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According to pinyin pronunciation guides, 學 should be pronounced x + ü + e with a rising tone. This should verbally sound something like

1) a shh- with tip of tongue close to your bottom teeth and gums;

2) an umlaut-sounding uuu as in the French/German 'tu' which is "xu" in pinyin;

3) an -ehh sound e.g. in 'better' or 'jet'.

Basically, 學 is "x" + "üe". In this post, I label this standard pronunciation as "xüüehh" (with a 2nd tone).

However, I've noticed that occasionally in regular speech:

  1. The umlaut is glided over to the point that "xüüehh" sometimes sounds like "shwehh" (which is similar to the "shwehh" sound in the soda brand "Schweppes").
  2. The -ü sound sometimes becomes a regular pinyin -u (not umlaut-ed) which consequently sounds like "shoo-ehh". This is particularly the case in common words such as 學生,學習,學校,大學 ,等等

Are these differences in pronunciation negligible? That is to say, do the differences in sound among "xüüehh", "shwehh", and "shoo-ehh" really matter in day-to-day speech? I hear the differences with a few native speakers but also fall victim myself to pronouncing 學 in these (improper?) ways, which partly motivated this post.

Is this somewhat similar to English-speakers saying "where ya goin" instead of fully enunciating each syllable as in "where are you going"?

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    I think this just depends on how you control your lips while speaking, your mouth should be slightly smaller and forming a tiny circle when you let air go out from your mouth. – Mark Ko Jun 3 at 19:57
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I must say that the differences are not negligible to Chinese people, because they won't have a "sh" followed by "oo" or "w", and that's not the same problem as "where ya goin".
To your first problem, I think it's because you're still not skilled enough to pronounce "x" (because this consonant is absent in English, French, and many European languages, and people often use "sh" to replace it). If you really feel hard to go this way, choose "sy" or "xi" instead of "sh", like "sy-ü-ehh", and slowly progress towards the correct "xue" (note that in Pinyin orthography, the umlaut is omitted).

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  • Interesting perspective. I hadn't thought about pronouncing it like 'sy' (represented in Wade Giles: hsieh / hsüeh) and then progressing my way to 'x' over time. After all, you're right: 'x' is a totally different sound from English's 'sh' sound - easy for a learner to forget that. Thank you for the reply! – MuchAppreciated25 2 days ago
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There's probably some regional variation, but at least in my experience, I don't hear native speakers use either of the alternate pronunciations you describe. I would consider each of those to be distinctly non-standard.

If I were to instruct a native English speaker how to pronounce 學 xué solely in writing, I might try something like "shrih?" It is true, as Aurus Huang says, that the pinyin x is not the same thing as sh in most English dialects, but I wouldn't quite call them "totally different," either. It is a useful approximation. Also, I find interpolating an r somewhat less inaccurate than interpolating a w.


ETA: The question mark in "shrih?" is not a glottal stop; it's really a question mark, meant to indicate a rising tone to a reader who doesn't speak Chinese.

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  • You're right I can hear a bit of an 'r' sound. Really helpful thank you! – MuchAppreciated25 yesterday
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After listening to several pronunciations of 學 with this question in mind, here are some of my thoughts:

The umlaut -ü cannot be skipped over in jue- que- xue-

The difference in meaning between the sounds shoo- and xü- is significant. Shoo = 書 and xü = 須。If you mean to say 學 (or 覺,卻, etc) and you vocalize "shoo", immediately you are mispronouncing the word and ultimately leaving it to the listener to fill in the blanks based on the tone and -ehh ending. A proper pronunciation of 學 utilizes an umlaut + ehh (even just a slight ü is better than shoo-).

Shwehh and xüüehh are essentially the same

I think my original labels of shwehh vs. xüüeh incorrectly outlined two distinct sounds. In reality, they're practically the same. As long as you pronounce the umlaut, a “wehh" sound is fine (for instance, try saying 月 without it). It seems to be the case that combining ü and ehh produces an unavoidable "wehh" (or something equivalent) in regular speech.

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You can try to pronounce English sound "sh" (ship without p), and try to move the front part of your tongue forward to your bottom teeth and flat it horizontally.

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  • I understand this is how to pronounce xi- like 謝 or 心but what about with xu + e like 學?Does it change at all – MuchAppreciated25 Jun 5 at 1:22

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