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The "r" sound

Have you every noticed that the "r" sound is different in many foreign languages? English, Spanish, Russian, French, Japanese, German... the "r" sound is different in every one. Well, guess what? It's also different in Mandarin Chinese. Pinyin "r-" does not make the same sound as "r" in English. In fact, the Mandarin Chinese "r-" sound does not exist in English, so you're going to have to train yourself to make the sound.

Pinyin's "r" Sound

Like the ch-, sh-, and zh- sounds of last section, Mandarin Chinese's r- sound is also retroflex. That means the tip of your tongue should be pointed up toward the roof of your mouth, and also be rather far back in your mouth. That makes it quite different from the typical American "r" sound, which is pronounced by raising the middle of the tongue in the back of the mouth.

This may seem strange, but the Mandarin r- sound really is very similar to the ch-, sh-, and zh- sounds.

R-Diagram
  • r- is pronounced by making the "French j" sound like in the words "leisure" and "pleasure". While making that sound, slowly pull the tip of your tongue further into the back of your mouth. The sound will start to sound less "buzzy" and more like an "r" sound. That's the Mandarin r- sound.
  • ri is an odd syllable because it almost feels like you're not making a vowel sound at all, or if you are, you're doing it kind of at the same time as the "r" sound. This sound rhymes with the zhi, chi, shi sounds of last section, and there's certainly no "ee" sound in it.

There is actually a range of acceptable "buzziness" for the r- sound in Chinese. You can't actually make the sound in the words "leisure" and "pleasure"; that's too "buzzy." But you don't have to pull your tongue so far back that the buzziness fades entirely.

Pinyin Chart Fragment

This is just a part of the full pinyin chart, limited to the sounds we've covered so far.

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-a- -a -ai -ao -an -ang -e- -e -ei -en -eng -er -o- -o -ou -ong -i- -i -i* -ia -iao -ie -iou -ian -iang -in -ing -iong -u- -u -ua -uai -uei -uo -uan -uang -uen -ueng -ü-
zh-
zha
[tʂɑ]
ㄓㄚ
cha
zhai
[tʂaɪ̯]
ㄓㄞ
chai
zhao
[tʂɑʊ̯]
ㄓㄠ
chao
zhan
[tʂan]
ㄓㄢ
chan
zhang
[tʂɑŋ]
ㄓㄤ
chang
zhe
[tʂɯ̯ʌ]
ㄓㄜ
che
zhei
[tʂeɪ̯]
ㄓㄟ
chei
zhen
[tʂən]
ㄓㄣ
chen
zheng
[tʂəŋ]
ㄓㄥ
cheng
zhou
[tʂɤʊ̯]
ㄓㄡ
chou
zhong
[tʂʊŋ]
ㄓㄨㄥ
chung
zhi
[tʂʅ]
chih
zhu
[tʂu]
ㄓㄨ
chu
zhua
[tʂu̯ɑ]
ㄓㄨㄚ
chua
zhuai
[tʂu̯aɪ̯]
ㄓㄨㄞ
chuai
zhui
[tʂu̯eɪ̯]
ㄓㄨㄟ
chui
zhuo
[tʂu̯ɔ]
ㄓㄨㄛ
cho
zhuan
[tʂu̯an]
ㄓㄨㄢ
chuan
zhuang
[tʂ̯u̯ɑŋ]
ㄓㄨㄤ
chuang
zhun
[tʂu̯ən]
ㄓㄨㄣ
chun
zh-
ch-
cha
[tʂʰɑ]
ㄔㄚ
ch'a
chai
[tʂʰaɪ̯]
ㄔㄞ
ch'ai
chao
[tʂʰɑʊ̯]
ㄔㄠ
ch'ao
chan
[tʂʰan]
ㄔㄢ
ch'an
chang
[tʂʰɑŋ]
ㄔㄤ
ch'ang
che
[tʂʰɯ̯ʌ]
ㄔㄜ
ch'e
chen
[tʂʰən]
ㄔㄣ
ch'en
cheng
[tʂʰəŋ]
ㄔㄥ
ch'eng
chou
[tʂʰɤʊ̯]
ㄔㄡ
ch'ou
chong
[tʂʰʊŋ]
ㄔㄨㄥ
ch'ung
chi
[tʂʰʅ]
ch'ih
chu
[tʂʰu]
ㄔㄨ
ch'u
chua
[tʂʰu̯ɑ]
ㄔㄨㄚ
ch'ua
chuai
[tʂʰu̯aɪ̯]
ㄔㄨㄞ
ch'uai
chui
[tʂʰu̯eɪ̯]
ㄔㄨㄟ
ch'ui
chuo
[tʂʰu̯ɔ]
ㄔㄨㄛ
ch'o
chuan
[tʂʰu̯an]
ㄔㄨㄢ
ch'uan
chuang
[tʂʰu̯ɑŋ]
ㄔㄨㄤ
ch'uang
chun
[tʂʰu̯ən]
ㄔㄨㄣ
ch'un
ch-
sh-
sha
[ʂɑ]
ㄕㄚ
sha
shai
[ʂaɪ̯]
ㄕㄞ
shai
shao
[ʂɑʊ̯]
ㄕㄠ
shao
shan
[ʂan]
ㄕㄢ
shan
shang
[ʂɑŋ]
ㄕㄤ
shang
she
[ʂɯ̯ʌ]
ㄕㄜ
she
shei
[ʂeɪ̯]
ㄕㄟ
shei
shen
[ʂən]
ㄕㄣ
shen
sheng
[ʂəŋ]
ㄕㄥ
sheng
shou
[ʂɤʊ̯]
ㄕㄡ
shou
shi
[ʂʅ]
shih
shu
[ʂu]
ㄕㄨ
shu
shua
[ʂu̯ɑ]
ㄕㄨㄚ
shua
shuai
[ʂu̯aɪ̯]
ㄕㄨㄞ
shuai
shui
[ʂu̯eɪ̯]
ㄕㄨㄟ
shui
shuo
[ʂu̯ɔ]
ㄕㄨㄛ
sho
shuan
[ʂu̯an]
ㄕㄨㄢ
shuan
shuang
[ʂu̯ɑŋ]
ㄕㄨㄤ
shuang
shun
[ʂu̯ən]
ㄕㄨㄣ
shun
sh-
r-
rao
[ʐɑʊ̯]
ㄖㄠ
jao
ran
[ʐan]
ㄖㄢ
jan
rang
[ʐɑŋ]
ㄖㄤ
jang
re
[ʐɯ̯ʌ]
ㄖㄜ
je
ren
[ʐən]
ㄖㄣ
jen
reng
[ʐəŋ]
ㄖㄥ
jeng
rou
[ʐɤʊ̯]
ㄖㄡ
jou
rong
[ʐʊŋ]
ㄖㄨㄥ
jung
ri
[ʐʅ]
jih
ru
[ʐu]
ㄖㄨ
ju
rua
[ʐu̯ɑ]
ㄖㄨㄚ
jua
rui
[ʐu̯eɪ̯]
ㄖㄨㄟ
jui
ruo
[ʐu̯ɔ]
ㄖㄨㄛ
jo
ruan
[ʐu̯an]
ㄖㄨㄢ
juan
run
[ʐu̯ən]
ㄖㄨㄣ
jun
r-
-a- -a -ai -ao -an -ang -e- -e -ei -en -eng -er -o- -o -ou -ong -i- -i -i* -ia -iao -ie -iou -ian -iang -in -ing -iong -u- -u -ua -uai -uei -uo -uan -uang -uen -ueng -ü-

Next up: the "ü" vowel (you're almost finished!).

Sources and further reading