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I have had eight mainland Chinese teachers over the time I have spent studying, and I am still confused, because I find there are inconsistencies between my textbook's audio CDs, my teachers' explanations, and what I typically hear people say. I don't know how to read IPA so please bear with me.

In some audio CDs, and most of my teachers, they agree that "an" should be pronounced like the English "an" (e.g. an apple) and not like the English "un" (e.g. that was fun) and I do often hear it for cases such as "怎么办?" and "赶得到". They also tell me it's the same for 换 and 言 etc. (just not for 天 as "ian" is a different rule.)

However, the disagreement stems from others telling me it should be the English "un", and there are resources that also show this (I read through Pinyin tones pronunciation cheat sheet and listened to the accompanying links http://lost-theory.org/chinese/phonetics/ and http://chinesepod.com/tools/pronunciation, which follows this rule.)

I do also notice that some of the teachers in the first camp, while pronouncing 办 with the English "an", seem to pronounce 看 with the English "un". Not all of them, however. This makes things very confusing.

I have broken my pronunciation habits once and switched from the first camp to the second camp, and now am wondering if I should have done that, and if I should actually be switching back.

Can anybody clarify this?

(Note: The teachers that were staunchly in the second camp also pronounced "iu" as English "ew", not like the "iou" that it should be (就 etc.,) but I don't know if that's enough to disregard their arguments for what is considered correct pronunciation.)

UPDATE: Wiki article on pinyin claims:

an  [än]    an  like British English "ban", but more central

Not ... entirely sure what "but more central" means, but going by the Macmillan Dictionary audio sample for ban and the CCTV link @Stan commented with it doesn't sound like the "an" in "an apple" nor does it sound like the "un" in "that was fun", but it sounds somewhere in between the two, what I'm thinking at the moment is that it sounds like the "an" in "hand".

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they agree that "an" should be pronounced like the English "an" (e.g. an apple) I've never heard a native Chinese speaker pronounces pinyin an as "an in an apple". I doubt they meant the phonetic symbol /an/ where /a/ is a short "ah" sound -- if so, that makes sense. –  Stan May 15 at 3:08
    
@Stan hmm, I have, especially with something like 怎么办?-- or do my ears deceive me? Also, if it explains anything, quite a few of my teachers are from 浙江, because of the sister-relationship my 孔子学院 has with 浙江大学. Teachers/other native speakers with contrasting opinions have been from 黑龙江, 江苏, 广东. –  Ming May 15 at 3:42
    
新闻联播 is a credible source for learning pronunciation. Try this video on Youtube (14:51-14:53): "三天内 结所需手续". What does you hear? /ban/, /bən/, /bæn/, or /bʌn/? To me, the pinyin bàn sounds like /ban/. –  Stan May 15 at 4:06
    
I think I've listened to it 50 times -_- I hear not quite the "an" from "an apple" but not quite the "un" from "that was fun" either -- rather something in between the two! "an apple" is quite nasal, "that was fun" is coming from low in the throat. What I hear is not so nasal, but not so low in the throat either. –  Ming May 15 at 4:32
    
In some English accents in England, the vowel in ban is a front-open vowel. The vowel in start in a back-open vowel. Front or back means the 'position' of the vowel in your mouth when you are saying the sound. You can feel that the ban vowel is in the front of your mouth and the start vowel in the back. As another example, [i:] (vowel in bee) is a front vowel while [u:] (vowel in who) is a back vowel. They are a pair of close vowels (close means you don't open your mouth as big as when you are speaking open vowels). –  user58955 May 15 at 8:19

6 Answers 6

up vote 3 down vote accepted

To answer your question, we need a little basic phonetics: A vowel has two main attributes -- how open your mouth is when you are making the sound, and whether the sound is made at the front of the mouth or at the back. For example, FLEE vowel is close and front, FLU vowel is close and back. BAN vowel is open (more open than BET, which is more open than FLEE) and front, START vowel is open and back. The FUN vowel is usually in the mid of the mouth, but not as open as START.

The BAN vowel is more open in some accents in England than in the general American accent. As Stan has found, the vowel in http://www.macmillandictionary.com/pronunciation/british/ban is front and very open, more open than the same vowel in American accent.

Now, regarding your original question what 'more central' means, it means that you open your mouth as wide(open) as the BAN vowel in the audio clip above, but move the tongue position a bit towards the back. As a side note, the standard mandarin accent uses a mid vowel in pinyin ban, while the Taiwanese accent uses a fronter variant (just like the BAN vowel in the audio clip).

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The right pronunciation should sound like "ahn". The English pronunciation of "an" sounds wrong in Chinese.

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2  
The "ah" part should sound slightly strained, and not like the "o" sound in "dog". –  Jason Chen May 16 at 2:04

there's a script from a Chinese teacher, which explained your confusion.

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Hi, would you be able to summarise in-answer? If the link dies in the future, this answer becomes meaningless. Thanks! –  Ming May 16 at 0:20
    
@Ming, you should always remember that in Chinese Mandarin an should be pronounced as un in English, though you said "... the first camp, while pronouncing 办 with the English "an"..., if an in 办 is pronounced as an in English, then 办 should be pronounced as 奔, but they are different and I suppose you know the difference. So remember, an (Chinese) == un (English), and en (Chinese) == an (English). Do you have any other cases which you think an should be pronounced as an in English? –  j5shi May 16 at 0:57
    
Hmm I think you might be getting a different idea of the "an" in "an apple" and "un" in "that was fun" that I've been trying to describe, because they definitely aren't the same as "en" in 奔, either of them. –  Ming May 16 at 1:48
    
"an" in "an apple" is the same as "en" in 奔 in pronunciation. –  j5shi May 16 at 1:54
    
@j5shi I suggest you listen to the British English "an". As many Chinese students learn American English, probably you presuppose the only weak sound /ən/ image in your mind, but that's not very true to every case. –  Stan May 16 at 2:48

For me, the a in Chinese pinyin sounds like the a in father.(It's same as the Italian pronunciation of vowel a too) The an in Chinese sounds like the an in fantastic. Hope that helps! :)

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"The an in Chinese sounds like the an in fantastic" You should declare it's in British English. –  Stan May 16 at 0:33
    
I don't really know the difference between British English and American english but I've been learning British English. So i guess you're right ;P –  Sue May 16 at 5:31

I am a Madanrin native speaker, and I pronounce pinyin an in the exactly same way as un in lunch.

So for me 饭 is pronounced exactly same as fun in "Have fun."

While 烦 is pronounced exactly same as fun in "Did you have fun?" Because fun is the last word in that sentence, its tone is raised, making it sound exactly same as 烦 or 凡 or 繁.

So the following pairs are pronounced exactly same:

办 BUN, 畔 PUN, 饭 FUN 蛋 DUN, 难(nàn) NUN, 干(gàn) GUN, 汉 HUN, 散(sàn) SUN.

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1  
Presumably you're not a native english speaker though... I pronounce the mandarin as /a/ and the english short-u as /ʌ/. Although there is variation within both languages, this distinction is normatively correct, relative to "standard" pronunciations. See: here and here. –  Stumpy Joe Pete May 16 at 0:20
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an in Chinese Mandarin in no way could be the same as un in lunch in pronunciation . –  j5shi May 16 at 0:47

The pronunciation and/or images of the an sound of the teachers from Zhejiang might well be influenced by their dialectal mother tongue. In Zhejiang dialects, at least in that spoken in Hangzhou, where Zhejiang University is located, many an sounds are pronounced closer to the English an as in an apple than their Mandarin equivalents.

Some examples from Phonemica, a site collecting samples of Chinese dialects:

http://phonemica.net/entry/353 The in 銅板 at 00:09 and elsewhere

http://phonemica.net/entry/368 The in 中饭 at 00:12

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