Here's an English example:

Learner: Wait, how is c-o-w pronounced?
Native: COW, like a K sound followed by ow.

But in Chinese there are no phonetic letters. So how are children taught how to pronounce something, other than to hear the difference by someone who already knows it? Unless they're taught pinyin (which didn't even used to exist), how on earth could you specify the difference between, for example, j and q, if the learner were uncertain which sound was being used in the pronunciation of a given word or character?

  • 1
    How do you know what a "K" sound is? Is that any more illuminating than saying that "cow" starts with the same sound as "kid"? Also, I disagree with your casual switch from "Learner" to "children". Learners of a foreign language need to be taught how to pronounce things. Children generally don't. May 14, 2013 at 21:37
  • 1
    Hmm, I guess I wasn't clear enough. K is clear because people learning English learn the pronunciation sound of the 26 letters and handful of other combinations, and once they have them down, that's that, and you can refer to them as a standard for pronunciation-- Like a D sound, like a C-H sound. In Chinese there is no such standard for differentiation, or so it seems. May 14, 2013 at 23:06
  • I think it's not proper to compare pinyin to phonetic letters (pinyin is more similar to the phonetic symbol). The most popular way to show a native learner how a complex character pronounces, is to tell him/her a very simple character that pronounces the same. For example, you may not know how to pronounce 燚, then a homophone 义/義 would be helpful.
    – Stan
    May 25, 2013 at 18:44

2 Answers 2


Nowadays schoolchildren are taught Pinyin pretty thoroughly first, so they know how to correctly pronounce Pinyin. Then when learning new words, all they have to do is learn the Pinyin. A lot of primary/elementary textbooks will have annotations like this:

Here's a typical Chinese primary school blackboard:

Here's a Taiwanese equivalent of this sort of annotation, usually used on difficult characters:

While we're at it, here's a Japanese equivalent:

  • The Taiwanese equivalent is called 注音符號 or bopomofo. And the Japanese equivalent is Furigana (振り仮名)
    – tao
    Jul 2, 2013 at 8:57

If I were teaching my daughter a new character, let's say 浅, I would say it very slow: 七-----衣-----安-----, and let her repeat very slow in the same way, then increase the speed gradually to the normal speed, which makes it sound like 千, then aske her to put the 3rd tone on it to get 浅 qiǎn.

For 禁, it will be 鸡----阴----, and we get jin, then put 1st or 4th tone on it, because this character has 2 pronunciations, jīn and jìn.

  • I find it somewhat humorous to see broken down as 七-衣-安 because the "an" in doesn't even rhyme with the "an" in 浅. Of course, the point still stands that you can indicate initials and finals by comparison with other characters. May 14, 2013 at 21:35
  • @StumpyJoePete 安 rhymes with 千? When we break down a pronunciation into several parts, we use the first tone always, to simplify the simulation. When we get the whole sound correctly, we put the tone needed. So maybe for you, ān doesn't rhyme with ǎn, but for me they rhyme perfectly. I think in Chinese, tones have no role in rhyme. May 14, 2013 at 21:54
  • So is that the standard method? Comparison to other characters? May 14, 2013 at 23:07
  • 1
    @孤影萍踪 "An" is pronounced [an], while "yan" (or the "ian" in words starting with consonants) is pronounced [jɛn]. They're both spelled the same, and it's entirely possible you perceive them the same, but the vowels are different (e.g., pot = [pat], pet = [pɛt]) May 15, 2013 at 0:26
  • 2
    @孤影萍踪 天(tiān), 跹(xiān), and 圆(yuán) do all end in [ɛn], while 山(shān) and 关(guān) do not. The rhyming rules for classical chinese poetry are complex and do not have much to do with Mandarin pronunciation. See this for a lengthy exposition of rhyming rules in Classical Chinese poetry. May 15, 2013 at 19:33

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