Serveral chinese characters sound extremely similarly to me, not only because of their vowel's tone, but, often, also because of their starting consonants. For example, I find it's very difficult to notice the difference among 彡, 山, 摻, 芟, 惉, 沾, 傹, 治安, etc. I found several tables where characters are sorted by number of strokes (chinese dictionaries), piyin (chinese dictionaries for foreigners), by frequency (resources for beginnerds), by category (books for beginners), etc. What I cannot find is a table where words are sorted by sound similarity (piyin is a kind of), so that beginners can be warned about similarity traps.

What shall I look for?

Note that I'm not asking for resources, but for tips on what kind of resources a beginner should look for.

Attempt to improve my question, after Aurus Huang's answer. It's noticeable that, for example, Spanish have difficulties in distinguishing the sound (vowels) of "jeep", "cheap", "ship". In the same way, usually English speakers cannot distinguish Italian's double consonants (think of English's "regatta", from Italian's "regata", or "benvenuTTo" instead of "benvenuto"), or Russian's "ы", "й", "и". This kind of errors arize mostly because some sounds do not exist in their mother language.

So, back to the question, I'm looking for something that says: "Warning: be careful, the following Chinese words have quite similar sound: don't make confusion!". This may be quite specific according to the learner's mother language.

  • Not sure if this is what you're looking for : 近音檢字法
    – Alex
    Sep 21, 2015 at 17:36
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    Characters aren't really relevant to this. You should learn pinyin (or another transcription system). Then practice distinguishing cononants that are difficult for you. Based on the examples you gave, I don't think you'll find the kind of resource you want. After all, Chinese people don't have difficulty distinguishing zh/ch/ch/j/q/x. Also for learners, what's difficult for you is different than someone with a different native language. E.g., zh and sh have always sounded completely different to me. Sep 22, 2015 at 1:35
  • @StumpyJoePete : Agree with you, different difficulties arise among different people. But maybe some set of common "traps" are identified for groups of people with the same mother language... Sep 28, 2015 at 7:11
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    Well, based on what you have said, I'd focus on the aspirated/unaspirated distinction. For instance b vs p, d vs t, zh vs ch, j vs q, etc. This seems to be a common problem for Europeans whose native lang. only distinguishes voicing. Also, sounds that are difficult for many foreigners in my exp. include the zh/ch/sh vs j/q/x, r, u vs ü, (z/c/s)i vs (z/c/s)e, and tones in general. Sep 28, 2015 at 15:43

2 Answers 2


Have you had problems noticing the difference between "sheer" and "cheer", or "jeep" and "cheap"? If not, then your problem is solved. For European people, it is strongly recommended that they read articles with Pinyin (literally "Spelled Pronunciation").
Why characters are not relevant to their pronunciations? Chinese has so LONG a history that pronunciations have been changed for dozens (if not hundreds) of times. Even a Chinese can't figure out why 工(gong, "work") represents the pronunciation of 江(jiang, "river"). Logically it should be, but it is not! Then Pinyin was invented to represent the pronunciation of characters. We only need to accept the fact and remember it. Leave the questions to linguists.
One more thing: You can find quite a lot of texts with Pinyin in children's books. Chinese textbooks of Grade 1 or 2 in primary schools also help. (Confucius said, you should not feel ashamed to learn from people inferior to you. ;-))
EDIT: I mean the difference of consonants, not vowels. Vowels in Mandarin Chinese is quite easy to distinguish.

  • This is not the point. Have you ever noticed the difficulties of Spanish in distinguishing the sound (vowels) of "jeep", "cheap", "ship"? Or of English in distinguishing Italian's double consonants (think of English's "regatta", from Italian's "regata", or how English pronounce "benvenuTTo" instead of "benvenuto"), or Russian's "ы", "й", "и"? So, back to my question, I'm looking for something that says: "Warning: be careful, the following words have quite similar sound: don't make confusion!" Sep 28, 2015 at 7:07
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    I've never heard of that thing; I feel that Chinese vowels and consonants are easy to distinguish, compared to Italian or Russian. The real challenge lies on tonal systems. If there must be a thing you want, it should be in your Chinese textbook written in your mother language. Sep 28, 2015 at 7:37
  • can't figure out why 工 represents the pronunciation of 江, you mean does not represent?
    – zypA13510
    Mar 19, 2020 at 1:43
  • 工 DOES represent the pronunciation of 江, but only at the linguistic level. Their pronunciation may be the same in the past, but not at the present. Jul 6, 2020 at 11:38

For people who know a bit of IPA, you might want to consider checking this resource out: https://github.com/open-dict-data/ipa-dict

I downloaded the .dz format (Dictionary), and I am using it with GoldenDict, an open-source dictionary program.

You should get familiar with the notations used here since there still isn't a universal consensus on Chinese IPA transcription. For example, the vowel pair in Cantonese /aa/ vs /a/ may be transcribed as /a/ vs /ɐ/.

IPA Sales Pitch

After learning IPA, it's easier for me to get to know the exact pronunciation of words in some foreign languages, as long as they have specific descriptions of the pronunciation.

And before learning phonology and IPA, I've never known many of the speech mechanism used in languages, for example: slack voice used in Hindi and Wu Chinese. IMHO, learning speech mechanisms can greatly enhance to learning of pronunciation in a language.

As an example:

  • 山/ʂan55/ - /ʂ/ is the "voiceless retroflex fricative".
  • 沾/ʈʂan55/ - /ʐ/ is the "voiceless retroflex affricate".
  • 治安/ʈʂi51.an55/ - /./ is the syllable break. By understanding Chinese phonology, one would know that each syllable in Chinese is accompanied with a tone, by sensing the tonal difference and time taken to slur between these 2 syllables, one can learn to separate them into 2 characters. (Chinese linguists prefers /ʈʂʅ51.an55/) (The dictionary I recommended uses /ʈʂɚ51.an55/)

By learning IPA, I believe one can improve on spotting the differences and improve on their own pronunciation.

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