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Pinyin: An Introduction
Pinyin 拼音 (pīn yīn), is the romanized translation of Chinese characters. Pinyin was introduced after a language reform during the 1950s, instigated by Zhou Enlai 周恩来 (zhōu ēn lái). He believed that a phonetic system was necessary in order for people to learn how to pronounce Chinese characters. Zhou Enlai worked alongside linguist, Zhou Youguang 周有光 (zhōu yǒu guāng) to create Hanyu Pinyin 汉语拼音 (hàn yǔ pīn yīn). Hanyu (another way to say ‘Chinese language’) Pinyin used the Latin alphabet, which Zhou Youguang believed would help connect China to the western world.
Zhou Youguang is known as the ‘Father of Pinyin’ and recently celebrated his 110th birthday!
Although Pinyin is based on the Latin alphabet, the sounds that are created when letters make a word, do not sound the same as English.
For example, based on our understanding that in English, the letter ‘z’ makes a sound found in ‘zebra’, ‘zoo’ and ‘buzz’, and is made with the tongue at the front of the mouth. If we look at the romanization of the Chinese city, Shenzhen 深圳 (shēn zhèn), we would assume that the second word ‘zhèn’, would be spoken with the same ‘z’ sound. However, in Pinyin, when the letters ‘z’ and ‘h’ are found together, they make a sound more similar to ‘j’, as in ‘jog’ or ‘jump’.
You’ve probably already noticed that Pinyin often has a mark above a vowel, and this indicates which tone to use. A tone is a sound, that as in music is determined by pitch and strength. It can also indicate emotions. We’ll get to the tone markers shortly, but first let’s focus on how to pronounce Pinyin.
Why Pinyin is Important
Even though Pinyin is ‘based’ on the Latin alphabet, it still needs to be learned. Many people want to skip Pinyin and go straight to Chinese characters, but there are several reasons why learning Pinyin is essential to learning Chinese properly.
- The pronunciation of some Pinyin is not the same as the pronunciation of the Latin letter.
- There are sounds that do not exist in the English language.
- Pinyin also shows the tone of a Chinese character.
- Pinyin acts as a base for learning Chinese characters. Once you’ve learned Pinyin, you can get going with characters!
You can read more about some Pros and Cons about learning Pinyin here.
How to Pronounce Pinyin
As I mentioned in the introduction, even though pinyin uses the Latin alphabet, the pronunciation is not the same as its romanized counterpart, and it is IMPOSSIBLE to learn Chinese without listening to it and speaking it. You can take a look at the Pinyin chart below and see all the different sounds in the Chinese language.
[table id=2 /]
Once you’ve learned these sounds, you’re well on the way to mastering Chinese!
To learn how to read and speak Pinyin using the chart, you can do the following:
1. Copy the Pinyin you want to learn
2. Open a new browser tab, and open https://dictionary.writtenchinese.com
3. Paste the Pinyin into the search bar, and hit ‘ENTER’ on your keyboard, or tap the ‘magnifying glass’ search icon.
4. Look at the list of words that appear, and choose an example that has the first tone of ‘ – ’ above the pinyin.
5. Press the audio button and listen to the pronunciation.
You can see that the there are lots of patterns within the Chinese language. For example, once you understand that the pinyin ‘ao’ is pronounced like ‘ow’ (as in ‘ow! That hurt!) in English, you can begin to add the consonants and make new words.
How To Read Pinyin Tone Markers
Learning to use tones is imperative if you want to speak Chinese properly. You may have heard that tones are not necessary, and that you can ‘get by’ just fine without them. Infact, this is absolutely true and the reality is, that you will never manage fluency without them. It is far easier to learn tones right from the beginning than to realize after 6 months of studying that you should have really buckled down and learned them. It’s super difficult to backtrack and learn it once you’re already several months (or even years) into speaking Chinese.
This is especially important for those of you who are in China and ‘learning’ Chinese, as it’s much easier to become complacent about doing some serious studying.
Although the line markers are a common way to read the tone of a word, you may also see Pinyin marked with a number and be colour coded.
To change the tone settings in the Written Chinese Dictionary, tap on the Menu button and then go to Settings.
The 5 Tones of Mandarin Chinese
There are 5 ‘tones’ in Mandarin Chinese. A tone 声调 ( shēng diào) refers to the way a character should be spoken. Tones can often be one of the difficult parts of learning Chinese, but the most important reason why you need to learn tones, is because pinyin + tone = a word. So, if either the Pinyin or tone changes, it creates a new word.
Don’t panic! It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Remember that Pinyin is just the basis of your Chinese learning. Once you’ve grasped these concepts, you can begin to introduce Chinese characters and much of what you’ve learned won’t be so intimidating!
Using the Pinyin ‘ma’, the 5 tones are as follows: mā má mǎ mà ma
If you click on each of the 5 ‘ma’s, you will be taken to the Online Dictionary where you can listen to the different tones. (Don’t forget to press the audio button to listen!)
mā/ma1 – if a vowel has a flat line above it, the pinyin is spoken with a flat high tone. This is know as the first tone.
má/ma2 – if a vowel has a upward line above it, then the pinyin is spoken with a rising tone. This is known as the second tone.
mǎ/ma3 – if a vowel has a ‘v’ shape above it, then the pinyin is spoken with a dipped tone and this is known as the third tone.
mà/ma4 – if a vowel has a downward line above it, then the pinyin is spoken with a down tone and this is known as the fourth tone.
ma/ma5 – if the pinyin has no line, then the pinyin has no tone. This is known as the fifth tone.
Technically, a fifth tone pinyin does have a tone, but it is dependent on the character that comes before it. As a beginner, this is something to be aware of, but not something to panic about!
Test Your Tones!
Once you’ve listened to the different tones, you can test yourself using our tone trainer. Even if you’re brand new to Chinese, this can help train your ear to hearing the five different tones.
Perfect Your Chinese Pronounciation
So, now that you’ve learned the importance of Pinyin, you can make a start on using the Pinyin Chart, to perfect your Chinese pronounciation from the very beginning of your Chinese adventure!
To continue your Chinese learning on-the-go, get our Written Chinese Dictionary mobile app. You can learn more about our Chinese Learning Toolkit here! You can also click on the links below to download it for your iOS and Android devices!