Learning Mandarin: Pronunciation Debacles: x & q vs. sh & ch

Posted by Charlie @ Discovering Mandarin Sunday, 7 February 2010
This one of many guest posts here at Discovering Mandarin. This post/lesson is from my friend Megan (@megoizzy on twitter). I have actually been sat here talking to myself for ages after reading it. I implore you to do the same!

Mandarin Pronunciation Debacles

My first semester of learning Chinese was probably the most difficult one. Each week, my fellow wannabe Mando-philes and I were presented with a new series of 10 vocabulary terms, which our teacher went through painstakingly quickly every time. For the first month, I felt like I had missed a class somewhere. In true Chinese style, Zhu Laoshi never intimated the little pronunciation secrets that were my total bugaboos. It wasn’t the tones that were getting me, it was those pesky x’s and sh’s. I couldn’t understand why xian started with x but shen started with sh.

A background in linguistics and basic phonetics helped me to uncover the truth myself, and as the years finally took me to live in China, a local friend was able to help me unpack what was really going on between x and sh, q and ch.

First, there is a very important distinction to make.

x and q are always followed by high, frontal flat vowels like i and ue.

sh and ch are always followed by low, back rounded vowels like a, o and e.

This means that you can have:

xian or sheng but never shian
qiang or chang but never chiang

This might seem arbitrary. It did to me until I learned that there is actually a pronunciation difference between these - they are distinct sounds. And despite what most phrase books want you to believe (which is that x sounds like sh and q sounds like ch), the pronunciation difference between these sounds actually dictates why they are followed by different vowels.

Let’s play a game.

Open your mouth very slightly. Smile. Say the “sh” sound by blowing out the sides of your teeth rather than the front of your mouth. Keep your tongue lying flat. Don’t let it move! That’s the pinyin x. Now say xiàn with that same smile and blowing the air out the sides of your teeth. Keep smiling! You’ve got it.

So what’s the sh? Open your mouth again, this time wider. Purse your lips as if you’re about to plant a big smooch on your Aunt Mildred. Let your tongue curl up a little bit. Blow the air out the front of your lips and say the “sh” sound. That’s the pinyin sh. Now say shèng with those kissy lips still pursed. Keep ‘em puckered. You’ve got it.

This works the same way for q and ch. q is said with a smile, ch with a kiss. Try it now:

qiàn chèng

It’s fairly simple, but it takes a lot of practice to get it right. Don’t be afraid to feel silly. You’ve got to do things with your mouth that don’t feel natural and are not similar to how you use your mouth when speaking English. Don’t be afraid to really test this out. Shout at your wall! qian qian qian! cheng cheng cheng! Flat lips for qian, round lips for cheng.

Once you get your mouth retrained for Mandarin mode, this becomes much easier and feels much more innate. Until then, practice makes perfect!

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Megan Eaves is the author of ‘This Is China: A Guidebook for Teachers, Backpackers and Other Lunatics.’ She has a degree in Intercultural Communication and has been studying and teaching Mandarin Chinese for the past 7 years. www.meganeaveswriting.com
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11 comments

  1. Puerhan Says:
  2. Great stuff! This is one of the reasons why I prefer Hanyu Pinyin over other romanization methods!

    Cheers!

     
  3. I don't like the old Wade-Giles pinyin. It is much too confusing when trying to speak.

    I found it really interesting and very useful too. Thank you Megan!!

    :)

     
  4. megan Says:
  5. I agree with you both that Hanyu Pinyin seems to be the most phonetically obvious way to spell out Chinese words in a romanized way. That said, there are still some stumpers and take awhile to get used to! Thanks for reading. :)

     
  6. guolan27 Says:
  7. This a great post. It shows that when it comes to learning Mandarin it is important to master all the sounds or else you will learn to speak Mandarin incorrectly. Speaking correctly is very important and if you are serious about learning Mandarin, this article is very helpful.

    www.simplystellarmandarin.com

     
  8. tiah Says:
  9. This a great post. It shows that when it comes to learning Mandarin it is important to master all the sounds or else you will learn to speak Mandarin incorrectly. Speaking correctly is very important and if you are serious about learning Mandarin, this article is very helpful.

    www.simplystellarmandarin.com

     
  10. Anonymous Says:
  11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.  
  12. Ty Says:
  13. A very well written post. I've met similar problems when I started to learn English. Some pronunciations like, "l" at the end of a word, "th" in "the" drive me crazy.

    Practice makes perfect. Native speakers are usually most tolerated to accents. Happy learning Chinese.

     
  14. peter jiang Says:
  15. pinyin is the foundation of listening comprehension, and listening is the key to master speaking etc. No matter chinese or english. good post.

     
  16. Anonymous Says:
  17. This is an extremely helpful post. I have been struggling with x vs. sh for quite some time. Even my Chinese teacher has had difficulty describing the difference. Thanks!

     
  18. thanks information

     
  19. Great post. I did a similar post a couple of months ago on my website. For all users interested in the SOUND files complimentary to Megan's post, have a look at http://www.wohok.com/mandarin/courses/basics/eng/pinyin.html

     

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