced oo, and wong is pronounced ong.
X – stands for a gentle s.
Y – is used to replace i when there is no consonant in front of it. The sound ia (sounds like ee-ah) is spelled in Pinyin as Ya. The sound i (pronounced “ee”) is spelled in pinyin as “yi.”
Z – used for the sound dz. The combination “zh” is pronounced as a J.
ABOUT PINYIN. Zhou Youguang invented pinyin in 1958. He died January 14, 2016, at age 111.