Chinese language

July 22, 2015


Before we start explaining our China times, let me just walk you through some basics of the Chinese language so you can understand how to say the place names that we’re throwing at you.

The Chinese language is one of the most difficult to learn in the world, and that’s not just my opinion, it’s shared by many people that I have met along the way. I first started trying to learn it in WuXi where I had an one hour lesson every weekday over my lunchtime. The teacher, Zhu Lan Lan was her Chinese name and Charlotte was her self given English name, used to bring me home cooked Chinese food for me to try whilst I learnt because she knew that I was giving up my chance to go to the market to get lunch. I still remember how kind and attentive she was.

I’ll try and break down some of the basics for you here so that you can understand how to pronounce some of the things we see and places we visit.

There are four tones in Chinese – the first tone is straight and high, the second tone starts roughly half way and moves upwards, the third starts from the same position but moves downwards before moving up to the highest point, and the fourth starts high and ends low with a short and sharp delivery. We probably won’t include these tones in the posts but they’re important as each word in Chinese has four different meanings according to the tone it is given, and then even more if it’s combined with another word.


As you can see there’s a fifth tone that is sometimes used as well. A tone that has no tone, are you starting to understand how hard it gets?

The tones are a lot like musical phrases and it’s not particularly important to know where to start the phrase but it is important to follow the patterns. Although in general, a lot of Chinese men will use the same intonations, and a lot of Chinese women will use a slightly higher intonation than the men, so if you follow their lead then they’re more likely to understand you.

The pronunciation of Chinese is different from European languages, it involves a lot more sounds from the back and middle of your mouth. Here’s a few examples:

A suffix for a lot of words is -ang, you would be forgiven for thinking that this would be pronounced with a short ‘a’ sound like angle, but it’s not it’s a long ‘ahhhh’ with a soft ‘ng’ sound which sounds much like an after thought of breath.

As a general rule, Zh is pronounced similarly to a soft ‘j’, and Q is pronounced as a soft ‘ch’ sound. Everything else is roughly as it looks in the romanised alphabet they have called ‘pinyin’.

When you see a word like ‘he’ you’d think that that’s pronounced like the article for a male but it’s actually pronounced ‘heurgh’. Each suffix has a distinct sound that is repeated with whatever prefix. There are very little exceptions in Chinese but there are a couple, for example shi, is pronounced ‘Sheurgh’ and qi is pronounced ‘chee’.