One of the most trickiest sounds to pronounce correctly in Mandarin seems to be the "r" sound, as in 日本 (rì běn). It's not uncommon to hear people pronounce that like "urban."

I have been told it's not supposed to be pronounced like the English "r" like in "red" (alveolar approximant). Some say it's closer to the French "j" in "jour" (voiced palato-alveolar sibilant).

What is the correct way to pronounce the Chinese "r"?

10 Answers 10

up vote 14 down vote accepted

I suggest you pronounce it like the "r" sound in "brrrrrrrr I'm cold" or "grrrrrrrr I'm angry".

So for Japan you could do it like "rrrrrrr ben".

Don't roll this "r" sound. This will get you about 80% accuracy. To get the rest you need to make the same voiced palato-alveolar sibilant, then you will be there.

Just want to add the palato-alveolar sibilant in the French "j" is made in a different part of the mouth to the Chinese "r". The "r" sound should be at the roof of the mouth.

Here is a great video on youtube to help: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_D6G0aqjtso

  • 1
    I would add that for the case of ri you try to pronounce the i as in zhi or shi after the rrrrrrr – Petruza Feb 5 '12 at 1:50

I am a native speaker, however, it's a little hard to tell you how to pronounce r in Mandarin, I would say it's similar the r sound in English(I am sure the French J is far different) word "ray"(in Chinese, there is a pronunciation: rui, which sounds similar with it). Please notice that the "i" letter actually has 2 different pronunciations, though we don't tell it in PinYin form. One is similar with "i" in English words like "click","bit","mist", and in "ri" of "ri ben", it's different.

Do you know if I could upload a sound clip here to show the pronunciatons?

  • Yes. The best way to do this would be to upload to youtube and put a link here (since everyone trusts youtube). – Orion Dec 14 '11 at 7:56
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    Yes, you can search the pronunciations in youtube. Youtube is a stranger here(in Mainland), I don't know it... – Huang Dec 14 '11 at 8:10
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    Oh, I forgot about that. – Orion Dec 14 '11 at 8:11
  • @NullUserException I can give some help with youtube stuff. When I back home, I will have a try. – Alex Chen Dec 14 '11 at 8:16

Pimsleur's Mandarin course suggests you pronounce it as somewhere between an English r and y, and this is certainly what it sounds like to me when I hear it when spoken by native speakers.

A tip to get this sound is to say English r with your tongue curled back a bit.

The best description of this sound I ever heard was a native American speaker, John Montanaro in a first year Chinese class said it was just like the sound a car engine makes turning over but not catching on a cold morning. He proceeded to demonstrate and everyone got it immediately.

It's like the French "j" but with the tongue on the roof of your mouth.

  1. Curl the tip of the tongue back so that it is at the part of your mouth where the roof of the mouth curves upward (the hard palate).

  2. Prepare to pronounce the letter "l" in that position, but don't say it. Pull the tip of the tongue a little bit away from the roof of your mouth, so it is not in contact with it.

  3. Say "ur" (as you would in English "purse") but don't move your lips.

Different speakers of Chinese have the tip of the tongue at different distances from the roof of the mouth; some actually have some contact, so that you hear a sort of "z" sound with the /r/.

The English r sound is very nearly a unique sound among languages, and IMO it is not a good idea to compare it to r in other languages -- certainly not as a point of departure or something to be modified to make a "Chinese r" out of it. Especially in terms of the lip movements involved, it's quite different from the Chinese sound.

I think if you growl like a dog "Grrrrrrr" but with your tongue curled back, you'll pretty much have it.

The explanation of below pic can help.

"It's similar to the [ʒ] sound in the middle of English word "measure".

Learn to speak "r"

My method is to put my tongue flat on the roof of my mouth. The top of your mouth is curved, so I end up with the sides and tip of my tongue against the roof of my mouth, with the middle of my tongue not touching.

Open your mouth wide but almost closed (an English R will have your mouth in an O shape). It helps to pull back on the sides of your mouth. Remember, Chinese speak more inside their mouth with their mouth near closed. I teach them to open up their mouth more. So you need to close your mouth more.

With mouth barely open, and wide, fold the tip of your tongue down and pronounce an r.

The reason for holding the tip up, is because it will free you from using your mouth to hold the sound back before your pronunciation. We tend to use our mouths for that, and you need to have your mouth right.

With the tip down, you get a looseness in the r that approximates the Chinese R 99% perfect, without any effort.

If you find yourself still making an R sound, you didn't drop the tip of your tongue, or your moving your mouth into O shape.

To practice, put an English e in front. Er. Then after repetitions, shorten the emphasis on the e part, and you'll get a loose R as well.

I find the Chinese [ren (person)] to be the easiest to practice with.

To compare, the English R is pronounced by holding the sides of your tongue against the roof of your mouth with the tip already down, then holding your mouth in an O shape and pulling back on sides of mouth as your pronounce the letter. So, the exact opposite.

Unless you are interested in particular dialectal variations, a simple English r ([ɹ]) would be most accurate for Standard Mandarin. By doing that alone, you might pass for native unless you have an attentive listener.

Can you tell the difference between English sh and Pinyin sh? If yes, do the same for the Pinyin r and you will have perfect standard pronunciation. Otherwise, don't worry about it.

Do not listen to anyone talking about [ʒ] or French j. Under certain circumstances, in certain dialects, the Pinyin r might be realised with a more sibiliant character. But never simply [ʒ].

  • In fact, in northern dialects (that Standard Mandarin is based upon), more often it is sh and zh that takes on a rhotic character rather than the other way round. – Alkenrinnstet Apr 6 '17 at 9:36

Maybe it will help someone...

There is russian letter 'ж' which sounds exactly like chinese 'r'. For example russian word "жуй"(to chew) sounds exactly as 锐.

But for those not familiar with Russian, there is a Portugees analog - letter 'j' like in a word "jovem". One can use google translation for the sound.

Now there is a tricky part about 'r': sometimes chinese swallow part of the sound and it becomes barely audible, but others are pretty articulate about 'r'. Guess it depends of the dialect.

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