Mandarin Vowels

2013 May 6
by Myra

Vowels are the most indispensible component of a syllable. Mandarin has three types of finals composed by three types of vowel: simple vowels, nasal vowels and compound vowels. This article will focus on finals, to examine English speakers’ difficulties and give tips to improve pronunciation.

There are 35 finals in Mandarin: 6 simple vowels, 13 compound vowels and 16 nasal vowels.

1. Single vowels: o, e, ü
Simple finals are composed by a single vowel. There are three particular single vowels that have been proven rather difficult for English speakers to pronounce. To start with, single vowel “o” in mandarin is a back, middle, lip-rounded vowel. To pronounce it correctly, first round you lip and let the sound come from the back of the throat, which sounds like “bore” in English.
Single vowel “e” is a back, middle, unrounded vowel, coming from the back of the throat, which is similar to “yay” in English. The only difference between “o” and “e” is the shape of the lips. When you rounded you lip, you get a “o” sound, otherwise you get a “e” sound.
The most difficult vowel in Mandarin is “ü”, the front, high, rounded vowel. To get a “ü” sound, one can start with a simple “i” sound (similar to “bee” in English), then slowly, rounded your lips while maintaining the “i” sound. Therefore, you can get a perfect “ü” sound.

2. Compound sounds: iao, iou, uai, uei, üan.
Unlike English, Chinese has only 13 set compound finals altogether. Instead of a simple combination, each individual vowel in the compound vowels is pronounced with different emphasis. For example, the three head vowels “i” “u” and “ü” are pounced short and then quickly slide to the main vowel, usually the middle vowel in the syllable. The main vowels “a” “u” “e” are pounced slow and loud, and then slowly change shape of the mouth to pounce the final vowel. If there are only two compound vowels, emphasis is often on the latter one.

3. Nasal finals: an, en, in, ong, ang, eng, ing, ong
In Mandarin, sounds ending in “n” (an alveolar nasal) are known as front nasals, while sounds ending in “ng” (a velar nasal) are known as back nasals. A majority of native English speakers find Mandarin nasal finals hard to pronounce. For example, when pronouncing the front nasal, “an”, you first pronounce the vowel “a”, then gradually lift the tips of the tongue to touch your upper gum and let the air go through nose. Back nasals, as the name suggested, tongue positions are more backwards. For instance, after finish pronouncing the vowel “a”, lift the back of the tongue to touch the soft palate and let the air go through nose. In reality, front nasals outnumber back nasals substantially; people only need to memorize back nasals.

Vowels take precedence in syllables, only when people are able to pounce each vowel correctly, can they get a right pronunciation of the whole word.

Please stay tuned for more articles about Mandarin vowels and tones from Hills Learning.

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