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Learner FAQ

Many learners have the same questions about Chinese pronunciation. We've compiled the most Frequently Asked Questions here, and organized them by difficulty level for your convenience.

Beginner Questions

How do I learn pinyin?

Study the pinyin chart and listen to how various syllables are pronounced, just clicking on what catches your attention. When that gets boring, go through the pinyin quick start guide to make sure that you get everything.

Then revisit the pinyin chart to review.

If you're afraid you missed anything, check out the list of pinyin gotchas.

Then re-revisit the pinyin chart to review.

Are "q" and "ch" the same? Or "x" and "sh"? Or "zh" and "j"?

No, no, and no. Please refer to the pinyin quick start guide.

Are the Chinese "r" and the English "r" the same?

No. Please refer to the pinyin quick start guide.

Tones are crazy! Do I have to learn them?

Yes. ...unless you want your Chinese to sound "crazy" and to never be taken seriously by Chinese people.

But really, tones are not that bad. It will take some time for you to get used to them, though. Rome wasn't built in a day.

Elementary Questions

I can do tones individually, but when I speak, my tones are a mess. What should I do?

Learning tones well takes a lot of practice. What you're experiencing is totally normal.

Eventually, you will benefit a lot from practicing tone pairs.

I know the sounds are different, but I can never distinguish "q" and "ch", "x" and "sh", etc. What can I do?

Study the pinyin chart more. Familiarize yourself not only with what each syllable sounds like, but also with which syllables don't even exist. It's hard to tell the different between "zha" and "ja" or "zhia" and "jia", but it gets a lot easier when you know that "ja" and "zhia" don't exist. Learn where the "gaps" in the chart are, and your listening accuracy will improve.

Intermediate Questions

Is it true that if you speak fast enough, you can get by not knowing tones?

No. Just no.

It might seem that way because you're a beginner. Imagine that same question being posed to a piano teacher: if I bang the keys really fast, will it seem like I play well? No, it won't. Learn the basic skills first, slowly increase in speed, and eventually you'll speak quickly and what seems like effortlessly.

How do you pronounce multiple third tones in a row?

Good question. You'll hear that according to the tone change rule they're all pronounced as a second tone except for the last one, and that's true... some of the time. In reality, it depends on how the words are grouped in a sentence. So you could have a 10-syllable sentence of all third tones, but rather than having 9 second tones and one third tone at the end, you're probably going to see a grouping something like, 2-2-3, 2-2-2-3, 2-2-3.