Learning Chinese without learning Pinyin is like learning to ride a bike without training wheels.
While you’ll want to stop relying on Pinyin as you develop fluency, Pinyin can be an incredible tool in your early stages of Chinese learning. Most Mandarin Chinese classes start by introducing new students to Pinyin as it’s a great place to get comfortable with this beautifully unique language. If you’re just getting started with Mandarin, making sure you have a strong foundation of Pinyin will save you a lot of trouble down the road!
Taking some time to learn Pinyin can help you:
- Improve your pronunciation. Learning Pinyin will help you learn the pronunciation of Chinese characters.
- Correct your tones. Knowing Pinyin will help you know exactly which tone every character is supposed to be spoken in.
- Start speaking sooner. If you stick to characters, you will have to spend much longer memorizing them before you can start speaking. Pinyin will help you jumpstart your Chinese, giving you the confidence to start your journey on the right foot!
- Input characters into your phone and computer. Using Pinyin is by far the fastest way to write on your phone or computer. So, if you’re a fan of texting, you’ll need Pinyin!
So, is that enough to get you pumped to learn Pinyin? Let’s get started!
What is Pinyin?
Pinyin is the most common romanization system today and the only one accepted by the Chinese government. Pinyin is a system for assigning roman letters to each Chinese character. Each character is assigned a monosyllabic roman equivalent with one of four accent marks (mā má mǎ mà), which correspond to the tone.
Today, you can use Pinyin to get a good idea of how to pronounce each character. You can also use Pinyin to type characters on your phone and computer, as typing out the Pinyin will show you all the corresponding characters.
However, if you’re learning Chinese, you should be very careful any time you’re dealing with Pinyin. While it can be extremely helpful when learning new vocabulary, it can also turn into a crutch very quickly. Try to maximize your exposure to characters without Pinyin so that you can slowly lean off Pinyin for the characters you’ve already learned.
If you’re just starting to learn Chinese, make sure you spend enough time nailing down the Pinyin pronunciation. This will help you down the line as you grow your vocabulary and learn an even larger number of Chinese characters.
Check out the following video for a quick introduction to Pinyin pronunciations if you’re not familiar yet.
How Pinyin works
Pinyin is a relatively simple romanization method that uses letters from the Roman alphabet to approximate the sounds of Chinese words. However, that doesn’t mean that you can use any Roman letter to approximate sounds as you see fit. In fact, Pinyin is quite a rigid system, and each character has a specific corresponding Pinyin romanization.
Here are the three components of every Pinyin syllable:
- Initials. These are one or two consonants at the beginning of a word. An overwhelming majority of words have initials, but not all of them do.
- Finals. These are vowels and consonants that — you guessed it — go at the end of the word. In some cases, the -i sound at the end may mark the absence of a final instead of an actual final.
- Tone marks. Most Pinyin syllables will have one of the four tone marks. If a syllable doesn’t have a tone mark, that means it’s pronounced with a neutral tone.
Since initials and finals are just like any other letters in the Roman alphabet, it’s probably the tone marks that will need a little extra attention to really nail down Pinyin. Let’s get right into them.
The four tones of Chinese
Mastering the Chinese tones is a long, slow process that will take many years to perfect. As such, you should approach this section from a place of abundant patience and an understanding that you will not become a master at differentiating all the tones overnight. However, the best first step is to start by learning about the basics, and you’ve come to the right place!
Let’s break down how each tone works, along with tone pairs. As you’ll learn as you progress in your studies, an overwhelming majority of Chinese words are made up of two characters. Thus, mastering how to pronounce tone pairs is more important than individual tones.
However, don’t worry about this too much if you’re a beginner. Your first goal should be to be able to differentiate each of the four tones and then to recreate them successfully. Once you’ve gotten a handle on tones, make sure you don’t forget to practice your tone pairs!
Without further ado, let’s get into each of the four tones of Mandarin Chinese.
The first tone
The first tone is the flat tone, meaning that your voice stays flat as you pronounce the vowel. There is no need to raise or lower your intonation. Remembering this tone is easy since the Pinyin tone mark for it is a flat line: ¯.
Here are some example words:
The second tone
The second tone is a rising tone, meaning that it starts low and goes high. In English, this is sometimes common when asking a question. Think of a confused, “wait, what??” to get a better idea of what this tone sounds like. The rising intonation at the end of what is what this tone should sound like. The accent mark for this tone is — quite appropriately — a rising sign: ´.
Here are some example words:
The third tone
The third tone is perhaps the most difficult tone for non-native speakers to learn. In essence, this is a tone that falls and then rises again. Think of the sound Scooby Doo makes when he’s confused: “huh??” It starts high, then falls, and then rises again. Its accent mark — also highly appropriate — is the following: ˇ.
However, one of the reasons why this tone is hard for beginners to master is that it comes with quite a few rules, both official and unofficial. One of the official rules is that you can never have two third tone syllables together. Whenever that happens, you need to change the tone of the first syllable to a second tone.
The unofficial rules, however, are what really make this a tricky tone to master. For example, the initial dip is supposed to be very slight, so much so that you should almost avoid trying to make your voice go down on purpose. And while the tone does go up at the end, it generally doesn’t when spoken in a sentence or as a part of a word. Instead of rising again at the end, it just stays low, almost like a lower version of the first tone.
Only when spoken in isolation does the third tone have a “full ride” from high to low and back to high again. That’s why Chinese learners tend to keep trying to force the full sound as they start speaking more Chinese — they were taught the third tone in isolation. When used with other syllables, you should use the more subtle “half” tone instead.
Again, you shouldn’t beat yourself up over tones if you’re just getting started. Just keep these tips in mind as you keep learning all about Pinyin, and you’ll make progress before you know it!
Here are a few examples of third tone words:
The fourth tone
The fourth tone is relatively straightforward, especially after the third tone. It is a falling tone, meaning it starts high and ends low. In practice, this means that syllables in the fourth tone start with a bang. Think of when you spot your dog dangerously close to your plate of food and with full intentions of stealing your lunch and you say “No!” That’s what a fourth tone is supposed to sound like. The accent mark for the fourth tone is: `.
Here are some examples of fourth tone words:
The fifth tone of Chinese?
Technically, this isn’t a fifth tone but rather the absence of a tone. Also known as the neutral tone, the “fifth” tone is much lighter than the other tones. However, this isn’t normally considered a separate tone, as it is not a tone that can be isolated. Neutral syllables always follow a character from a different tone, and their precise sound varies depending on the tone that they follow.
Here are some examples of words with neutral tone characters.
|妈妈||mā ma||mah mah||Mother|
|什么||shén me||shehn muh||What?|
|你呢||nǐ ne||knee nuh||And you?|
|我们||wǒ men||woh men||Us, we|
|朋友||péng you||puhng yo||Friend|
Chinese tone pairs
As you now know, pronouncing tone pairs correctly is more useful than being able to get them right in isolation. As such, it’s important to spend some time thinking about how the tones interact with each other and practicing a few examples of each set.
First tone pairs
Following a first tone is relatively easy as it doesn’t affect how you pronounce the second syllable. The only exception is for 1-3 pairs where the first syllable is emphasized. For example, in 桌子 (zhuō zi, table), the first syllable 桌 is emphasized, while the second syllable 子 (zǐ) drops the third tone. However, this doesn’t happen when the second syllable is emphasized, as is the case in our example (喝水) below.
Here are some examples of first tone pairs in Chinese:
|今天||1-1||jīn tiān||gene tiahn||Mom|
|中国||1-2||zhōng guó||jong gwoh||Ahina|
|喝水||1-3||hē shuǐ||heh shuay||To drink water|
|工作||1-4||gōng zuò||gong tzuo||To work|
Second tone pairs
Second tone pairs can be a little tricky, especially with 2-2 and 2-3 pairs. There are no special rules to remember here — the trick is to remember to pronounce the second tone in the first syllable regardless of the tone of the syllable.
Here are some examples of second tone pairs:
|时间||2-1||shí jiān||shih jian||Time|
|如何||2-2||rú hé||roo huh||How|
|没有||2-3||méi yǒu||may yo||To not have|
|文化||2-4||wén huà||wehn hua||Culture|
Third tone pairs
As you can probably imagine, the third tone pairs are a little difficult to get just right. First, you should always remember that 3-3 tone pairs do not exist. Any time you encounter a word that should be a 3-3 pair, you need to switch the first syllable to a second tone. For all other tone pairs, use the less emphasized “half” tone that we talked about in the third tone’s section.
Here are some examples of third tone pairs:
|北京||3-1||běi jīng||bay jeeng||Beijing|
|爱情||3-2||ài qíng||ay ching||Romance|
|你好||3-3 (2-3)||nǐ hǎo||knee haw||Hello|
|暖气||4-4||nuǎn qì||nuan chee||Heating|
Fourth tone pairs
Fourth tone pairs are pretty straightforward. The only potential issue that you should look out for is a 4-4 pair. While both syllables remain fourth tones, the first one should be emphasized more than the second one. On a scale of 1 to 10, the first syllable would be a 10 and the second syllable would be a 6.
Here are some examples of fourth tone pairs:
|唱歌||4-1||chàng gē||chang guh||To sing|
|问题||4-2||wèn tí||wehn tee||Question or problem|
|汉语||4-3||hàn yǔ||han you||Chinese language|
|动物||4-4||dòng wù||dong woo||Animal|
Chinese tones video
Some things can be much more easily explained with visuals, and the Chinese tones are one of them. Check out the following video for a comprehensive demonstration of how each of the tones is pronounced.
Chinese tones quiz
If you think you’ve got the tones down, how about a li ttle quiz to test yourself? Even if you think you’ve nailed the pronunciation of each tone pair, the following quiz can be a quick and effective way to spot any areas that you might still need to work on.
Funny tone mistakes to avoid
Embarassing yourself by making tone mistakes is almost a rite of passage in every Chinese learner’s journey. Just as anyone who’s learned Spanish can attest, the subtle difference between “papa” and “papá” can be as large as that between a parent and a potato. Chinese is no different and, in fact, Chinese learners are much more prone to making unintentionally funny tone mistakes than anyone else.
If you do find yourself making a tone error, though, don’t let it discourage you! Approaching this from a place of humor will make the experience that much more enjoyable. At the end of the day, context will almost always make it easy enough for others to understand what you meant, although it may be a funny encounter.
Here are ten funny tone mistakes to keep an eye on!
|我可以问你吗？||wǒ kě yǐ wèn nǐ ma?||Can I ask you?|
|我可以吻你吗？||wǒ kě yǐ wěn nǐ ma?||Can I kiss you?|
|我爱我老板！||wǒ ài wǒ lǎo bǎn!||I love my boss!|
|我爱我老伴！||wǒ ài wǒ lǎo bàn!||I love my wife!|
|你怎么没有经理？||nǐ zěn me méi yǒu jīng lǐ?||How do you not have a manager?|
|你怎么没有经历？||nǐ zěn me méi yǒu jīng lì?||How do you not have experience?|
|我吃了一碗汤||wǒ chī le yì wǎn tāng||I ate a bowl of soup.|
|我吃了一碗糖||wǒ chī le yì wǎn táng||I ate a bowl of sugar.|
|水饺多少钱一碗？||shuǐ jiǎo duō shǎo qián yì wǎn?||How much for a bowl of noodles?|
|睡觉多少钱一晚？||shuì jiào duō shǎo qián yì wǎn?||How much for a night of sleep?|
|我找不到我的眼镜||wǒ zhǎo bú dào wǒ de yǎn jìng||I can’t find my glasses.|
|我找不到我的眼睛||wǒ zhǎo bú dào wǒ de yǎn jing||I can’t find my eyes.|
|你是中国人，你怎么不会说汉语？||nǐ shì zhōng guó rén, nǐ zěn me bú huì shuō hàn yǔ?||You’re Chinese, how can you not speak Chinese?|
|你是中国人，你怎么不会说韩语？||nǐ shì zhōng guó rén, nǐ zěn me bú huì shuō hán yǔ?||You’re Chinese, how can you not speak Korean?|
|这家饭馆怎么没有杯子？||zhè jiā fàn guǎn zěn me méi yǒu bēi zi?||How does this restaurant not have cups?|
|这家饭馆怎么没有被子？||zhè jiā fàn guǎn zěn me méi yǒu bèi zi?||How does this restaurant not have quilts?|
|我爱熊猫||wǒ ài xióng māo||I love pandas.|
|我爱胸毛||wǒ ài xiōng máo||I love chest hair.|
|你什么时候去山西？||nǐ shén me shí hou qù shān xī?||When are you going to Shanxi?|
|你什么时候去陕西？||nǐ shén me shí hou qù shǎn xī?||When are you going to Shaanxi?|
Complete Pinyin chart
With 23 initials and 36 finals, there are hundreds of possible Pinyin combinations. However, not every single intial and final can go together. Here is a complete chart of all the possible Pinyin combinations in pdf format.
Converting Chinese characters to Pinyin
Unfortunately, there isn’t a specific system for converting characters into Pinyin or the other way around. If you know some of the Chinese radicals, you may be able to guess what the Pinyin is based on the radical. Otherwise, you’ll have to use a digital tool to convert Pinyin to characters and vice-versa.
Fortunately, most Chinese characters these days will allow you to search for words using both Pinyin and characters, making it an easy way to find the corresponding Pinyin to any character.
Alternative romanization systems
Pinyin was only invented in 1958, and many systems before it tried to romanize Chinese characters. Though most of them aren’t used anymore, you’ll still see them every now and then, particularly in proper nouns and names of historical documents.
1. Wade–Giles system
The Wade–Giles romanization system was the most popular before Pinyin was introduced. Today, it is still very commonly used in Taiwan and in proper names. For example, have you ever wondered why the city of Beijing is sometimes referred to as Peking? That’s because the Wade–Giles romanization for 北京 (běi jīng) is Peking!
That doesn’t mean that Beijing used to be pronounced as pay-king, though. Each romanization system has different spelling and pronunciation rules that attempt to get as close as possible to the actual pronunciation of the characters. Even Pinyin isn’t perfect, so you’ll still have to learn how to pronounce each character when learning Chinese!
2. Yale system
The Yale romanization system was developed by George Kennedy of Yale university in 1943. This system was specifically developed to help members of the US military learn Chinese faster, and it became the standard romanization system across most of the US. However, this system became less popular as Pinyin started gaining traction, and it all but disappeared after the 70s.
While you likely won’t run into this system anymore, it does have one key legacy: the tone accent marks. The Yale system introduced the four tones (mā má mǎ mà) that are still used by Pinyin today.
While Pinyin is pretty much the only transliteration system you will find in Mainland China, bopomofo is what you will find in Taiwan. Also known as 注音 (zhù yīn), this is another attempt at helping learners pronounce characters. However, bopomofo is nothing like Pinyin as it doesn’t use the roman alphabet. In fact, it doesn’t actually look like any other language.
Bopomofo was designed not to help foreign learners understand how to pronounce Chinese characters, but to help children. This system uses uber-simplified characters to represent specific sounds, much like letters do. They are used alongside accent marks to indicate the tone of the word.
When did Pinyin become official?
Pinyin was officially adopted as the official romanization method on February 11,1958. The system was developed by a group of linguists led by Zhou Youguang and was largely based on previous systems of romanization. The United Nations adopted Pinyin as the official romanization for Chinese in 1986, making it the de-facto internationally-recognized system of romanization.
Do native Chinese speakers use Pinyin?
Yes! Pinyin isn’t just helpful for learners — native speakers use it on a daily basis. Pinyin helps Chinese speakers quickly input Chinese characters in phones, tablets, and computers. Instead of having to draw each character by hand, typing in the Pinyin and selecting the character from a bank of matches is much more efficient.
Can I learn Chinese without learning Pinyin?
You can learn Chinese without learning Pinyin, although it is highly unadvisable to do so. First, making sense of the Chinese characters at the very beginning will take much more time as you won’t have a way to relate them to your native language. Then, entering the characters into your phone or computer will be much more of a hassle without Pinyin. Finally, getting the tones right might be difficult if you learn Chinese without using Pinyin as a guide for tones.
With that said, Chinese was used for thousands of years without Pinyin, so it is completely possible to learn Chinese without Pinyin — you just might end up making it more complicated than it needs to be.
Can I learn Chinese by only using Pinyin?
In theory, maybe. In practice, it’d be extremely difficult. If your main objective is to speak Chinese and have no intentions of learning how to read or write, then you may be able to get away with relying on Pinyin. This may be a good choice for someone who wants to learn Chinese to communicate with relatives or in-laws and doesn’t want to get too bogged down with characters.
However, keep in mind that you will have to learn the Chinese characters if you want to send text messages in Chinese, use Chinese social media, and read or write anything. Plus, learning Chinese characters isn’t actually that hard. Check out these 10 science-backed tips for learning Chinese characters.
Make the most of Pinyin
Learning the basics of Pinyin can really unravel a whole new era in your Chinese learning. Now, you can easily look up words in the dictionary, look up the pronunciation of a word you’re unsure of, and perfect your pronunciation! Remember that nailing every single tone takes a long time, so don’t feel discouraged if you still get a few (or most!) tones wrong even after hours of studying. Consistent practice makes perfect, and you’ll get there too in enough time!
Make sure to check out our Mandarin Chinese blog for more helpful (and free!) guides that will help you unleash your potential. Let us help you learn the numbers in Chinese and 36 different ways to say goodbye