How to learn Mandarin pronunciation and tones for BEGINNERS

If you want to learn to speak Mandarin, you have to practice speaking Mandarin. Listening to or watching anything in Mandarin, let it be Peppa Pig Mandarin dub or a lecture teaching you how to speak Mandarin, will help you learn the language but will not make you a good speaker. You have to practice speaking it.

Growing up in China, I was surrounded by people who had been learning English in school since they were kids, but can’t speak English for their life. Most of them can read no problem, many can comprehend spoken English or even write in English quite well, but they can’t speak English.

In Mandarin, we call that they learned 哑巴英语 (Mute English).

I don’t want you to learn 哑巴中文. I started to build Kong Long Mandarin (formally Learn Chinese with Peppa Pig) specifically because I want to help you learn Mandarin in a way that enables you to communicate in Mandarin.

No practice, No gain!

You’d probably laugh if somebody wants to learn to play the violin but refuses to practice bowing. It’s the same thing with learning to speak Chinese.

There are so many aspects of Mandarin you can and should learn, such as the characters, the grammar, and often times the culture behind the language. In today’s day and age, there is no shortage of resources to learn these elements of Mandarin by yourself online, but they often lack one thing: motivating you to speak.

Do you feel accomplished after watching a lecture on the Chinese language or a Youtube video in Chinese? Congrats! Good job! Have you practiced speaking today? The answer is more likely a no. If you haven’t started, start now.

You can start practicing speaking Mandarin right here by following the four steps.

The hardest part is getting started. Don’t wait!

Two major pronunciation mistakes made by learners of Mandarin

Since I built Kong Long Mandarin (formally Learn Chinese with Peppa Pig), I conducted a simple experiment on some people who are trying to learn to speak Mandarin (including my spouse):

First, I asked them to just read aloud the pinyin I provided for a random lesson posted here. Honestly, even though I could tell they were trying, most of them couldn’t produce comprehensible sounds in Mandarin sentences.

Since I knew the transcripts very well (honestly now I feel I can write a PhD thesis on the use of language in Peppa Pig mandarin dub), I recognized their problems right away:

1) They pronounced pinyin as if they were reading in English (such as the “he” sound).

2) Their tones were all over the places.

When the words were put together with these two fatal problems, they simply did not make any sense in a sentence. A native Mandarin speaker would be very confused.

How to practice pronunciation and tones in Mandarin

How do you improve your pronunciation then?!

The best way to improve your pronunciation and use of tones is super straightforward: just REPEAT after hearing native speech!

In my experiments above, I asked the learners to repeat after me after I read out loud the sentence, and mimic exactly the sounds I make, no matter how strange they may sound. Guess what, their pronunciation and use of tones improved immediately. It worked like magic!

I was amazed by the sharp improvement. It became very clear to me everybody can pronounce the sounds in Mandarin in a comprehensible way. But for some reason, they don’t! I realized that those Chinese learners were essentially just imagining how the pinyin should sound like when they read it, and they were simply making stuff up! Of course they did not sound right!

Therefore, the easiest and most straightforward way to improve your pronunciation and tones in Mandarin is simply to repeat after hearing native speech.

You can do that with any audio or video resource, but I try to make that simple for you right here. You can either repeat after the short video segment or repeat after my recordings, depending on your preference.

I have sliced and diced the material for you so that you may find it easier and thus more encouraged to actually practice speaking Mandarin by yourself. Just do it.

You have to train your mouth to pronounce the sounds and tones in Mandarin correctly, or at least close. I’d say training your mouth is even more important than training your brain. Because if you are willing to learn a language, you’re probably smart enough to learn one. However, your mouth is untrained, even if you know the Chinese grammar well enough you may not be able to produce comprehensible sentences.

By repeating after Peppa Pig or myself, you can improve your pronunciation and tones, immediately. I am not saying everybody can sound like a native, and you don’t have to. You only need to produce comprehensible speech.

How should you think about pinyin

I may even go one step further to say that, you don’t have to read the pinyin, just repeat after hearing native speech.

Okay, I can tell you are getting skeptical. Let me ask you: Have you ever seen a parent teaching their kids how to speak by teaching them the alphabet? No. They just talk to their children.

Chinese is different from English that it doesn’t have a phonetic alphabet. Pinyin is an artificial construct to help people learn to speak Mandarin, a great tool to help you learn. But, it’s only a means to an end.

Unless you’re in a class room, nobody is going to ever test your knowledge of pinyin. (“哦,你在学中文?你会用拼音写你好吗?” “Oh, you are learning Mandarin? How would you write 你好 in pinyin?”).

In fact, my parents (both native Mandarin speakers from Beijing) told me they have never systematically learned pinyin. To this day, my mom exclusively uses the Wubi method when she types (which is much faster than pinyin input but harder to learn) and my dad prefers the handwriting input on his phone.

There so you have it. You don’t even need to know pinyin to speak the language. In fact, the pinyin I provided on the transcripts are often not standard. You’d see way more neutral tones here, for example. Again, I’m not trying to help you with exams but I want to help you learn to speak the language. Pinyin is not the goal, the sounds of the language is.

With that said, pinyin can help, especially for adult learners. You should map Mandarin sounds to pinyin, NOT the other way around.

As I said earlier, people who are learning Mandarin as a second language are mostly imagining how the pinyin should sound like.

Let me tell you: They don’t sound the way you think they do!! So, what do they sound like? Just listen to a native speaker speak! Do you want to produce the same sounds? Just REPEAT after hearing us speak!

It is that simple, you just have to try it and actually start to practice speaking Mandarin. Follow the four steps and you can learn to speak Mandarin.

If you’re interested in getting started with practicing active listening and speaking right now, check out 3 effective ways to practice speaking Mandarin alone!

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