I dont understand pinyin

I just started getting questions that require me to answer in pinyin, but nowhere along the way did I get any lessons in what it is or how I'm supposed to answer. I also do not understand the explanation of something like OLD = LAO3. What is the 3? I was cranking along doing quite well I thought, then I ran into this and have hit a wall as there was no tutorial covering this piece. I searched thru this forum as well looking for every post with pinyin and while I have a better understanding of what it is now, I still don't know how to use it. Thanks!

Posted by robr 4/28/12 , last update 5/22/12 (4 years ago)
  • Yo dude,

    Yes, you have to learn the pronunciation of the pinyin before it becomes meaningful. It is not simply the same as the English pronunciation. All I can suggest is looking it up on Google or Wikipedia to get the basic phonics down, then as you listen to the sound files on here, you can check how the pinyin is pronounced and you will get used to it (eventually!)


    You will definitely pick it up over time. Pay attention to the pinyin spelling of characters though, because this is how you can input Chinese if you want to type on your computer. If you spell the pinyin wrong you won't get the correct character. So the pinyin is important.

    Check out this link for an explanation of the tones in Mandarin and what the numbers mean:


    Basically dude you will have a shagload of questions at the start, but if you stick with it you will pick it up. And anything can be answered with a bit of research on Google.


    Posted by chrisxj 4/28/12 (4 years ago)
  • Also, you might want to try out the "tone game" - www.memrise.com/tonegame which should give you a good introduction to recognising the different tones and some tips on how to remember them.



    Posted by BenWhately Staff   4/29/12 (4 years ago)
  • thanks, im starting to get it, but i find this part much more difficult that memorizing the symbols. for the creators of this software, i think there should be more training on the pinyin part. so far everything else has been pretty great. i did look up pinyin on wikipedia before posting, but it wasn't all that helpful at first until i realized what was expected in the training sessions. thanks for the tips and i will check out the tone game as well

    Posted by robr 4/29/12 (4 years ago)
  • It also just clicked for me that pinyin is NOT the pronunciation of the words. It's CLOSE in most cases, but ri4, the pinyin for sun, doesn't sound much like 'ree' at all when spoken. That may be obvious to most, but I didn't catch on that pinyin != pronunciation for quite a while.

    Posted by robr 4/30/12 (4 years ago)
  • @robr, I totally agree with you - pinyin is not a very intuitive way to render Chinese sounds in roman letters, at least for English-speakers. I have heard that it works better for German speakers I think.

    I would love to just use the Gwoyeu Romatzyh romanisation system which is, I think, much more intuitive and also gets around the tones in a much simpler way. But annoyingly if you learn that then you still need to learn pinyin in order to be able to type in Chinese etc... so it is a bit of a losing battle!

    And I promise, you do get used to pinyin pretty soon!

    Best wishes


    Posted by BenWhately Staff   4/30/12 (4 years ago)
  • If anyone thinks it would be worthwhile I could think of how to make a course on pinyin. I suspect it may be not worthwhile though, as it would just involve people typing English approximations of the tricks of pinyin. Maybe just doing a course that has 100% of the audio and good examples of the progressively stranger exceptions would be best.

    Posted by ThatHorse 5/1/12 (4 years ago)
  • Its interesting to think about what it would be like if one tried to use Memrise to teach English in the same way...it simply wouldn't work, because English doesn't really have any officially standardized pronunciation. Ben Whately and I probably sound very different. This narrow Chinese that we are testing ourselves on, is somewhat standardized, but variation in the actual language is partly what makes it so difficult. For example, I've been left wondering why the pinyin for one word might be "si4" and another "se4". The application of the fifth tone is also mysterious, because it is often indistinguishable in the recorded words. In my experience, some of hardest words to remember are the result of a recording that sounds different to me than what Memrise wants. I'm not sure about this, but I think most native speakers would simply assert that pinyin isn't really Chinese, so this stuff doesn't matter. When using pinyin for computer input the tones aren't used.

    Posted by carl_a 5/1/12 (4 years ago)
  • carl_a, when you are going through a course and you find that some audio is questionable or misleading you, you can leave a comment and perhaps someone will be able to upload better audio or remove the troublesome audio.

    ben, perhaps reacting to things that give us trouble should be more actively encouraged in the site's layout. people should know that they can just pop in and open a discussion any time there's something questionable, i think not enough people are aware of this

    Posted by ThatHorse 5/1/12 (4 years ago)
  • I tried to find a place for feedback right on the page where I had a questionable issue but it wasn't obvious (I never did find it). I don't think a whole course in pinyin is needed, just perhaps include an intro to pinyin that explains what it is, what it's used for, what it's NOT used for... etc before jumping into that first question where you need to know it. I get it now, but it took going outside the tutorial to gather the necessary info to understand what was being asked of me.

    Posted by robr 5/2/12 (4 years ago)
  • robr, I have had excellent results getting alternates added when I think they are valid. Basically, you start a discussion on the word page. I wish there was a way to do this 'on the fly' when you're going through the words though.

    ThatHorse, The problem with the audio is that I am unqualified to determine what is good or bad. Really, a native speaker would probably be required. Its hard to think of a great example at the moment. Maybe "sheng", which I've heard natives say as "shen" with now hint of a "ng" sound. These are probably genuine variations in how Chinese is spoken.

    Posted by carl_a 5/2/12 (4 years ago)
  • @carl_a - you can add comments to words from within learning sessions by clicking "start discussion from the menu at the top - does that help?

    @ThatHorse, I agree, we clearly need to make the forums much more visible and people don't seem to realise that there is an option to post questions here. I think that we are going to change the feedback box at the end of a learning session to a kind of window to the forums so that you can search or post new threads from there - at the moment all those feedback responses go to me, but I just don't have time to reply to them all at the moment, and it would be much better to keep the discussion all on the forums so that everyone can get involved. How does that sound?

    Pinyin is a kind of painful necessity; I don't think that is a good romanisation system, but annoyingly it is the one that all typing systems run off. So you really need to learn it. And while the tone change rules are clumsy and seemingly arbitrary, learning pronunciation without the tones is not a good short cut; it will lead to you really not being understood. So we need to do something to introduce pinyin and its idiosyncrasies.

    I am going to work on an intro, and we are going to try to build a place to put it on the new dashboard design, so that it pops up for you when it becomes relevant. I will aim to do this in the next couple of weeks.

    Thanks very much for all the feedback on this,



    Posted by BenWhately Staff   5/2/12 (4 years ago)
  • benwhatley: Thanks, I've been using Memrise for over a month, and didn't know there was a menu there.

    This is a little off subject, but I've also seen instances in a learning environment where tone marks are drawn above Chinese characters as a learning aid. That might be difficult to implement within the scope of this site, but it is also (possibly) useful.

    I think part of the answer is more audio clips. It would be great to have a dozen or more examples.

    Posted by carl_a 5/2/12 (4 years ago)
  • I don't know that a dozen examples are needed, just good examples. As mentioned above, there are some words where the sound samples are quite different ('sun' comes to mind). Also in some of them that are for example a '3' tone, the samples are spoken as though they are a 2. This also occurs in the tone game.

    Posted by robr 5/2/12 (4 years ago)
  • Any thoughts/advice on starting a pinyin course? I have a complete outline of the information, it's just a matter of how you think it should be fit into Memrise's infrastructure. Let's say you want to have people learn that qiu is kind of like chyo. Kind of weird isn't it?

    Posted by ThatHorse 5/10/12 (4 years ago)
  • For me it was more about understanding the tones (maybe integrate the tone game, or a limited version of it... I didn't even know about the tone game until someone posted here) and explain what pinyin is and isn't. What it's intended for. I still am having spelling problems like spelling NEU vs NIU vs NYU and getting it correct. Any help there is a huge plus.

    Posted by robr 5/10/12 (4 years ago)
  • After looking at it recently, I think the key to getting a solid start as far as pinyin goes is to first master all the finals. Syllables can be divided into initials and finals, i.g. in "mao", "m" is the initial sound and "ao" is the final.

    In my opinion here are the finals for pinyin that an English speaker would need to learn something about:

    ou -> sounds like the long "oh" bound i -> the long e sound that i takes in romantic languages. but note that i is also used in 3 unrelated ways: shi (kind of like sure) chi (kind of like chur) and si (kind of like suh)

    a -> the short a sound, "ah"

    o -> if "ou" is long o, then what the heck is this? if it has an ending, it's still the long o, e.g. "ong" sounds like just how you would expect it if you tried to use the long o vowel like in boat. but by itself, e.g. "bo" it for some reason kind of sounds like "bwo", so think of o by itself as mangled by some invisible consantant, maybe a w.

    e -> typically an "uh" sound. ge = guh

    u -> a long "oo" sound, like ooh!

    v -> also written as a dotted u. it's that french sound kind of like ew but more exaggerated.


    ju, qu, xu, actually have the v sound, not a u (long oo as you might expect).

    yu has a slight "eh" at the end of it. yv-eh blended together.

    iu sounds like "yo" ui sounds like "way" un sounds like "yoo-in"

    that's all (i hope) you need to know about the finals, so now when you put a familiar sound in front of them, like a "b", you probably are pretty close, besides the tone. but there are a few weird initials in pinyin too, real quick:

    zh is kinda like a j q is kinda like a ch x is kinda like an sh c is kinda like a t or s, like the last sound in "cats"

    vowel blends in the final can be pronounced like y (if it's an i") or w (if it's a u). e.g. qiang (chee-yahng), huan (hwahn). Though in pinyin these are part of the finals I think it's easier for the English speaker to think of them as secret consanant blends.

    Posted by ThatHorse 5/11/12 (4 years ago)
  • Thanks, this discussion was hugely helpful to me, in particular this link that was given: http://www.wku.edu/~shizhen.gao/Chinese101/pinyin/tones.htm. It would be extra helpful if the course gave a quick review of that info before the questions on the pinyin start up. Now I've run across a word, dumpling, that has a 5 in the pinyin, so either there are more than 4 tones or it's a typo, so now I'm back to investigating :)

    Posted by joulieboolie 5/13/12 (4 years ago)
  • The 5th tone is one of the deep mysteries of pinyin, because it doesnsn't seem to be consistently applied. In the page you linked to it is listed as 'neutral'. However, in the context of a testing scheme like pinyin, this kind of vagueness in language is a real problem. When I go through the lists now, most of what I get wrong are tones. My difficulties also involves the transformation rules where a tone changes due to the other character its paired with.

    Posted by carl_a 5/13/12 (4 years ago)
  • Ben seems a bit down on pinyin but for most of us its just a natural part of learning correct Chinese pronunciation and tones.

    Many basic Chinese books attempt to teach it by giving suggestions similar to what ThatHorse has included above. However, I really don't think most mortals could ever learn correct Chinese pronunciation that way.

    My own pronunciation and tones were pretty horrible until I spent a few months with a native speaker (in my case, my Chinese tutor) going over together the pinyin chart fixing my pronunciation errors and teaching me how to speak the tones for each item on the table and then later working on the tonal changes that occur when different words follow each other.

    While incredibly boring and a bit painful without the positive feedback of finishing lessons in a Chinese book or adding words to one's garden, if I had done that in the very beginning it would of saved a great deal of time in the long run.

    Once the words are in your head ingrained with the wrong pronunciation, it can be quite time consuming (and more than a bit demoralizing) to fix that later.

    Posted by mfgillia 5/15/12 (4 years ago)
  • I agree that correct pronunciation takes some real contact with someone who truly speaks (and hears) at a native speaker ability. I think learning some quick facts in an efficient Memrise-like way would make you more ready to absorb those finishing touches though. That's why what I wrote above doesn't get into some of those final touches which you can do easily, but not by memorizing: things like the tones, the difference between q and ch, sh and x. Sure they can all be explained, but you have to really do them to learn them, and there's no speaking testing on Memrise as of now. Would be pretty cool if there was some way to get your pronunciation graded by crowdsourcing though wouldn't it? :-)

    Posted by ThatHorse 5/15/12 (4 years ago)
  • Not to be the voice of negativity but I think most people that skip the process of learning correct pronunciation and tones from a native speaker and instead focus primarily on spending hundreds of hours acquiring a detailed vocabulary will later require much more work than just adding some finishing touches to be understood by native speakers.

    From my experience, you will have to relearn most of your vocabulary. Regarding pronunciation and tones, what seems like close to a native English speaker is generally a huge difference to a native Chinese speaker.

    From reading these forums, I occasionally get the impression some people are relying solely on this site to learn Chinese. While Memrise is a wonderful, awesome, fantastic, invaluable tool for learning to recognize Chinese characters, it can not replace the use of textbooks, classes, interactions with native speakers and teachers/tutors for learning Chinese that will be useful for real communication.

    Heaven knows I've tried over the years to skip many of these steps to learn faster and most of the time learned the hard way that doing so required much more time in the long run to get to the same level.

    So... I highly recommend new students spend lots of time first learning and drilling correct pronunciation with a native speaker and then when they use tools like Memrise they can practice and reinforce what they learn every time they see a character versus doubling down on mistakes.

    Posted by mfgillia 5/16/12 (4 years ago)
  • mfgillia is right, and I hope I didn't lead anyone stray with my "finishing touches" remark. You will have to get those sounds right early on and be working on it right away. Acquiring a bunch of vocab that you are learning to say wrong will really waste a lot of your time.

    I notice a lot of mems seem to imply that people might be saying "si" as "see" or shi with a short i for example. I hope these people are just using spelling as a mneumonic but I think you may be correct that many of them are indeed learning and practicing the wrong pronunciation. This is a huge problem that should be acted on ASAP because of all the waste created by this situation.

    Memrise is awesome because I can get a lot of practice recognizing characters and recalling their meanings, but this is only a tool to help you go out there and really read, and perhaps write, and perhaps speak. Vocab is necessary but not sufficient, and vocab with the wrong pronunciation is not even that. mfgillia is 100% right.

    Posted by ThatHorse 5/17/12 (4 years ago)
  • Well, reading all is is certainly a bit disappointing but I'd rather have read it now before I invested hundreds of hours. Would it make more sense to have memrise focus more on the reading portion than the sounds and pinyin in the general lessons? I think it would be extremely helpful to make this information aware up front when people take that first step into learning chinese. Maybe a separate set of lessons could teach some sayings vs. just individual word pronunciation? I dunno.

    Posted by robr 5/21/12 (4 years ago)
  • I think learning Mandarin will take many hours regardless of the approach. ;) I've decided to use word lists that match the textbooks I have. Its pretty valuable, because it provides a form of study which the textbook publisher doesn't provide. I can say pretty honestly that I know the vocabulary from the first two Integrated Chinese texts. All of it. That means when I go through the lessons I don't have to refer back to the vocabulary list.

    Posted by carl_a 5/21/12 (4 years ago)
  • To Robr: I think Memrise is pretty much perfect just the way it is - as a supplement for studying Chinese.

    After skipping characters for the first three years of studying, I went from not being able to recognize more than maybe 30 characters to somewhere over 1,800 in a few months. More importantly (to me), I can now comfortably read the first two chapters in my intermediate Chinese book.

    In hindsight, I think an approach like Carl-a's is probably preferable for most people. That is, start with one of the better textbook series that provides a good mix of activities together with Memrise for really ingraining the vocabulary.

    Regarding pinyin, I would treat that just like learning your alphabet in English focusing on being able to accurately replicate the 50 or so basic pinyin pronunciations in each of the 5 tones. There are many good electronic pinyin charts you can download that will let you click on each of these sounds and vary it by tone.

    Working on that together with a native speaker that knows how to teach foreigners to duplicate these sounds will save you a lot of pain in the long run.

    And as stated above, I absolutely do not advocate trying to figure out pinyin pronunciation by oneself from applying English language based rules. The basic sounds between English and Chinese are just too far apart. Plus, the rules that went into translating them into roman letters are far from intuitive for the typical adult native English speaker.

    Posted by mfgillia 5/21/12 (4 years ago)
  • I guess what I'm saying is if I currently have no other methodology I'm using other than Memrise, would it make sense to turn off pinyin for now so that I'm not learning material that it sounds like I would have to relearn one I did have that tutor? ie, it sounds like from what people are saying that without a tutor or other material that you can successfully use memrise as a sole source to learn to read.

    Posted by robr 5/22/12 (4 years ago)
  • Offtopic, but: robr English speaker living in Kamchatka

    Is that true? If so, that's pretty awesome.

    Since Mandarin is not a complete phonetic orthography, it isn't possible to learn without pinyin, unless you were literally immersed--surrounded by Han speakers. I'm fascinated by the fact that it can be used as a functional modern language at all. Once, Asian writing systems were dominated by 汉字, but you can look to Japan, Korea, Vietnam etc. to see how this slowly fell apart. There were some minor attempts to change this mid-20th century, but there was realistically no chance for adoption. Cultural heritage aside, it would have cut off the written language to speakers of other dialects. (This is probably a very controversial thing to say, but its cool if we can mention it on a site like this.)

    Example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latinxua_Sin_Wenz

    Posted by carl_a 5/22/12 (4 years ago)
  • With solely using Memrise, you can generally learn one or two basic meanings for a character and the most common pronunciation indicated in the pinyin. You many also be able to recognize each sound from the audio (further connecting it to the pinyin) although listening to complete dialogues may be more helpful for that.

    However, the average native English speaker person could not use only this site to learn how to read Chinese anymore than a native Chinese could properly learn how to read English from just using a dictionary.

    You will still need to learn grammar, pronunciation (e.g., pinyin or some other system) and how the words are used in real sentences. And then of course, get lots of practice and repetition.

    With that said, studying the characters earlier than later is certainly not a waste of time. I wished I had done that in hindsight - after 4 to 8 weeks of practicing proper pronunciation via learning how to read and reproduce the pinyin.

    If taking classes and/or working with a tutor isn't feasible sooner than later then would still recommend moving forward with your studies. As in most things in life, waiting for perfect conditions before doing something is probably not a good alternative neither.

    However, perhaps try to mix up your study time with studying the first volume of a good textbook series - Integrated Chinese, New Practical Chinese etc. Memrise already has user created vocabulary lists for the most popular textbooks so that should be a good place to start - you'll get exposure to basic grammar, vocabulary, dialogues and reading materials in a method that's reinforcing and complementary.

    Posted by mfgillia 5/22/12 (4 years ago)
  • One other thing, I wouldn't recommend turning off the pinyin to focus on just learning the basic meaning for a character.

    Once you learn to recognize a character's pinyin then you can often pronounce new words, type them on a computer or phone and look up alternative meanings with sample sentences quickly via an online dictionary. These days, I find this more helpful then just learning the basic meaning for a new word.

    Posted by mfgillia 5/22/12 (4 years ago)
  • When I first started learning Mandarin my teacher spent literally the first 4 months doing nothing but drilling me on pronunciation (initials, finals, tones) and reading pinyin correctly.

    It's an invaluable and necessary system. Even native Chinese speakers use it to type. But don't think of pinyin as a guide to pronouncing in "English" - think of it as a Chinese pronunciation guide. Meaning you need to study the "key" of pronunciation - as was said above. Initials and vowels have different pronunciations than standard (American) English.

    E.G. "kàn" is not the english word "can" - it's "kahn", but if you haven't learned to read pinyin to pronounce properly then you'll never get it right. This even applies to just learning English and characters. How will you ever explain 看 to someone unless you know how to properly know how to pronounce it?

    As to the numbers. I don't prefer them, but it's easier to type than the diacritical marks. But they're simple to memorize.

    1 – 2 ´ 3 ˇ 4 `

    Always interchangeable. And the benefit of learning pinyin is that there are not "gotchas" like there are in English. Once you've learned all the initals and finals, and how to pair them - you can literally pronounce anything you can read.

    Posted by thedannywahl 5/22/12 (4 years ago)

Recent threads

This forum doesn't have any recent activity