Pronouncing Mandarin Chinese using the English Alphabet
- May 06, 2020
- Leonie McKeon
The Pinyin System is a phonetic system used to pronounce Chinese characters using the English Alphabet. For example, 上海 are the Chinese characters for the name of the city Shanghai. Shanghai is the Pinyin for those characters. Pinyin was developed in the mid 1950’s and translates literally to “spell sound”. The purpose of Pinyin is to guide the pronunciation of Chinese characters. This phonetic system is extremely useful, as once understood, English speaking people can read and pronounce Chinese correctly without having to memorise the Chinese characters.
Once Chinese people adopted this form of representing the sounds of Mandarin into their writing system, it was then introduced into elementary schools in order to improve literacy rates as well as standardise the pronunciation of Chinese characters across the Greater China Region.
Although the Pinyin System was created for people to learn how to pronounce Mandarin, many Pinyin letters are not pronounced the same way they are pronounced in English. For example, “c” in Pinyin is pronounced “ts” like “ts” in “cats” and “q” is pronounced “ch” like “ch” in “child”.
In addition to the Pinyin pronunciation, there are also four tones used in Mandarin that clarify the meaning of words. For example, words that have the same spelling in Pinyin can have completely different meanings depending on the tone that is used to pronounce the word. However, if these Chinese words are said in the context of their meaning, even if a Western person says the incorrect tone, the Chinese person they are communicating with will still understand them, because of the context of what they are saying.
Not only is Pinyin useful in learning the accurate pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese, it is also a great tool to use when writing Chinese using a computer or smartphone device. With a QWERTY keyboard (and a Chinese language program), it is possible to use Pinyin to type Chinese characters.