X is the Unknown

Do you remember “solving for x” in math class? When you first started algebra (or was it pre-algebra?), you had to learn a whole new set of methods which, when applied, could magically reveal the values of the unknown variables.

So when you saw this:

2x = 8

4x + y = 17

z(3x – 2y) = 30

…before long you could handily solve for x. And once you had x, you could solve for y. Then z was a piece of cake too.

The Algebra Connection

Chinese pronunciation is similar. We native speakers of English of English have to learn to produce some new sounds in order to become fluent speakers of Chinese. Although the pinyin “r” sound is formidable, what I’m talking about today are the sounds linguists call “alveolo-palatals“: the three Mandarin consonant sounds pinyin represents as “x,” “q,” and “j.”

So how are the sounds of Mandarin like algebra? Well, just as the in the above algebra example one would first solve for x, then solve for y, and finally solve for z, learning those “alveolo-palatals” involves a similar chain effect. Once you’ve solved for “x” (I’m talking the pinyin x here), “q” and “j” both become relatively simple. “X” is definitely the one you want to start with, though, for many reasons. X is the unknown. First solve for “x,” and “q” and “j” are within your grasp.

Why X?

There are a number of reasons to start with “x.” First of all, it’s a prominent feature of the Chinese word almost everyone learns right after “nihao” (你好). Yes, the word is “xiexie” (谢谢), the Chinese word for “thank you.”

Second, the “x” consonant contains the basic feature you need to build on to learn “q” and then “j.” Just as solving for x in the algebra equations above allows you to solve for y with a simple operation, the same is true for pinyin “x” and then “q.” Allow me to explain.

The True Nature of X, Q, and J

If you’ve studied phonetics at all, you learn IPA (the international phonetic alphabet). The main idea behind IPA is that as nearly as possible, every unique sound is represented by a unique symbol. So one good way to know if a sound in a foreign language is really equivalent to a sound in English is to check their respective IPA notations.

In English, for example, the “sh” sound isn’t actually an “s” sound plus an “h” sound. We just write it as “sh.” In reality, it’s a sound different from all the other sounds in the English language. It gets its own IPA symbol: ʃ. Makes sense, right? Now, a lot of new learners to Chinese think that pinyin “x” is the same as English’s “sh.” If that were true, the IPA symbols for the two sounds would be the same. But they’re not.

IPA for x, q, j

If there is any doubt that the pinyin “x,” “q,” and “j” sounds are foreign for speakers of English, you can look up the IPA for the sounds of Mandarin Chinese. Don’t freak out, now. The alien symbols representing pinyin’s “x,” “j,” and “q,” are, respectively, ɕ, tɕʰ, and tɕ.

Now take a look at those three consonant sounds again: ɕ, tɕʰ, tɕ. The common element is ɕ. That’s the “x” sound. This sound does not exist in English; “x” is the unknown. But the addition of the other sounds, which are not foreign to English speakers, will result in the “q” and “j” sounds.

So, once again, master that “x” sound, and you can unlock the other two. It’s practically “buy one get two free,” but you definitely have to pay for the “x,” and you may need to struggle a bit. [More info on producing this sound here.]

It’s worth it, though. Before long you’ll leave “syeh-syeh” behind and utter “xièxie” perfectly. Just solve for “x” first.



John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. For what it’s worth, the Yale system represented the “x” sound as “sy-,” which is not a bad starting point. The best tip I’ve ever seen on pronouncing the sound is from David Hawkes’ Little Primer of Tu Fu, in which he advises the reader to make an “sh-” sound, then touch the top of their tongue to the back for their bottom teeth and make the same sound.

    • Yeah, that description of how to make the “x” sound is a good one; it’s essentially the same as the one use, and it’s pretty much the only way to make the “x” sound! (A lot of people still really struggle with this, though, because most people have no idea what their tongue is doing in their mouths when they speak.)

    • I remember when the Lonely Planet tried to introduce its own Romanization system, including substituting sy for -x, and there was a pretty strong reader outcry as a result because of what you get at in your last paragraph.

  2. Great tip! I find the x quite easy to master, but still get stuck sometimes telling between “j” and “q”. Especially when it is a noisy environment or the speaker is mumbling, I find they sound almost the same… and often two different words are only one j/q apart!

    Next would be useful to see a tip for the z/c and zh/ch as well. Similar trouble, especially with Southern speakers.

  3. Rafa 穆凡 Says: March 9, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    I think IPA is very useful when learning pinyin, also you can see that the IPA for j and q is the same –[tɕ]– only that for q has the little h or sometimes an apostrophe to indicate the aspirated sound(送气音)。

    The same with pinyin b, p, d, t, g, k:
    pinyin b and p IPA is[p] and [pʰ]
    pinyin d and t IPA is [t] and [tʰ]
    pinyin g and k IPA is [k] and [kʰ]

    Many foreigners will pronounce those voiceless sound (清音)b, d, g as voiced sound (浊音), and the aspirated sound not enough “air” (送气音,送气不够)like when 葡萄牙 sounds like “budaoya”.

    When I had to memorise the IPA for the consonants, I was having a hard time with j, q, x, and z, c, s, and, zh, ch, sh but then I also noticed that I only had to learn the “unknown” (x, s, and sh) then I could just add a [t] or an aspirated [tʰ]. Actually I just said it so complicated but it’s very simple 😀


    • Yeah, that’s a detail I originally wrote into this article, but then later removed. It’s too fine a linguistic point for the average learner, so it’s not something that most beginners can assimilate early on. In my experience, most learners will unconsciously pick up on the proper pronunciation (aspirated vs. non-aspirated instead of voiced vs. unvoiced) with enough exposure to native speakers.

      “X” and its ilk, on the other hand, demand focused attention.

      • I wasn’t even aware of the aspiration difference with the mandarin b, d and g until I started making real efforts at picking up some Taiwanese in which aspirated, unaspirated and voiced versions all exist for each! However, according to my acquaintances, my mandarin b, d and g were fine. I’m not sure why, but some pronunciation issues resolve themselves with enough input. Others, apparently don’t.

  4. jen_not_jenny Says: March 10, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Nice analogy. It’s amazing how helpful and understanding of IPA and the anatomy and positioning of the mouth can be in tackling these difficult sounds.

  5. It never fails to amaze me when I see foreigners who have lived here for ages, speak more Chinese than me, do business in Chinese, and they still say “shayshay” instead of “xiexie”.

  6. Thanks John. It is a bit like learning to dance by reading a book, but I have always found your explanations helpful in finding the right “feel” for making a new sound. We have forgotten how to learn new sounds as adults, so a little help can go a long way.

  7. In case anyone sees this and is struggling with the x sound in mandarin, I remember that a good way to produce it is to smile and touch the tip of your tongue to the permanent retainer for your bottom teeth(if you had braces). I’m very proud of curing a shay shay guy with this description, although I don’t know if it aligns with how linguists describe the correct tongue placement for the x sound!

  8. Believe it or not, I actually edited the wikipedia page for Xie_xie a few years back. At the time it claimed that 谢谢 should be pronounced “shay shay”.

  9. Funny you should write a post about pronunciation as just yesterday I have come full circle and learning to better pronounce my “initials”. Had a very good lesson on “zh” and “z” from the girl at the coffee shop yesterday and for the first time, oddly enough, I pronounced “zh” correctly! I was so surprised by the realisation that I had been mispronouncing such a basic concept.. it’s the same realisation I had about the “n” and “ng” finals a month ago..

    It’s like.. you learn the basics of pronuciation so you can understand enough to learn a decent vocab set and then kinda ignore/forget about pronunciation practise altogether until you reach a certain point where the learning of new vocab slows down enough that you can take a breath and go back to the basics in order to bring your “mastery” level of the current vocab up to scratch.

    Sure.. we could all be perfect students of language and master pronunciation from the beginning but as an adult learner, I don’t think it’s quite that cut and dry.

  10. David Lloyd-Jones Says: January 16, 2014 at 1:49 am

    My two elder daughters went to elementary and secondary school in Japan, so they started algebra — simple equations of one unknown — in Grade IV.

    My eldest, Rebecca, now an engineer/investment banker, explained it all to me the second day: “You just have to look at X, ’cause that’s the answer.”

    Hmmm. Can we get our kids over here drinking some of that stuff?


  11. […] Sinosplice: X is the Unknown […]

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