Unit 1 Topic 2 How Chinese Sounds - Tones & Pinyin

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Topic Overview

The Chinese language has some important differences with English - some of the sounds of their vowels and consonants will be new to English speakers, and Chinese is a tonal language that uses four main tones to change the meaning of words.

Tones  - which mean how high or low the pitch of your voice is, and how your pitch rises or falls over time - can seem like a very difficult part of learning Chinese. It does indeed take some time to get used to being able to use the four main tones correctly, and even longer to be able to easily hear them when someone else is speaking. However, the good news is that you can already make all four of the tone sounds because you use tones in English too! In fact, each of the four tones is sometimes (or often) used in everyday English, so you will not be having to learn anything that feels 'unnatural'.

Pinyin is a way of writing Chinese sounds using a romanised alphabet (They look like English letters but aren't really).  It was first developed to help Chinese children more easily learn standard Mandarin, but is also very helpful for foreigners like us to learn how to pronounce, read & write all of the different Chinese sounds. When we learn new Chinese words, we learn the pinyin to show us how to pronounce the word, and we also will learn the character for that word, which is a bit like a picture to represent the meaning of the word. The problem with characters is that they don't tell you how the word sounds, but pinyin does. So our focus this year is more about learning pinyin - the sounds of Chinese, rather than characters, although you will learn to read and write a range of basic characters as well! Pinyin has two different types of sounds which we will learn this week - initials, which are a bit like English consonants, and finals, which are a bit like English vowels. Some of these sounds will be completely different than sounds you have made before, and will take some time to be able to pronounce them properly. But again, the good news is that most of the sounds in pinyin are the same or very similar to sounds you already use in English. We have another advantage in NZ when learning Chinese - some of the pinyin sounds that English doesn't have are sounds that we use in te reo Maori! So between English and te reo Maori, the vast majority of the sounds you'll need to make to speak Chinese aren't really that different from sounds you already know and use!

After our weekly VC lesson, don't forget to continue to work through each of the weekly tasks. Also, don't forget to look at the bottom of the lesson page at the resources Padlet, which contains lots of helpful resources to help you learn the four tones and pinyin.



Recorded Class Videos

Activities & Student Work

  • Video Conference Class Work

  • Step 1

  • Practise the four tones with Mr. Edmunds and your classmates
  • Note - there are two ways we'll learn to read and write tones. Using the tone marks like āáǎà is the correct way to write pinyin, but can be difficult when using a computer or device, so we sometimes write them with the numbers after the syllable instead:
    • First tone - mā / ma1
    • Second tone - má / ma2
    • Third tone - mǎ / ma3
    • Fourth tone - mà / ma4
  • Step 2

  • Practise the pinyin initials sounds with Mr. Edmunds and your classmates
  • Step 3

  • Practise the pinyin finals sounds with Mr. Edmunds and your classmates
  • Step 4

  • Use what you have learned to say these words and phrases:
    • 你好 nǐ hǎo (ní hǎo) - hello!
    • 再见 zài jiàn - Goodbye.
    • 老师 lǎo shī - Teacher.
    • 你好吗?nǐ hǎo mā (ní hǎo mā) - How are you? 
    • 我很好 wǒ hěn hǎo (wǒ hén hǎo) - I'm fine.
  • Weekly Work

  • Only one student finished the weekly work from last week. It's really important that all of you do this stuff, especially 1. posting your profile & photo, 2. filling out the pre-course survey, 3. signing up to the apps we will be using and 4. registering for a student account at eightArms.org before you get onto this week's work. Don't worry - none of that stuff takes a lot of time!
  • Weekly Task 1 

  • 1. Open up one of the Pinyin charts in the students resources section below. Click on each of the sounds and listen carefully to each of the sounds. 
  • 2. Practise saying the sounds in the chart using the first tone.
  • 3. Practise saying the sounds in the chart using the all four tones for each sound.
  • Weekly Task 2

  • 1. Watch the Bo Po Mo Fo Pinyin Song video in the student resources section
  • 2. Practise saying the first part of the song: "bo po mo fo de te ne le ge ke he ji qi xi zhi chi shi ri zi ci si". Don't worry - I won't make you sing it!
  • Weekly Task 3

  • 1. You now should have already started the Memrise sets I linked to last lesson - however I can see that only one student(!) has started them, so this is a big focus for us this week.
  • 2. There are three 'sets' that I've listed. I expect that this week you will have worked through all three. This will take you some time, but most of the other tasks this week are very short, so don't worry - you'll be able to fit it in. Now that we've gone through what pinyin is, you should understand the second set a lot better!
  • 3. After you have finished the sets for the first time, you will need to start reviewing them regularly. I suggest that you start every non-VC lesson by reviewing your Memrise sets before you get on to the other tasks.
  • Weekly Task 4

  • 1. Read through the last four articles in the student resources section. You should SKIP the 'In Depth Explanation of Chinese Sounds' article for now - it's a bit too technical but we can go back to it together later when we strike problems with our pinyin pronunciation.

Lesson Resources