The "r" sound
In series Pinyin quick start guide
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.
- 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.
Key "r" Syllables
If you're just getting the hang of the Mandarin "r" sound, these are some good syllables to concentrate on initially:
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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