A beginner’s guide to pinyin pronunciations
For adult learners, pinyin is a useful tool for them to start learning Mandarin Chinese, provided that they also understand that pinyin has its limitations.
The biggest advantage of pinyin is that it makes learning Mandarin accessible. It allows beginner students to “see” the pronunciations and therefore have a better grasp of the differences between Mandarin and their own languages. The disadvantage of pinyin is that it is not a true representation of spoken Mandarin, and it is not to be used as the only medium of teaching and learning.
Having said that, below is a guide for how to pronounce pinyin letters and combinations. When it is possible, a similar sound from English is used to roughly illustrate the pronunciations. As pinyin is usually introduced according its three parts: initials, finals, and tones, this guide follows the same pattern.
When an initial has a similar or equivalent sound in English, it can be accepted quickly. The following ones are the easy ones.
When an initial does not have a similar or equivalent sound in English, it is hard. It is when “seeing” the sounds becomes important for beginner students. For the following initials, students can start with the cue words and pay attention to how the initials end.
The initial “y” is the same as the final “i”, and “w” the same as the final “u”.
Except the final ü, everything else is not very difficult for English speakers. The trick is to practice. Practice makes perfect!
When students are familiar with the above finals, they can blend them together and pronounce the following ones.
There are four tones in Mandarin. Also there is a neutral one. My advice for beginner students is not to take tones too seriously. Take the approach of incremental progress and slowly and surely you will improve your pronunciations. Moreover, tones are not to be taken literally as how they are written down. Changes happen quite often in natural speech.
Something you need to remember
Pinyin is not as straightforward as we would like it to be. There are certain rules and exceptions that students must be aware of, such as the pinyin final “i” loses its sound in “zhi, chi, shi, zi, ci, si, ri”, and the final “ü” drops its two dots after “j, q, x, y”.