I think the best way to understand how to make new sounds is phonetically (see the previous section), but if that simply doesn’t work for you, then you can try my alternate suggestions here. I’ll start with the easy ones and proceed to the more difficult.
:: CH, SH, ZH ::
These sounds are very similar to English’s “ch,” sh,” and “j” sounds. The difference is that in Chinese the tip of the tongue is pulled back further into the mouth when making them.
Make a continual “sh” noise, and as you make it, pull your tongue backward into your mouth. Pull it back until the “sh” sound starts to get hard to make, then push it back forward just a little bit. That’s probably the right place.
The position of the tongue for the “sh” sound in the word “shirt” is further back than usual because the tongue needs to back up to make the “r” sound. If you can say “shirt” without moving your tongue until you get to the final “t,” then that’s probably where your tongue needs to be for Mandarin’s sh sound.
The positioning for Mandarin’s ch and zh is exactly the same. Say “shirt” in the way described above. Then say “chirt” and “jirt” in the same way. Those should correspond to Mandarin’s ch and zh sounds.
:: J, Q, X ::
You probably know these sounds as the “bizarro” “j,” “ch,” and “sh.” You might be pronouncing them like “j,” “ch,” and “sh.” That’s not correct, though, and your Chinese will never sound really good until you learn to pronounce j, q, and x correctly.
Make an English “ch” sound. Feel what’s happening in your mouth as you make it. Make the “ch” several more times. Where is your tongue? Where exactly is the sound coming from?
You should be able to determine that your tongue is touching the roof of your mouth to make the sound, and the sound is coming from that place. OK, good.
To make q the sound comes from the same place in your mouth, but you need to reposition your tongue. Instead of curving up to put the tip on that place on the roof of your mouth, let your tongue flop down to the bottom of your mouth. The tip of your tongue should be right behind your lower front teeth, just touching them.
Now comes the tricky part. Bend your tongue upward to that place on the roof of your mouth without moving the tip of your tongue. Whatever you do, make sure that the tip of your tongue stays touching your lower front teeth! Your tongue should be able to flex upward in the middle. Basically you’re just raising your entire tongue toward the roof of your mouth, but leaving the tip touching your lower front teeth.
In that position, try to make the “ch” sound. Remember, the sound should come from the same place. You can feel if it’s coming from the same place on the roof of your mouth. If it is, then you did it. That’s the Mandarin q.
Be patient. Don’t expect to get it in 2 minutes. It takes time and experimentation to get it right. It’s worth the effort, though.
Below is an illustration that might help (taken from Patrick Moran’s site at Wake Forest University).
:: R ::
Mandarin’s r can be a bit tricky because English doesn’t have any sounds like it. The American “r” is usually made by bunching up the tongue in the back of the mouth. If you make an “r” sound you can feel it bunch up. Try it. The tongue tip is doing nothing. When making Mandarin’s r sound, the tongue does not bunch up, and the tongue tip makes the sound (again, see Patrick Moran’s illustration above).
The thing is, Chinese people probably won’t have trouble understanding if you make the Mandarin r sound the American way. That is, until you try to say “riben” (“Japan”). You just can’t make it sound right at all using the American “r.” You must learn to produce the retroflex r. Then apply it to Mandarin’s other r‘s.
At one point I made my Mandarin r‘s by just saying “er” (like in “mother“), so the way I said “Japan” sounded a lot like the English word “urban” (except with Mandarin’s tones). That never sounded quite right, though, because the tip of my tongue was in the wrong place. It was in the middle of my mouth doing nothing, when it needed to be in the back of my mouth against the roof of my mouth, making the sound.
Say the word “leisure.” Now focus on the end, the “-sure” part. Is your tongue pulled way back in your mouth? It should be. And the tip of your tongue should be pointing up. Now leave off the “-s-” and just make the “-ure” part. Did you notice how saying “-sure” made your tongue vibrate a little but just saying “-ure” doesn’t? See if you can bring back just a little of that buzzy vibration without returning fully to the “-sure” part.
If you can, there’s a good chance that you’ve learned how to make Mandarin’s r correctly. It will take a lot of practice to get it consistent. Keep at it.
Another site that gets the pronunciation of these sounds in Mandarin right is the Vermont Kung Fu Academy, of all places. You can also try China-on-site.com‘s pronunciation guide, which is also accurate (but rather technical in its descriptions). China-on-site is good, though, because you can listen to pronunciation in MP3 format.