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I'd like to think my Mandarin pronunciation is generally pretty reasonable, but I often get tripped up with X and SH - for example words like 雪 and 水, or 虾 and 莎. Even with different tones, I find these kind of tricky to get right - although obviously context makes the meaning more obvious.

Does anyone have a good tip on how to clearly show the difference in the X sound vs the SH sound? What shape should I have my mouth, and where should I put my tongue for each of these sounds? 

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I guess you mean x vs sh? –  Cocowalla Dec 20 '11 at 16:46
Yeah, it certainly seems that way - I'll edit the question now. Thanks! –  Ciaocibai Dec 20 '11 at 20:09
you can contact me if you need to here a native speaker read those characters :) –  bitsMix Dec 21 '11 at 5:18
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5 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Just to confirm the problem is with 'sh' and 'x' not 's' and 'x' because there is also a big difference between 's' words and 'sh' words e.g. "四" and "十".

For 'sh' the sound is made in the middle of the mouth and for the 'x' sound, it is made at the front of the mouth'. A good may to get the 'x' at the front is to make your mouth like you are going to whistle through your teeth (def. not through your lips). This is quite similar when someone is shooshing another person to be quiet, think gently saying 'shhhhhh'.

The 'sh' sound is deeper, and hits the middle of the roof of your mouth.

The best way to practice these is to split them up in to separate sounds and say each part slowly:

So for 雪 this would be sh-oo-air http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/File:zh-xu%C4%9B.ogg

For 水 this would be sh-oo-ay http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/File:zh-shu%C7%90.ogg

For 虾 it will be sh-i-ah http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/File:Zh-xia.ogg

For 莎 it will be sh-ah http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/File:Zh-sha.ogg

(Just to repeat, the "sh" sound in the examples above should be the appropriate one either 'x' or 'sh' sound depending on the case).

Just found this video, the difference is quite clear: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OgjS7GMkgLM&feature=results_video&playnext=1&list=PL5F201419D79D5AF3

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'x' is an alveolo-palatal fricative, while 'sh' is a retroflex fricative.

For retroflex 'sh', the tip of the tongue is curled up toward the roof of the mouth while the tongue body is low. Mandarin 'sh' could be similar to Russian 'ш'. Start with this wikipedia image of a retroflex stop, but make a slight space for air to pass above the tongue:

wikipedia diagram of retroflex stop

For alveolo-palatal 'x', the blade of the tongue approximates the palate while the tongue tip is low. Mandarin 'x' could be similar to Portuguese or Catalan 'x'. It can help to press the tongue tip against the lower teeth when learning to pronounce 'x'---this doesn't change the sound, it just keeps your tongue tip out of the way:

wikipedia diagram of alveolo-palatal fricative

More details: Chinese phonology on wikipedia

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For mandarin, I would like to say that "X" sounds like(just like, not the same) "sh" in English as in words "sheep, shot, shoe,fish,etc." and "S" sounds much like(likely the same? sorry, I am not a linguist) "S" in English as in words "silence,list,sort,etc."

I think the best answer is to listen to a native speaker and find out how he/she sounds.

Tips: For "X", the tongue is curved a bit and the tongue tip touches your teeth(the top of your bottom teeth). The shape of your mouth is somehow like the shape when you pronounce "i" in Chinese or"ee" in English(as in bee, meet, flee).

Note: In Chinese, "sh" is far different with "S".PinYin for your examples are 水shuĭ and 莎 shā.

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Although the difference is clear to me, I've actually had problems with some native speakers in China, who seem to use both pronunciations indifferently. This was particularly confusing when asking the price of a particular item in a shop, because the person I was talking to used "shì" instead of "sì", even though she meant "140 RMB" and not "110 RMB" (which is what I understood). –  Anthony Labarre Dec 20 '11 at 9:55
that happens because they don't speak mandarin in a standard way.As far as I know,S and SH are not distinguished in many dialects in southern areas. When I speak in my dialect, I don't care them. If a man is used to speaking in his dialect, he would probably pronounce them as the same when he speaks in mandarin. –  Huang Dec 20 '11 at 10:21
Thanks for the explanation! ;-) –  Anthony Labarre Dec 20 '11 at 12:00
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The "x" is the "sh" sound for "soft" vowel combinations like "i," "ie," and "ue." As such, it is pronounced with the tongue sticking to the roof of the mouth, while the "sh" (for other vowels), has a "retracted" posture.

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I was taught that for x, open your mouth slightly and keep your tongue straight. When you make the x sound, air should pass over the sides of your teeth. Then for the sh sound, open your mouth wider, pucker your mouth a bit like you're forming the beginning of the word "who" in English and curl your tongue up a bit. This time, the air should push out forward over your lips. But basically, the tongue position (curled or flat) distinguishes them. As for the sh vs. s distinction being lost, my understanding is that those are dialects that do not allow retroflex (i.e. your tongue curling up as in sh) consonants in onset position.

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Thanks for that, that's quite useful. –  Ciaocibai Jan 2 '12 at 21:15
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