Pronunciation is of vital importance especially in mandarin. Initials, finals, and tones are combined in fixed ways to produce a total of 1,600 possible distinct syllable sounds in Chinese (compare to 16,000 for English and 100 for Japanese). As long as you pronounce one syllable sound wrong, you can get a completely different word. This article will focus on initials, to examine English speakers’ difficulties and give tips to improve pronunciation.
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Mandarin initial sounds are composed by one of 21 consonantal sounds. English and Mandarin shares a majority of consonants, which is easy for English speaker to master. However, the difficulty lies in the highlighted consonants, which are Mandarin specific.
1. No multiple consonants syllables. Zh, Ch, Sh, ng are one consonant.
English speakers are used to multiple consonants, such as “scrambles” (cccvcccc). But all Chinese consonants are either in front of or behind a vowel sound. For example, ba (爸) pan (盘).
Zh, Ch, Sh, Ng might look like compound consonants, but they are indeed just one consonant. Consequently, rather than simply pronounce as consonant “z” + “h” or “n”+ “g”, one can only pronounce them as a whole.
2. Retroflex Consonants ：Zh (ʈ͡ʂ) Ch (ʈ͡ʂʰ), Sh(ʂ), R (ʐ)
When pronouncing retroflex sounds, the position of one’s tongue is crucial. One has to curl the tongue upwards and softly touch your palate. In the syllables "chi", "shi", "zhi" and "ri", the entire syllable is pronounced as one retroflex sound. Pronounce all letters of the syllable with your tongue curled back.
||Similar to “j” in “jam”
||Similar to “ch” in “cheap”
||Similar to “sh” in “ship”
||Similar to “z” in “azure”
- Dental Sibilants "z" "c", "s"
The difference between dental sibilants "z" "c", "s" and retroflex consonants “zh” “ch” “sh” is their place of articulation. When pronouncing "z" "c" "s", first close your teeth, use the tongue to push the alveolar, then hold the position and let air go through the teeth.
||Similar to “ds” in “woods” zi is similar to a mosquito buzzing
||Similar to “ts” in “bits”
||Similar to “s” in “see” si is similar to a snake hiss
- Alveolar- Palatal sounds j (t͡ɕ ) q (t͡ɕʰ) x (ɕ)
English speakers are quite unfamiliar with alveolar-palatal sounds because they are Mandarin exclusive. When pronouncing j, q, x, place the tongue below lower teeth, the front part of the tongue touch hard palate, and let the air go out.
To master these four sets of sounds requires abundance practices. Here are some tongue twisters to help you perfect your pronunciation.
- J, Q, X
Tā de qīnqì mǎi le qī jīn xīnxiān de xīhóngshì
His relative buys 7 kg fresh tomato.
Qù kěndejī chī jī
Go to KFC to eat chicken
- Zh, Ch, Sh
Wó xǐhuān chī zhī shī
I like to eat cheese.
Shī cī de zhī shí
knowledge of poem
Rén rén wǎng shàng zhǎo rén
Look for people in People.com
- Z, C, S
Xie zì de zī shì
Please stay tuned for more articles about Mandarin vowels and tones from Hills Learning.