In the last post, we discussed what pinyin is and how it’s used. Now it’s time for the more difficult subject of understanding how different pinyin are pronounced. Pinyin syllables are composed of separate parts called initials and finals. Initials consist of one or two consonants at the beginning of a pinyin syllable. Finals consist of a vowel and/or some ending consonants. A full pinyin either combines an initial and final or the pinyin is sometimes just a final by itself. In total, there are 23 initials and 34 finals that can be combined together to form all the different pinyin.
Before we dive into the details, I will say that for me personally, I believe it’s best to practice the pinyin pronunciations as you start learning characters. Mastering the initials and finals is easier when looking at complete pinyin that utilize them. There a lot of distinct pinyin, so it can be easier to practice pronunciation by working on the pinyin associated with the characters you are currently studying as they come up in your learning. I would also recommend studying several characters all at once which use the same pinyin in order to help you get more practice as you start out.
Fortunately, the same initials and finals come up again and again, so you will quickly feel very comfortable with the all the pinyin sounds after getting some frequently used characters under your belt. But also this means it’s important to ensure your learning is built on a foundation of correct pronunciation. With this guide, I hope to give you a good base understanding to build from as you learn as well as a few resources that will help you along the way. This way you will always have resources for correct pronunciation at the ready, removing any potential for guesswork when you’re unsure.
Take a look at all of the initials and finals listed out in the table below.
| Initials |
b- p- m- f-
d- t- n- l-
g- k- h-
j- q- x-
z- c- s-
zh- ch sh- r-
-a -ai -ao -an -ang
-e -en -eng -er -ei
-i -ia -ie -iao -iu -ian -iang -in -ing -iong
-o -ou -ong
-u -ua -uo -uai -ui -uan -uang -un -ue
For me it was really helpful for me to hear similar-sounding pinyin one after another. I found that until I trained my ear to hear the differences, several distinct sounds were very difficult to discern.
There are many great resources online with audio clips for each pinyin so that you can practice your pronunciation as you go. I would highly recommend this article as a very helpful reference for avoiding common confusing pinyin pronunciations.
Also, I found this pinyin chart with audio very helpful to play back pinyin and tone combinations as I learned new words. I’d suggest you bookmark it in your browser for quick access in your early stages of learning characters. You could also take a look here and here for further information on initials and finals.
I would recommend the pinyin chart over listening to computer generated voices like Google Translate for hearing pronunciation. I find these computerized voices don’t seem as accurate. For example, I find that on Google Translate the pinyin shi, chi, and zhi all seem to sound more like shee, chee, zhee rather than shrr, chrr, and zhrr. You can hear the difference in the audio clip below which compares a speaker with a Northern accent and Google Translate saying “这是事实”（zhì shì shì shí) meaning “This is a fact.”
Alright. Now that we have covered the official pronunciations, let’s give a brief introduction to a topic that can easily trip you up if you are unaware of it: Northern vs Southern Chinese accents.