According to the CIA World Factbook, China has the largest population in the world with over 1.3 billion people. As the world becomes smaller through globalization and Chinese becomes one of the most widely spoken languages on earth, learning Mandarin has become a valuable job skill.
Pinyin is the Romanized writing system for Mandarin Chinese. Because the written language uses characters that do not give the reader information on pronunciation, Pinyin was developed to assist in phonetic teaching. Before you begin to learn characters, you can learn the Mandarin Chinese language consonants using the Pinyin system.
Mandarin Chinese Language Consonants
The following 23 consonants appear only at the beginning of a Mandarin Chinese syllable and are called “initials.”
- b - unaspirated p, as in “bay”
- p - aspirated p, as in “pit”
- m - as in “mom”
- f - as in “fate”
- d - unaspirated t, as in “dog” or “stop”
- t - aspirated t, as in “top”
- n - as in “nice”
- l - as in “live”
- g - unaspirated k, as in “game” or “skull”
- k - aspirated k, as in “kite”
- h - as in “hay”
- j - no English equivalent, but similar to “jeep”
- q - no English equivalent, but similar to “cheek” with the mouth spread widely and strongly aspirated
- x - as in “she” with the lips spread widely, making an “ee” sound
- zh - as in “joke”
- ch - as in “church”
- sh - as in “shirt”
- r - as in “ray”
- z - unaspirated c, like the final sound in “suds”
- c - aspirated c, like the final sound in “cats”
- s - as in “son”
- w - as in “way”
- y - as in “yet”
The following 2 consonants appear at the end of Mandarin Chinese syllables and are called “finals.”
- n - as in “sun”
- ng - as in “sang”
Because the Mandarin Chinese language consonants are often pronounced differently than the same letters in English, it is important to learn them from a native speaker. If you do not have access to a native Chinese teacher, look for an audio course or online pronunciation chart recorded by a native speaker. The more you listen to the sounds being produced by a native speaker, the more comfortable you will feel with them.
Dictation: Have your teacher or fellow student read a word to you in Mandarin. Write down the word using the Pinyin system. Pay special attention to similar consonant sounds, such as “p” and “b” or “z” and “c.”
Distinction: Write down a list of four simple Mandarin words that are the same except for a single consonant. Ask your teacher or fellow student to say one of the words at random. Listen, and try to identify which word was spoken. This activity will help train your ear to the closely related sounds in Mandarin Chinese.