Learn How To Improve Your Mandarin Pronunciation And Be Understood By Native Speakers


You’re finally able to hold a conversation in Chinese with native speakers. But the problem is they don’t understand what you’re saying. Perhaps you’re mangling the tones and calling the teacher lǎoshǔ (mouse) instead of lǎoshī (teacher.) Many Chinese words are similar but differ only by tone. If you don’t get your tones straight, then it’ll lead to some funny situations like these.

One of the most important things to do as a beginner is to build a solid foundation in your pronunciation. By learning proper pronunciation early, you avoid bad habits that are hard to change.

If you’ve been studying Chinese for a while, learning proper pronunciation is still important. After all, the purpose of learning a language is to communicate with others. If no one understands what you’re saying then that’s a problem.

In this post, I will share tips to help improve your pronunciation so native speakers can understand you.

Pinyin Versus Zhuyin

Pinyin is the phonetic system used to transcribe Mandarin Chinese into a romanised form. Although Pinyin is widely adopted, it may not be the best for proper pronunciation of Chinese. This is because native English speakers often incorrectly associate English pronunciation to Pinyin.

A better system for learning proper pronunciation is Zhuyin, also known as Bopomofo. Zhuyin is mainly used in Taiwan and consists of 37 phonetic symbols. This phonetic system avoids the problem of associating English pronunciation to Mandarin. It’s also less distracting when annotated next to Chinese characters. I find my eyes gravitating towards the Pinyin whenever reading Chinese unlike with Zhuyin.

There are of course some drawbacks with using the Zhuyin phonetic system. Pinyin is often considered easier to learn and more people use it. There are less learning materials annotated in Zhuyin as it’s used mostly in Taiwan. But there is a solution I’ll get to later.

Pinyin Zhuyin
Pros Cons Pros Cons
More universally recognized Not as accurate for Mandarin pronunciation More accurate pronunciation More time to learn compared to Pinyin
Relatively easy to learn More likely to be a crutch from reading characters Consists of only 37 phonetic symbols Less annotated learning materials
More annotated learning materials More distracting when trying to read characters Less distracting when trying to read characters Only used in Taiwan

Fig.1: The pros and cons of the Pinyin and Zhuyin phonetic systems.

You’ll likely need to learn Pinyin, as it’s the dominant phonetic system for Chinese. But rather than consider which system is best, it’s best to learn both. If you’re a beginner, learning Zhuyin first will help you develop good habits right away.

If you’ve already learned Pinyin, it’s still worth learning Zhuyin to improve your pronunciation. It can help correct your Pinyin pronunciation as well.

ㄅ b ㄆ p ㄇ m ㄈ f
ㄉ d ㄊ t ㄋ n ㄌ l
ㄍ g ㄎ k ㄏ h
ㄐ j ㄑ q ㄒ x
ㄓ zh ㄔ ch ㄕ sh ㄖ r
ㄗ z ㄘ c ㄙ s
ㄧ y ㄨ w ㄩ ü
ㄚ a ㄛ o ㄜ e ㄝ ê
ㄞ ai ㄟ ei ㄠ ao ㄡ ou
ㄢ an ㄣ en ㄤ ang ㄥ eng ㄦ er

Fig. 1: Comparison of Zhuyin and Pinyin phonetic systems.

Visit the following website to hear each of the Zhuyin symbols above: http://www.mdnkids.com/BoPoMo/

AllSet Learning has provided a great interactive Pinyin chart with Zhuyin comparison. This chart provides a comprehensive combination of Mandarin syllables. Click “Show More Settings” and check the Zhuyin box to see both Pinyin and Zhuyin together. Clicking the Pinyin/Zhuyin transcriptions in the table will play how it sounds.

How To Learn Zhuyin

The best way to learn the Zhuyin phonetic system is to create Anki flashcards. If you’re not familiar with Anki, you can read my post here.

There are also websites that can transcribe Chinese text into Zhuyin. This can be helpful if you’re having trouble finding learning materials annotated in Zhuyin. MandarinSpot is a good site to use. Just paste the Chinese into the box, select Zhuyin from the Phonetic System drop-down menu, and click Annotate. Just beware that it doesn’t account for tone change rules.

Other Ways To Improve Mandarin Pronunciation

One way of improving your pronunciation is to find text with audio and mimic the native speaker. Some sites where you can find text and audio are The Chairman’s Bao and Slow Chinese. It’s better if you can record yourself and listen to it afterwards. Sometimes you may not realize you’re pronouncing words wrong until you listen to it later.

Print out the text and compare your recording with the audio provided by the native speaker. As you listen to your recording, mark any areas where you have problems. Create Anki cards for words you had trouble pronouncing and review them regularly.

A better way is to ask a native speaker to mark the text wherever your pronunciation is wrong. Then he or she can help you with the proper pronunciation. You can upload your audio to a site like Vocaroo and share the link with the native speaker.

Another way to improve your Mandarin pronunciation is learning tones in pairs. Sometimes a character’s tone may change depending on the tone that follows it. John Pasden’s Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills help beginner and intermediate students master tone combinations.

Lastly, WaiChinese is a website that lets you upload your audio and get feedback from a teacher. Three monthly plans are offered depending on how many audio files you’d like to submit. One of the features it provides is a visual display of your tones compared to a native speaker’s. It can be helpful to assess your pronunciation visually to check any noticeable differences. I haven’t had a chance to try WaiChinese myself, but wanted to share this as a resource.

Have you tried any of the suggestions mentioned in this post already? What other tips do you have? Please share your experiences or suggestions in the comments section!

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