I'm a retired computer science professor who helps Chinese graduate students master English. The students have a good background for reading and writing scientific papers but struggle with their teaching assignments. In all fairness, we're a Southern university with students who have no experience with non-Southern accents.

This semester I'm starting a new tack, which is to use games, especially tongue twisters, to find those sounds that the students have the most trouble with. Some English phonemes are well-known to be difficult but I find different students have trouble with different combinations of phonemes.

My question/request is this. I would like to find a list of Chinese words that contain correct English phoneme sounds. For example, one of my students is struggling with the "w" sound in "wood"; she's very frustrated because her name is Wu. I discovered looking at Chinese phonemes "w" is sometimes silent which is exactly the problem she's having: she wants to say "ood" and not "wood". Ditto for "would".

My goal is to make a table with (1) the English phoneme (2) a Chinese word that contains the English phoneme and the Pinyin version (so I can read it).

Thanks in advance.

I have put together a google group with my attempt to set up my own answer. You can see is at https://groups.google.com/d/forum/cupronunce. The basic approach is to

  • Find a site that had English with the IPA listed
  • Find a site that had IPA to Pinyin
  • Find a site that had Pinyin to Mandarin

We know that it's a partial function each way, so the missing links are the parts to concentrate on fixing.

Any comments gratefully accepted.

  • 6
    (2) will be the problem. You're going to be wanting combinations of phonemes which do not exist in standard Mandarin: /w/ + /u/ is one of them.
    – Michaelyus
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 13:19
  • 2
    There are many tables on line and in textbooks, all I know of give much "approximate" advice well known to be false in fact. The specialist literature is more accurate but even the books called "Standard Chinese" and so on, spend vast time trying to capture all the existing variations across China -- which is impossible, and no two of these books agree with each other. A short book of standard Putonghua pronunciation with Hanyu Pinyin spelling would be a godsend for learners even though no living person speaks utterly official Putonghua and people in China rarely write pinyin. Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 13:42
  • 3
    我 is not pronunced /o/, but has a distinct w (or v in certain Beijing quarters). This would resolve the w case. But in general, you should give up all attempts to render one language using morphemes of another. Students should be consider tabula rasa infants, and would learn from scratch using native sounds.
    – user4452
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 19:04
  • 2
    Pinyin is explicit that w in "wo" or "wu" is actually u -- it is the way "u" is written when it starts a syllable. As Michaelyus and Stumpy Joe Pete both say, it is not any sound that exists in English. Yes, 倪阔乐 is right that it is a kind of w sound, but it is not the English w sound. It is called a "u on-glide" in some phonetics texts, and I found that useful. So 我 is pronounced something like an English speaker might say "u-o," but the on-glide u is not a separate sound u, and the Chinese o is not the same as o in any English word I can think of. Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 1:23
  • 2
    Do you talk about how to hold the lips and tongue, and how to breathe to make the sounds? That helped me a lot and there are web sites that do it. I have to say too -- monalisa's answer is fantastically good. Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 15:48

2 Answers 2


I do not think that such a list exists. If it did, Chinese-speaking learners of English would never need to struggle with the pronunciation of their new language. Let's say we have a List E, which contains all the phonemes in English (whichever variety you choose), and another List C, which contains all the phonemes in Chinese (again, whichever variety you choose). Where E and C overlap, these are the phonemes that students will not likely have problems. It's the part of E that is outside of C that your students need to tackle, and this is precisely the part where you cannot find Chinese words that contain those phonemes. The reverse is true for English-speaking learners of Chinese, that is, they tend to struggle with the part of C that is outside E. This is also why second-language speakers tend to have accents. They are trying to find a native sound that matches the new language sound, and where none exists, they approximate as much as they can, resulting in a distinct accent.

  • I agree in most parts of @monalisa's comment, but I think even with some phonemes not belonging to the C list you can make an approximation using other Chinese dialects/accents that do have those phonemes (or approximations) just so they can understand what sound you want them to try to reach. That's what I do with my Brazilian students studying Mandarin. I would say that about 50% of the Chinese sounds don't exist in standard Portuguese, but I use some known examples so they can understand what they are supposed to try to say (and I would say they don't have a hard time doing it). Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 23:03
  • @EnricoBrasil I agree with you 100%. I think every competent language teacher does what you do with their students. But the OP's question is not "how to teach certain English phonemes to Chinese-speaking students"; it is a request for "a list of Chinese words that contain correct English phoneme sounds".
    – monalisa
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 0:06
  • @EnricoBrasil I am sure you know every competent language teacher does this. OP seems not to know that thousands of linguists and speech experts and language teachers around the world, right now and for years past have tried to do this in the best most useful way possible. They have found exactly what this answer says is the case. Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 12:55

I think it might be better to separate the two languages in practice. One is that there may not exist the apple to apple comparisons of the two spoken systems. And secondly, even if there are some sounds that could show similarities, those probably are not good indications but instead trouble makers.

To improve English, it is better to mimic the sentences, not the words, and definitely do not try to correct it phoneme by phoneme with IPA. It just does not work.


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