Chinese Pronunciation


There are a host of misconceptions about the pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese out there on the web. The ones I would like to focus on involve the consonants represented as j, q, x, and r in pinyin. It seems to me that these misconceptions arise from a variety of reasons:

1. Some websites are simply trying to help English speakers pronounce Chinese words in a way that is closer to Mandarin in an English language context (e.g. I want to mention a concept from Chinese philosophy in an English language speech, but I don’t want to completely butcher the pronunciation). There’s certainly nothing wrong with this, except when the sites present the information as guides to follow for authentic Mandarin pronunciation instead of identifying it as what it really is. These are often the sites which wrongly equate j and zh, q and ch, x and sh.

Example of bad pronunciation instruction:

From j – J as in Jeep

q – CH as in CHeese

x – SH as in SHip

r – R as in Rose (but with a hint of Z as in Zebra)

I guess because it’s for kids, this site doesn’t want to go too in-depth. Unfortunately, the information is inaccurate. Also, I’m not sure how to make an r like in “rose” and add a z sound to that…

2. Some websites seem to have “learned how to pronounce Mandarin” simply by listening carefully a few times to the pronunciation of a fluent (?) speaker. These kinds of sites provide strange, creative, wrong instructions on how to pronounce Mandarin’s sounds.

Examples of bad pronunciation instruction:

From Brooklyn College’s

Chinese Cultural Studies:

j – j as in “jeep”

q – ch as in “cheek”

x – sh as in “she” – thinly sounded

r – approx like the “j” in French “je”

On its own page, this site looks pretty authentic by providing the Wade-Giles romanization alongside the pinyin. Its pronunciation information is, however, inaccurate. (What, exactly is “thinly sounded” supposed to mean?) Furthermore, it’s not the best form to provide a pronunciation model based on a third language. A third language reference is best kept to supplemental information only.
From Humanities Computing Laboratory: q – as in cheek, e.g., Chongqing, Qing and Qin dynasties, emperors Qinshihuang and Qianlong, taijiquan (shadow-boxing, T’ai-chi-ch’uan), qing (“please”)

x – as in sheen, e.g., Xi’an, Xiexie (“Thank you”), Charlotte Xu, Xianggang (Hong Kong), emperor Kangxi

The site gives lots of examples of the sounds in pinyin, but never explained them accurately in the first place. Pinyin j and r don’t make an appearance.
From j – j, as in jam and jump, but softer and the tongue touches the lower front teeth.

q – tch

They actually give a pretty decent description of how the j sound, but then q is on the wrong track. Where are x and r?
From j – like zh, but not as “full”, about halfway between zh and z (unaspirated t + s)

q – like ch, but not as “full”, about halfway between ch and Pinyin c

x – like sh, but not as “full”, about halfway between sh and s

r – similar to the English “r” in “rank” with a bit of the initial sound in French “journal” in it (I know this sounds strange at first, but try it!)

The site goes for authenticity by adding IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols, but they didn’t display for me. The descriptions above reference other pinyin sounds, but they’re simply inaccurate. (Also, “full” is not the most helpful of linguistic descriptors.) Again, there’s a reference to French.

3. Some seemingly official websites have somehow obtained bad, pseudo-linguistic information. I’m not sure whether it’s just a linguisticked-up version of #2 or what, but these sites are the most potentially harmful sites. Sometimes they’re even big universities’ Chinese language sites.

Examples of bad pronunciation instruction:

From A Comparative Analysis of the Pronunciation of English and Mandarin: j is pronounced like j as in “jeep”, with the tongue forward.

q is pronounced like ch as in “cheep”, with the tongue forward.

x is pronounced like sh as in “sheep”, with the tongue forward.

r is pronounced with the tongue curled back as for l in “laugh”, but with the tip of the tongue not touching the roof of the mouth.

The name of the site leads you to expect something scientific, but the content falls a bit short. “With the tongue forward” — just enough information to be technically accurate but not useful in practice. The description of the r sound starts out right but then goes astray by bringing in l.
From Ting – The Chinese Experience (the University of Maine at Farmington): j – jeep – jie1 ju2 – (palatial)

q – cheer – qian2 qie1

x – she – xian1 xie4xie – (palatial)

r – leisure – ren2 rou4 – (retro) (can include a bit of the s on leisure)

OK, if they had called j, q, and x palatals they’d be linguistically correct, but instead they’re relating the sounds to a palace instead of the palate. Even if they had gotten the adjective right, it doesn’t really help the average person a single bit. Even for a linguist, it’s not enough information. The description of r is quite good, though.
From Rutgers Chinese Department: J j – Press the front of the tongue against the front of the hard palate, then release it to let the air flow pass through the small space between tongue and the palate. It sounds somewhat like the “G” in English “gesture” or the “J” in “jeep”.

ZH zh – Raise the tip of the tongue to touch the front of the hard palate (just behind the alveolar ridge), then release the tongue just enough for the air to flow through with some friction.

Q q – It is formed like “J” above, but “J” is unaspirated while “Q” is. It is close to “CH” in English “cheep”.

X x – Let the front of the tongue approach without touching the front of the hard palate, leaving a narrow fissure between the two surface, and let the air flow pass out through fissure. It sound somewhat like the “SH” in English “sheep”.

Sounds like it’s full of linguistic goodness, but it has major problems. Compare the descriptions of j and zh. They’re the same. (On the actual page they’re pretty far apart, so you probably wouldn’t notice this right away.) The zh is pretty accurate, but j is not pronounced in the same way as zh, so the description of j is inaccurate. Q and x are similarly inaccurate.

It is not my goal here to insist that all information be in linguistic jargon. But information should be accurate. The next two sections, Phonetics and How To, provide such information in both linguistic jargon and jargon-free common language. Accurately.

NOTE: John’s more recent efforts at pronunciation practice are available on the AllSet Learning Store. Check it out!

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