Advice to the Mandarin Newbies

There are a few things that I think I understand about Mandarin, or at least about speaking it as a non-native, that I didn’t understand back when it would have been most helpful. The following are things that I wish someone had told me three years ago when I was learning this stuff.

1. In pinyin, ü is not a u. It’s an i. I know, I know. It’s /y/. Well people don’t tell you that. They tell you, indirectly of course, that it’s related to u. That’s why it’s a u with ¨ on top. Well it’s not. It’s an i. Stop thinking of it as a u. Go “eeeeeeee” and then round your lips. i.

2. Also in pinyin, r is not r. It’s voiced sh¹. Get it out of your head that it has anything to do with r as you know it. Minimal pairs are your friend.

3. Everyone will always tell you your spoken Mandarin is good. Don’t let it go to your head, but more importantly, don’t get upset with them for patronising you. Brush it off and try to move on with the conversation, if they’ll let you.

4. Characters are simple and methodical and if you learn the system they’re much easier to deal with. Take them as a system and it won’t be overwhelming.

5. Get a good handwriting based dictionary now. Like an iPod with Pleco or Qingwen. Skip the damn keyboard based pocket ones that all your Chinese friends have. You’ll find them frustrating and the good ones cost almost as much as an iPod anyway.

6. Write more. At least learn to write things that would be useful, like your address, your school’s name, your apartment complex name, or whatever.

Do you have anything to add? What would have been helpful for you to have known early in your Mandarin education? Leave it in the comments.

– – –
1. That is, voiced /ʃ/, sh as found in English, not voiced /ʂ/ which is sh as found in Mandarin.

46 responses to “Advice to the Mandarin Newbies”

  1. Joel says:

    I wish people had told us #1 and #2 at the beginning, and I wish we’d done #5 and bought Pleco three years ago! Teaching English I can really see how the pronunciation issues in #1 and #2 play out when Chinese learn English.

    If pinyin r is a voiced sh, what about the pinyin w? I often hear people pronounce it as if it were part v, and my English students routinely have trouble distinguishing v and w in English.

    A guy who learned Chinese in Taiwan said we should have skipped pinyin and used bopomofo, because then we wouldn’t have the problem of associating the pinyin with English. Have you heard that sort of advice before? What do you think?

  2. ze says:

    From my teaching and observation experience, the ü is the single most difficult sound for native English speakers to master. Overall, my experience definitely suggests that the ‘ü’ leads learners to err on the side of ‘u’–even to hear ‘u’. Due to my zealousness on this count, I do find an occasional student who overdoes it and ends up with an ‘ee’ extreme, but it doesn’t last–and I’ve never met a more advanced non-native speaker of Mandarin who erred on the ‘ee’ side of things.

    I’m interested in your analysis of pinyin r. Have you heard/read others describe it that way? It’s certainly seems accurate. I’m right now contemplating how helpful it will be to describe it to students that way. Since ‘sh’ is not generally a sound they’re familiar with, telling them that ‘r’ is the voiced version of it may or may not be illuminating (early on)–but I like it as a practical tip.

    Re: Joel. My hunch is that bopomofo just adds one more layer of symbols to the mix–that was how it felt to me when I learned it. I just wanted to equate each sign to an English letter. If that’s what learner’s generally do, that may or may not end up better than Pinyin.

    In the end, the best solution is a concerned learner and a careful teacher. Some nice tips such as Kellen’s 1 & 2 are great as well. Whether you use bopomofo or Pinyin, those two sounds will be challenging.

  3. Chris H says:

    Pinyin is helpful for anybody studying Chinese outside of China, inside China the only good way to learn is to immitate native speakers and to travel across China, see how it differentiates and people still understand eachother. It also depends on what your goals are learning Chinese.

    My advice to anyone starting out learning Chinese (inside or outside China) is to keep a clear eye on the goal you have for it. Chinese as a language is too broad and if you are not considering long stays (forever and ever) inside the country don’t bother with the details, just aim for being able to be understood, that is more than ambitious enough already.
    Chinese is definately not a language for perfectionists, unless you want to spend your whole life here and join me in my frustrated quest for perfect Chinese;-)

    Oh yeah, do relax on the tones, Chinese are quite capable of making out what you are saying without the “right” tonal afflictions (contrary to what a lot of Chinese teachers outside of China are trying to make their students believe), due to context, pick up the “right” tones in the country as you are trying to speak, Chinese will gladly offer you their wanted or unwanted help and will be very glad to point out any and all mistakes you make. Remember all Chinese outside of Beijing (and even there) have to learn the “right” tones as well since they are a convention, but differ widely across the country.

  4. Steven says:

    1 and 2 are dead on, once I figured those out my pronunciation improved spectacularly. One problem a lot of my classmates over the years have also had: using Spanish vowels when pronouncing pinyin. Spanish/Italian/IPA vowel sounds are taken to be the default “learned” pronunciation for all foreign words among many Americans, which just doesn’t carry over to pinyin. Do not fear the /æ/ sound.

  5. Chris H says:

    riben was one of those words that got my tongue twisted over and over again, as a native speaker of Dutch. I usually explain it like “rjɘ” its as close as I ever gotten to semi-phonetically distinguishing it from the rolling back- of- the throat- r of French and de tongue-tip r of Dutch.

    French and dutch speakers don’t have trouble with y-v, since they exist in our language. We do have trouble withI che especially in combinations like zixingche… I wonder how that is for native english speakers.

  6. Sima says:

    I think 1,3,4 and 6 are fine points.

    At the risk of being controversial, I really don’t think most Mandarin speakers produce [ʐ] for pinyin ‘r’, the voiced partner of ‘sh’ [ʂ], even though in theory it is described as such. I think most learners do just fine with an English ‘r’. The one exception being 日.

    Is 日 not just a bit of an outlier (as far as ‘r’ is concerned) and better treated as such? Lumped with ‘shi’, and then ‘zhi’, ‘chi’, and ‘zi’, ‘ci’, ‘si’, it makes sense as you describe. Is the element that misleads many learners in these syllables not the so-called vowel?

    Btw, interesting that ‘ri’ and ‘shi’ seem to be the one voiced-unvoiced pair in MSM, don’t you think?

    As for point 5, might it not be better advice to the beginner to get a paper dictionary at the beginning and save handwriting input for later? Maybe I’m just lazy, and easily distracted from study, but my recall of new characters seemed to fall off dramatically when I got Pleco (even though I love it and find it increadibly useful in many ways).

  7. Kellen Parker says:

    Joel: Bopomofo is worthless if you’re working on the mainland. I learned it out of curiosity but I’ve never once had use for it.

    Sima: Not voiced /ʂ/, but English ‘sh’ /ʃ/. For the handwriting dictionary, I mean more for when you see some crazy junk on a menu and don’t know how to type it on your keyboard based dopod dictionary.

    ze: interesting. I err on the eee form. I studied Albanian when I was younger which has /y/ (ü) in it, as does Arabic in some cases (e.g. مصر). I started doing the u end of things before I realised it was /y/. Now I overcorrect I’m sure. As far as the voiced sh bit, I don’t know if I’ve seen it explained that way. I’m not sure telling Mandarin speakers to make an unvoiced r will help them. You might be better off just telling them that sh is between pinyin sh and pinyin x.

    Chris H: I think pinyin has some real value in the PRC as well. I’ve never studied Mandarin anywhere but in the country, but with such odd pronunciations I hear, it’s often been useful to know the pinyin that goes along with what the speaker is intending to say. That way I learn the word without learning it in just their accent. I have a professor who pronounces zhe, ze, zhi and zi almost identically as ze. If I just took it from him, it would sound quite odd in the accent I’ve otherwise developed.

  8. Dion says:

    Is it an American thing where ü isn’t automatically associated with /y/?

    I cannot imagine ever associating /y/ with an i, I’d start pronouncing 女 like 你. But since everyone is agreeing with point 1, I must be missing something; what?

  9. Dion: How are you thinking /y/ sounds?

    From the Wikipedia pinyin article:
    ü [y] yu as in German “üben” or French “lune” (To get this sound, say “ee” with rounded lips)

  10. Sima says:

    I think Kellen’s description of /y/ makes sense. It’s basically the lips of /u/ and the tongue of /i/. I find that asking English-speaking learners to move between /u/ and /i/ a few times, before trying to leave the tongue in the /i/ position and bring the lips back to the /u/ position, generally helps them ‘find’ it.

    Incidentally, the lip position for /u/ (and /y/) are quite different from English /u/ and gradually working on them can, I think, have a great benefit. The lips need to be much tighter to the teeth and form a much smaller gap, rather than being pushed well forward, as they often are in English. This is something that may well benefit learners early on.

    Kellen, I’m not convinced by your suggestion. Are you saying that /ʒ/ (the voiced partner to /ʃ/, right?) be used for pinyin ‘r’ in all cases and that this is important to beginners?

    Chris H, I’m not sure that one can relax too much on the tones, but I’d be interested to know whether anyone has more experience of this…has anybody encountered someone who ignored tones in the beginning and made it to a reasonable proficiency in the language?

    I appreciate you said ‘relax’ rather than simply ignore. I do feel that a little more time spent on some of the things talked about here rather than on endless tone exercises could benefit many learners.

  11. Sima: Not all cases of course. Certainly not in syllable final position e.g. 而 et al. And really as I think about it, yeah /ʐ/ is just fine. While I think learners do fine with ‘r’ except with 日 I think they only get away with that because Chinese have become accustomed to us saying it that way, so they’re not surprised to hear it. At any rate, I think that thinking of it not as English r is important if they want to have clear pronunciation. Based on some of the things I hear from cabbies about foreigners with weird accents, I think most new learners would want clear pronunciation. Mostly I think people give up on it early because no one has ever really explained it well.

    Chris H: Gotta agree with Sima here. I think if anything, tones ought to receive more attention. That said, I don’t think people are learning them in the best way. John Pasden touched on that recently.

  12. Claw says:

    @Joel: The w/v phenomenon appears to be regional (seems to occur around Tianjin). It’s been discussed on BJS before:

  13. Claw: Thanks for posting that link. I knew I missed something in an earlier response.

    Joel: In addition to w as /ʋ/ in some places, there’s also just no /v/, so it makes it harder for the ESL student to get the sound. It’s really the same reason Mandarin learners have trouble with things like ü if it doesn’t exist in their language.

  14. Sima says:

    Sorry, Kellen, I was taking it as read that ‘er’ was a completely different kettle of fish. But I still don’t really agree about the importance of initial ‘r’. The only time I’ve seen a complete failure of communication (by a foreign learner)with a word like 人, was when they pronounced ‘r’ as /ʒ/ (perhaps under the influence of Wade-Giles?!). I’ve heard a reasonable spread of “how foreigners sound in Chinese” comments and don’t recall ‘r’ being featured, but I will ask around. I suppose it’s just about possible that widespread English learning amongst younger Chinese has begun to influence some sounds in Chinese but, regardless, it’s my impression that ‘r’ sounds vary quite a lot amongst even very ‘standard’ Mandarin speakers and so there’s a great tolerance to many approximations.

    If one were to pronounce 然 exactly as the English ‘ran’, I’m not sure there would even be delay in the reaction of a native-speaker listener. In contrast, as you mentioned above, /y/ is much more significant. If one were to substitute /u/ for /y/ in 绿, one might simply not be understood, or only understood after a much delayed reaction.

    Might it be that vowels in general ought to be given far more attention? I suspect a word like 书包 pronounced as the English ‘shoe bow’ (bad example! ‘bow’ as in ‘take a-‘, rather than ‘tie a-‘!), would might produce at least a moment or two of head-scrating silence from a native listener.

  15. With regards to ü, I think a lot of the problems arise from teachers not teaching this clearly, not being strict, and often not really understanding the difficulty of this sound for learners. It can be very hard for people who can naturally and easily produce any sound in their language to really understand why others cannot, not to mention offer useful advice. I don’t think telling someone to round their lips is particularly useful either.

    I think the ü issue also usually is only a sticking point for l, and to a lesser extent n, after a certain point. (This leads me to think there’s a bigger issue dealing with l/r in Chinese vs. some western languages.) I think it’s easy to get a conceptual understanding and an auditory understanding of the sound once you can deal with qu, ju, xu effectively (which is something that really needs to be done quite early in language studies). I think with the successful contrast of those sounds with chu, zhu and shu, you can start to more successfully make the leap to better n’s and l’s, if you still have problems there.

    A bigger issue to deal with is having people try to explain things to you or use words as examples. People often can’t hear how they pronounce a word is different slightly from how you pronounce it, or understand that the tongue/mouth positions are slightly different. People in general have a poor understand of how important tension affects sounds and the ability to produce them. People will say, oh, it sounds like this sound in this word. And you’ll say it, and they’ll say it, and because it’s your native language, you can hear the slight difference their pronunciation has, but they won’t necessarily be able to. Take a word like “reed/read or lead/leed” for example, there’s quite a few pronunciations you can make there as an english speaker playing with that vowel that are perfectly comprehensible to you, but I bet foreign speakers tend to map to single pronunciations more easily and just assume their pronunciation is yours, without understanding it either may be, or may just be an comprehensible one.

    I think the issue is really mostly related to the ‘l’ sound. I almost never hear the hard /i/ “ee” sound applied to anything except after an “l”. I often hear something approximating Fali for 法律, but never hear something like funi for 婦女。 For j and q (and maybe x) i guess you sometimes hear things closer to an /i/ from chinese speakers, I want to say I hear people from HK say things like 去吃飯 that sound like qi chifan, but I’m not sure it’s them. It most def is the japanese or the korean speakers (or both) who tend to do that.

    As for /r/, I don’t think I have enough interactions with foreigners these days to make useful comment on that.

  16. Dion says:

    Kellen: The sound file linked to in the wikipedia article is what I would associate ü with, and üben (or more often über) is the sound I think of when seeing the letter.

  17. Kellen Parker says:

    Sima: I’m willing to concede that most beginners don’t need to know much about r. Still, I wish someone had told me right at the beginning. And I’d guess 人 as ʒen is definitely a Wade-Giles influenced thing. Oddly, I also know semi-native speakers (grew up with Wu) who say it “zen” with the pinyin z. But I digress.

  18. Sima says:

    That is intriguing. Up here in the frozen NE I hear a lot of ‘yén’ for ‘rén’ (Dōngběi yénr). Hearing 日本 pronouned ‘yìběn’ left me shellshocked. But then my first calligraphy lesson began with ‘rǒngzì bāfǎ’ (永字八法).

  19. Kellen Parker says:

    Intriguing on my end too, as I’ve heard a couple r->y as well, but didn’t know where it was coming from.

  20. Arjun Kavi says:

    Ok, I still don’t understand what you mean by a voiced /ʃ/. How is that not the same thing as /ʒ/, which doesn’t sound right to me at all?

    I admit I may just have a tin ear, seeing as I still hear voiced/unvoiced consonant pairs in Mandarin (ie, instead of the unaspirated/aspirated distinction that is actually present), despite my mother tongue having a four-way distinction in voicing/aspiration.

    (Wikipedia, for one, seems to agree with my usage of /ɻ/.)

  21. Sima says:

    However you look at it, 日 is pretty tricky. Do you see any merit in suggesting that the ‘i’ in ‘ri, shi, zhi, chi, zi, si, ci’ is simply not a vowel at all and sparing the learner the pain of trying to adapt /i/ to sound like what he’s hearing from native speakers? I must confess, I’ve no idea how most people are taught these syllables.

  22. Kellen Parker says:

    For that deviant i (which could be written /ẓ/ or /ɿ/ or /ɨ/ depending on who and when you ask), I also have no idea how it’s taught. My take on it early was that it was just a release of the consonant, in as neutral a sound you could make without hitting /ə/. It might do good to tell them to forget about it as a vowel, though that may be a bit insincere.

  23. Carl says:


    I’ve seen a Romanization where zi was spelled dz. That strikes me as being in the ballpark.

  24. Chris H says:

    To Sima and Kellen,

    I said relax, not ignore, also what I meant was exactly that the tonal excercises usually freak learners out instead of incouraging them, the other thing I also mentioned earlier, do not take one persons example as the truth, for if you travel a good deal you will find that different regions have different pronunciations and even different tonal afflictions. typical example is shi (10) and si (4) and shi (to be) in szechuanese they are all very similar. By context most of the Chinese I have met will be able to differentiate.

    Running the risk of sounding overconfident in my Chinese abilities I can say I ve come quite far with my relaxed attitude towards tones, but maybe I have good hearing and am quite blessed with good tonal memory. I live in an 99% chinese environment and seem to be able to get my messages across clearly in Chinese on a daily basis on all sorts of topics without ever having really stressed out on 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th tone.This being said I can always use improvement, but i mainly focus improving my vocabulary and grammar (sentence patterns) guess i relaxed too much on that before…

  25. Sutiben says:

    2. Also in pinyin, r is not r. It’s voiced sh¹. Get it out of your head that it has anything to do with r as you know it. Minimal pairs are your friend.

    I’m actually a beginner over here and always pronounced pinyin r with an “errr” sound. At least, that’s what I heard from my teacher. For 日本, I hear ri as “rrrribbit”, like a froggy. I’ve been mimicking this sound as best as I can. Sh1? Now I’m confused how r sounds. Perhaps there’s an English word similar? Maybe even Spanish? On top of that what is minimal pairs?

    Also, you guys are using this covention /sh/, /y/, etc as though it’s common knowledge but it’s something of which I have no idea and makes it hard to follow. It’s like you guys are talking another language to explain Chinese

    By chance, can you break this down & help me out? Would be greatly appreciated. Sorry for bombarding you with silly questions …

  26. Kellen Parker says:

    @Sutiben: the letters between slashes or brackets are the International Phonetic Alphabet. You can read about it and listen to examples through the Wikipedia page on IPA. I’ll explain some of it but the main reason we’re using it is because there are no simple universal English equivalents.

    /y/ is like an eeee sound with rounder lips. It’s what the ü in pinyin is supposed to sound like. Ask a native speaker to say 绿 lü (green) and 路 lu (road) and listen for the difference. The word for green has that /y/ sound.

    For the r, when it’s at the beginning of a syllable, I’m saying it’s more like the J in French Jaques or j’taime.

    /ʃ/ is a typical English sh as in “ship” and /ʂ/ is the darker sh sound in Chinese words like Shanghai 上海. It has more of an r sound to it. A normal r sound, not the French j thing.

  27. Arjun: /ʒ/ is voiced /ʃ/ and I was wrong to not just write /ʒ/, except that I only introduced /ʃ/ to clarify that I wasn’t specifically meaning the sh as represented in pinyin. And yeah, /ʒ/ isn’t quite right, but I’d say /ʐ/ is.

    For the voiced/voiceless versus unaspirated/aspirated, in some speakers the aspiration difference is clear, and in others, I hear voicing on the unaspirated ones.

  28. Sima says:

    Chris H,

    I completely agree about learners being freaked out by tones. I certainly had a pretty poor ear for tone when I started and still don’t claim to be anywhere near perfect. I think an approach that emphasises phrases and sentences pretty early makes a lot of sense. I’m just not sure quite how it can best be done.

    Presumably the learner must, whether consciously or unconsciously, make an association between tone and (the rest of the)syllable. If it can be done with less repetitive chanting of single syllables and more use of meaningful chunks of language, there might be less frustration for a lot of people.

  29. I always felt like with Mandarin I have to learn each word multiple times. Once for meaning and sound, once for character, once for tone. That’s been a much quicker process these days, but early on I almost never bothered learning the tones for the words I was picking up. Colour-coding in Pleco is a nice touch though.

  30. Katie says:

    Interestingly, 日 is one word that I frequently hear pronounced with an r that’s very similar to English r–actually something that strikes me as close to [ɚ] (= the sound that’s in the middle of word or bird)–especially in the word 日本. Maybe this is similar to what Sutiben is describing?

    Both the r->y and the r->l changes throw me, especially since the consonants are much clearer to me than tones. So I’ve heard 肉 and thought oil from a Dongbeiren, whereas a southerner pronouncing the same word left me digging through my mental dictionary for what kind of meat it could be … donkey? deer? Oh, wait, just plain old pork.

    I’ve only recently actually started perceiving an aspiration difference for j/q. Not sure if it’s because my teacher hyperarticulates or if my hearing has finally adjusted to it.

  31. Sima says:

    Katie, Sutiben,
    You’re spot on. I’d rather overlooked that. I too often hear that ‘er’ for 日, though I’m not sure how widespread it is.
    Oh, things get so complicated.

  32. Kellen Parker says:

    I don’t know why I didn’t think of this earlier in terms of the r- words.

    In Mandarin, 肉 is rou, officially /ʐoʊ/. But the r->y thing may be explained historically. In Wu (Changhzou in this case) it’s more like /ɲoʊˀ/ (think like ñ in Spanish). Vietnamese is nhục, in Cantonese it’s “yuk” (Ignore the k in there and below. It’s not important right now.) and in Korean it’s 육 yuk. This came up because a good friend of mine is studying Korean, and hanja along with it. In talking we’d realised a lot of words that are r-initial in Mandarin are y-initial in Korean. Sure enough that’s the case with Cantonese and Wu & Sinitic Vietnamese take a ny sound. Reconstructed Middle Chinese is, sure enough, *njiuk. So the n was dropped, and the r-initial in Mandarin is the anomaly.

    So basically, among all Sinitic languages and words with Sinitic loans, anyone who’s actually pronouncing /ʐ/ for r is the weirdo.

    Makes me wonder where it came from in the first place. Where’s Daan when you need him?

  33. Katie says:

    @Sima/Kellen/Chris H

    Thinking about the tone thing … I think Chris does have a point. The more fluently someone speaks, the better they’re understood even if they hit their tones all wrong. And I’m sure the dialectal variation has something to do with it. I’ve seen maps of villages around Beijing where the tones differ from village to village (not just value but even number of tones, as I recall).

    That being said, context and fluency are exactly the things a beginner is lacking in. If you walk into a store and say only one word, and you give it the wrong tone, chances are pretty high that you’ll be misunderstood. If you pronounce it correctly, your one word is much more likely to be effective.

    Also, the fact of the matter is that without tones you’ll be pretty painful to listen to. And I would think it would be easier to learn what the correct tone is at the beginning, even if you don’t always get it right, than to decide a thousand words later that you’d like to go back and attach tones to all of them. Of course some people probably can pick them up naturally, and long term people would subconsciously start to pick it up, but that’s many years down the road sort of long term.

    How to do this without driving beginners crazy? Not really sure. FWIW I have flashcards where I have to type in the pinyin, and it seems to be pretty effective. (Guess what I’m ignoring right now?) I go through spurts where I get lazy about typing it in and I find that my memory of the tones drops correspondingly.

    Maybe some analogies would help at least to convince learners that tones are important? Like for native English speakers: in English you might be understood most of the time if you pronounce bit and beet the same way, and bet and bat the same way, and put and putt the same way, and so on, especially if you’re speaking reasonably fluently, but at the very least this will always immediately mark you as a foreigner, some significant number of people won’t even bother to try to understand what you’re saying, and they’ll probably subconsciously assume you’re less intelligent.

  34. Katie says:

    Re Middle Chinese–that is curious. y > ʒ seems plausible, y > ʐ not so much.

  35. ny > y or ny > ʒ then ʒ > ʐ as retroflexion kicks in. I could buy that.

  36. Katie says:

    Do the other retroflexes also come from MC palatals?

  37. Carl says:

    u with two dots above sounds more like oo to me and I’m told I pronounce it right, I agree r is more like sh, but I’d say its like sh while trying to still say errr. All around great advice, could have used the read two years ago :0)

  38. Sima says:

    Curiously, I don’t see the retroflex connection to yi as implausible. Just try being lazy and letting the tongue move away from the palate. 然后 becomes ‘yanhou’ easy as you like.

  39. Katie says:

    Right, but yanhou becoming ʐanhou–that’s a little trickier.

  40. ze says:

    re: Teaching of Pinyin ü and r in the US (which I can speak to a little), as with tones, it’s typically all introduced in one lump in the first couple weeks, then rarely ever brought up again. I’ve created a bunch of minimal pair exercises that work on the contrasts (lu vs. lü, then li vs lü, then all three) I also try to have them contrast it with the known sounds of English to see what it is NOT (e.g. chew, cheat, qu; shoe, she, xu). I intersperse occasional practice of those things throughout the first three semesters and as needed later. I think I succeed in producing awareness, but it’s still only the very rare student who gets it down in conversation before they leave my tutelage (2-3 academic years). It just needs practice, and more than any teacher can provide. I try to motivate them by telling them that this one sound can make a more immediate impression of good pronunciation than just about anything else. I’ve been told I speak much better than person X on numerous occasions due to my ü–when in most other ways person X was clearly superior to me.

  41. Zrv says:

    @Katie: The Mandarin retroflexes have three different Late Middle Chinese sources: retroflex stops, retroflex affricates/fricatives, and palatal affricates/fricatives. The development of the MC palatal nasal (traditionally referred to as 日母) into Mandarin r- ([ʐ] or [ɻ], with considerable variation across Mandarin varieties) is parallel to the development of the other MC palatals.

    Across various Sinitic languages, this MC palatal nasal has variously become y- [j], z-, zero, ny- [ȵ], etc. These kinds of changes are normal for this type of sound, by which I mean they are also attested in other languages around the world.

    It’s a well known feature of Dongbei dialects that many common words with Beijinghua initial r- are pronounced with y- initial.

    In Sino-Korean, this palatal nasal was borrowed as zero (due to restrictions in Korean phonology).
    In Sino-Japanese, it is borrowed as either n- or j- [dʒ], depending on the layer. Thus we have j- in gaijin (外人) and n- in shichinin no samurai (七人の侍).

    The palatal nasal originated in an ordinary Old Chinese *n- initial, which palatalized under certain conditions.

  42. Zrv says:

    When it comes to teaching the pinyin ü sound to students, I’ve always found it useful to remind students, after they’ve got about a year of Chinese under their belts, about what I call “pinyin base forms”, the underlying forms that differ from the written forms that result from application of spelling rules. Reminding students for example that quan and yuan are really base forms qüan and üan, that wei and dui are really base forms uei and duei, etc. can help a lot with pronunciation by getting students to, essentially, relearn pinyin after they have a clearer sense of what good Mandarin sounds like.

  43. Chris H says:

    To Katie,

    Yes fluency for a beginner, in any language, but particularly in Chinese with the tones is a problem, I had some instances where I asked for salt yan4 and got cigarrettes yan1 only because it wasn’t in context, the same for sugar and soup tang4 and tang1

  44. Kellen Parker says:

    That’s why measure words are your friend.

  45. Kellen Parker says:

    Thanks for the input on the palatals & MC.

    For those keeping track, [ȵ] is the same as [ɲ] previously mentioned. Think the n in “onion”

  46. […] has a post with some nice tips on tones. These are things I wish I had known when I started studying Chinese. […]

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