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Hanyu pinyin system was developed in the 1950s based on earlier forms of romanization, transliterating Mandarin Chinese with 25 European characters (the letter “v” is never used).

One problem with romanization systems like Hanyu pinyin is that they can mislead learners into thinking that the Chinese sound represented by the roman letters is exactly the same as the English sound.

Also, some of the letters used will seem obvious to you because they will sound similar to English. Yes, the pronunciation of most of the letters is similar to pronunciation to the European counterparts, but there are notable differences. Pay special attention to the letters that are not pronounced entirely as you’d expect: “c”, “ch”, “j”, “q”, “r”, “sh”, “x”, “z” and “zh”!

In Chinese, each character corresponds to one syllable (which corresponds to a part of an English word, and entire word or more than one word). Chinese syllables consist of three elements: initial sound, final sound and tone. The initial sounds are consonants and the final sounds contain at least one vowel. Some syllables consist only of an initial sound or a final sound.

Chinese Primer, Volumes 1-3 (Pinyin) Introduction to Standard Chinese Pinyin System

In Mandarin Chinese there are 21 initial sounds, most of which are consonants that begin a syllable. The twenty-one initial sounds fall into six groups:

  1. b, p, m, and f
  2. d, t, n, and l
  3. g, k, and h
  4. j, q, and x
  5. z, c, and s
  6. zh, ch, sh, and r
Initial Sounds Sounds Like
b, m, f, n, l, h, and s pronounced in the same way as their corresponding letters in English
d “d” as in “bed” (unaspirated)
j “j” as in “jeep”
z “z” as in “ds” in “beds”
zh “zh” as “j” in “job,” but the tongue needs to curl back
sh “sh” as “sh” in “fish,” but the tongue needs to curl back
g “g” as”g” in “get”
x “x” as “sh” in “sheep”
r “r” somewhat as “r” in “rain”
p “p” as “p” in “pig”
t “t” as “t” in “tap”
k “k” as “k” in “kangaroo”
q “q” as “ch” in “cheap”
c “c” as “ts” in “cats”
ch “ch” as “ch” in “cheap,” but the tongue needs to curl back

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Twenty English consonant alphabets are used that can be treated as the initial sounds of Chinese syllables, e.g. b, p, m, and f.

Zh, Ch and Sh are consonants with two alphabets. Some Chinese syllables have no initials and hence are called “syllable with zero initials”.

Watch this Youtube video to learn initial sounds c, zh, ch, sh, and r:

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Related posts:
Introduction of Hanyu Pinyin – Basics
Introduction of Hanyu Pinyin - Initial Sounds
Introduction of Hanyu Pinyin – Final Sounds
Introduction of Hanyu Pinyin – Four tones

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