Sounds / Phonics

Please note: There is a short delay when playing the audio clips. 

Mandarin is the official language of China. When you listen to Mandarin, you'll hear that there are some sounds that seem unusual to English-speaking ears.

There are two ways of writing Mandarin. One uses letters, which are the same as, or similar to English. This is called PINYIN. The other uses CHARACTERS, which are like pictures made up of lines or STROKES. For example, the PINYIN for 'mother' is and the CHARACTER is .

When you are learning Mandarin, PINYIN helps you to say the words, but the goal is to learn to write using the CHARACTERS. Unlike English, in PINYIN, you only use a CAPITAL LETTER for place names, you don't need one at the beginning of a sentence.

Take a look at the PINYIN and CHARACTERS below for some of the 'special' sounds of Mandarin.

Q - qī / 七 - seven

(Sounds a bit like 'ch' in 'cheek'. You have to put the tip of your tongue behind your bottom teeth and really push the sound out hard.)

X - xī / 西 - west

(This sounds like 'sh' in 'she'. Do the same thing with your tongue as for Q.)

ZH - zhī / 只 - (a measure word)

(Try making a sound that's a cross between 'j' in 'joke' and 'dr' in 'draw'.)

C - cí / 词 - word

(Think of the 'ts' at the end of 'cats'.)

Z - zĭ / 子 - child

(Almost exactly the same as C but stronger, almost like a hiss.)

Did you notice that some of the vowels (a, e, i, o, u) have symbols on top? These are called TONES and they change the sound of the letter AND the word the letter is in.

There are four TONES and a NEUTRAL TONE in Mandarin.

In the FIRST TONE, the symbol is a flat, straight line. The sound is long, like singing a note:

ā ō ē ī ū ǖ - 1st tone

In the SECOND TONE, the symbol is a straight line going up. Make your voice start low and go up at the end:

á ó é í ú ǘ - 2nd tone

The symbol goes down, then up in the THIRD TONE. Try to make your voice go as low as it can, then bounce up:

ă ǒ ě ǐ ǔ ǚ - 3rd tone

In the FOURTH TONE, the symbol is a straight line going down. Start the word with your voice as high as you can make it and then drop it:

à ò è ì ù ǜ - 4th tone

The NEUTRAL TONE doesn't have a symbol and it's short and light.

a o e i u ü - neutral tone

Listen to the words below. They have the same letters, but different TONES:

mā / 妈 - mother

má / 麻 - linen (cloth)

mǎ / 马 - horse

mà / 骂 - tell off

ma / 吗 - question particle (a word to make a question)

Did you notice that each word also has a different CHARACTER and meaning? It's really important to get the TONES right or you could end up talking about a horse instead of your mum!