Beginners’ Chinese: a taster course
Beginners’ Chinese: a taster course

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Beginners’ Chinese: a taster course

1.2 Pinyin

There are various systems for transcribing Chinese sounds into the Roman alphabet. Pinyin was adopted as the official system in the People’s Republic of China in 1958, and has since become the standard and most-used form of transcription in schools, the media and elsewhere. This course uses pinyin in the teaching of pronunciation.

Watch the video below to learn more about how pinyin was created.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 3
Skip transcript: Video 3

Transcript: Video 3

[MUSIC PLAYING]

[TEXT ON SCREEN: pin yin zhi fu. The Father of Pinyin.]

SPEAKER:
He's 102, but he's still hard at work. Aside from the shelves of books in his modest Beijing flat, there's little to show that Zhou Youguang has helped up to a billion people in China to learn, to read, and write. It's 50 years since he developed a new way of representing Chinese on the page. And pinyin has become by far the most widely used method of putting the language into the Roman alphabet.
ZHOU YOUGUANG: People call me the father of pinyin. I say that's not true. I'm not the father of pinyin. I'm the son of pinyin.
It is the long tradition from the later years of Qing dynasty down to today.
SPEAKER:
Zhou found his place in the history books by chance. He was working in a New York bank when the communists took power, and he chose to return home to help rebuild his country's economy. Languages were only a hobby, but with few experts in the field, the government insisted he should take charge.
ZHOU YOUGUANG:
The government thought this is a very important work. At that time more Chinese were illiterate. It was not possible to establish a new country with so many illiterates.
SPEAKER:
Chinese has no alphabet. Each word has its own character, which doesn't show how you should say it, so pinyin helps children to associate words with the characters which represent them; and it teaches those brought up speaking other Chinese languages how to pronounce Mandarin.
ZHOU YOUGUANG:
That's the Chinese pronunciation of "Yingguó."
SPEAKER:
The work of his team has helped to slash the illiteracy rate in China from 80% to just 10%, but his change in career also proved a personal blessing when Mao's first campaign against intellectuals began in 1957.
ZHOU YOUGUANG:
Mao Zedong disliked greatly the economists, especially economic professors from America. By that time, I'd shifted to the line of language and writing. If I remained in Shanghai teaching economics, I think I certainly could be imprisoned for 20 years. And later during the Cultural Revolution, the Great Cultural Revolution, I was called 'fan dong pan de quan wei', a reactionary academic.
SPEAKER:
He was sent to work in the countryside, but as soon as he was rehabilitated, he picked up with his studies where he'd left them. He still publishes a paper each month and says he has no plans to take it easy as he approaches 103.
ZHOU YOUGUANG:
I retired long ago. I left my office at the age of 85, and since that time I read and then write in my home. This is a small room, a very small room.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

End transcript: Video 3
Video 3
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Read the language note below about pinyin sounds and then, in the activity that follows, listen to how each one is pronouced.

Language note: single finals and initials

Chinese is a vowel-dominated language. In total, there are 35 vowel sounds, known as ‘finals’ because they occur at the end of syllables. The six vowel sounds you will hear in Activity 2 are called ‘single finals’ and are written in pinyin as a , e , i , o , u and ü . These simple vowel sounds are put together in various combinations to form 29 ‘compound finals’, which are beyond the scope of this course.

There are 23 consonant sounds in Chinese, called ‘initials’ because they appear at the start of syllables. Here are the 23 initials:

Table 1 Initials

b p m f d t n l
g k h w y j q x
z c s zh ch sh r

Activity 2 Finals and initials

When you listen to the audio track below you will hear six single vowels, known as finals in Chinese. Repeat after each sound.

a e i o u ü

You will then combine these vowels with some consonants, known as initials in Chinese. Note how similar they sound to some English consonants. Repeat after each sound.

ba pa ma fa de te ne le gu ku hu wo yi

You will then hear some consonants, or initials, combined with the final i. Listen and repeat.

ji qi xi zi ci si zhi chi shi ri

Download this audio clip.Audio player: author="al22273" timestamp="20200922T111842+0100"
Skip transcript: Audio 1

Transcript: Audio 1

You will now hear six single vowels known as finals in Chinese. Repeat after each sound.
a e i o u ü
Now we will combine these vowels with some consonants known as initials in Chinese. Note how similar they sound to some English consonants. Repeat after each sound.
ba pa ma fa de te ne le gu ku hu wo yi
Here are some consonants, or initials, combined with a final i. Listen and repeat.
ji qi xi zi ci si zhi chi shi ri
End transcript: Audio 1
Audio 1
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
CHN_1

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371