Skip main navigation

Introduction to Pinyin

To help you have a brief understanding of Chinese Pinyin, this video presents you a general introduction.
10
Hello. I’m Zhu Xuan and this is my student George. Today, I’m going to show you how to speak some Chinese. Hi. I’m George, a SISU student from England. I’m in China right now and I want to learn more about Chinese culture. Being able to speak Chinese is the first step towards this, so I’m ready to start learning. From today on, we will learn Chinese phonetics and start to speak Chinese together. In this video, first, let’s get to know what Pinyin is. George, do you know how to say “hello” in Chinese? [Sure, nǐ hǎo] Cool, but can you read this? Um, what does this mean? These are the characters of “nǐ” and “hǎo.”
64.1
“nǐ” and “hǎo” are written here in Chinese characters. But you can’t pronounce it when you see these characters, so we use Latin letters to indicate the pronunciation of Chinese characters. That is pinyin. In other words, if you learn pinyin well, even if you don’t know any Chinese characters, you can speak Chinese. With the help of pinyin, you can also read and type Chinese characters, look up words in the dictionary, and so on. Sounds pretty easy and interesting. But how do these Latin letters make up pinyin? Well, actually, those letters have their own names in Chinese. For example, let’s look at the Chinese character for mother. Its pinyin is “mā.”
114.3
Here, “m” is the initial written at the front of a syllable. “ā” is the final, just behind the initial. As for the short line, it is the tone marked above the final. When they’re combined, the pronunciation of Chinese can be accurately marked. How many sounds are there in Chinese? There are 21 initials and 38 finals in total. Look at this form. Take “ni hao” as an example. From this table, we can easily find initials “n” and “h”, finals “i” and “ao.” There are also two special initials here. We will explain them in the future. 21 initials and 38 finals. Wow. So there can be about 800 syllables in Chinese. No, actually not that many.
173.5
Some initials and some finals cannot be combined together. For example, “b” cannot combine with “e.” According to certain rules, all these initials and finals can actually form a total of about 400 syllables. So just 400 syllables then. That sounds like a lot less than before. Yes, but remember we have tones. We have four tones in Chinese. This is “mā,” which we’ve seen before. If we leave the initial “m” and the final “a” unchanged and just change the tone, then we can produce má mǎ and mà.
218.2
You can see here that tones are marked above the finals. The first tone is the highest. It’s like when the doctor examines your throat. Open your mouth and say “ā.” Yes. “ā” is the first tone. The second tone is the rising tone. It’s like when you don’t understand somebody says What? “á” is the second tone. The third tone falls first, and then rises. “ǎ,” like the track of a roller coaster. Yes. “ǎ” is the third tone. The fourth tone is a falling tone. It’s like when somebody hit you suddenly “à.” “à” is the fourth tone. Actually, we have another tone. When there’s no mark on the final, we call it a neutral tone. We read it quickly and lightly.
280.6
Initials, finals, and tones– these three components combine together to represent the pronunciation of Chinese. So how are the initials and finals are pronounced and how can we combine them into syllables? I’d love to know. If you would like to know as well, come back next time. Bye-bye.

In this course, we will learn Chinese phonetics and start to speak Chinese together. First, let’s get to know what Pinyin is.

Many people know how to say hello in Chinese——Nǐ hǎo. But few people can pronounce them when seeing characters and hǎo. We use Latin letters to indicate the pronunciation of Chinese characters. That is Pinyin.

Take Pinyin as an example, it presents the pronunciation of mother in Chinese. m is the initial, written at the front of a syllable, ā is the final, just behind the initial. The short line (-) above is the tone, marked above the final. When they’re combined, the pronunciation of Chinese can be accurately marked.

There are 21 initials (and two special initials) and 38 finals in total in Chinese Pinyin. Some initials and some finals cannot be combined together. According to certain rules, all these initials and finals can actually form a total of about 400 syllables.

In Chinese, there are four tones. These tones indicate the direction and pitch of your voice as you say a syllable. So the syllables can present more sounds. Still take as an example. If we leave the initial m and the final a unchanged, and just change the tone, then we can produce má, mǎ and mà.

  • The first tone is the highest. It’s like when a doctor examines your throat, you open your mouth and say “ā”.
  • The second tone is the rising tone. It’s like when you don’t understand somebody says, you say “What?” in a rising tone.
  • The third tone, falls first and then rises.
  • The fourth tone, is a falling tone. It’s like when somebody hits you suddenly, you shout “à”.
  • When there is no mark on the final, we call it a neutral tone, we read it quickly and lightly.

The three components of initials finals and tones, combine together to represent the pronunciation of the Chinese language.

This article is from the free online

Learn Chinese: Introduction to Chinese Pronunciation and Tone

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education