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Chinese Pinyin Pronunciation Guide is Not Correct

I am an American-born Chinese person who grew up with my parents speaking Mandarin at home. However, I am not fluent myself, so I decided to check out the Chinese course on Duolingo. It looks pretty neat, but one thing I did notice was that in the mini lessons, Duolingo compares the j, q, and x consonants in Chinese with the sounds in "Jeep," "CHeese," and "SHeep" in English, respectively. I disagree: I've always explained them as "feeDS," "panTS," and "Sing." I know that different regions of China will pronounce these sounds differently, so I can't 100% say that I am more correct than Duolingo, but I wish that the lesson would address this because no one I know says these sounds the way that they're taught here.

August 28, 2018



The standard pronunciations of these sounds are /tɕ/, /tɕʰ/ and /ɕ/, all of which are unvoiced and alveopalatal; in terms of approximating English, something like 'beaches' (unaspirated), 'check' (aspirated) and 'sheep', but all palatalised by raising the back of the tongue to the roof of the mouth.

'Feeds' and 'pants' would more commonly be offered as (somewhat inaccurate) English approximations of Pinyin 'z' and 'c'; out of interest, how would you explain these sounds? And what's the difference between your 'x' and a Pinyin 's'?


As in most Germanic languages, voicing of stops is not obligatory in English. So, the distinction between d and t is sometimes called a fortis-lenis distinction. That's why I like the representations of unaspirated sounds as so-called "voiced" English sounds (eg. ds in feeds for Pinyin z, IPA [ts˭])


You do make a valid point, but the trouble is that giving an English approximation such as 'feeds' will almost always make one slowly and deliberately pronounce it, and this will invariably result in a voiced consonant. An unvoiced, lenis 'd' might well occur in the same person's fast, unselfconscious speech, but this is not terribly helpful as a phonetic explanation when most people will emphatically voice it as soon as you draw their attention to it.
Of course, this is not a disaster, as a Mandarin speaker will hear the voiced, unaspirated consonant as an unvoiced, unaspirated one; however, I have always thought it's better to aim to get pronunciations correct from the outset, rather than making do with workable but incorrect ones.


Thanks for the explanation, it makes a lot of sense. I was making a bit of an oversimplification--I would describe q more as a cross between ts and ch, while c is a ts sound. X would be a cross between s and sh. I actually can't tell the difference between j and z as a non-native speaker; I've always said 再见 with the same consonant sounds and my extended family has never corrected me. So does this mean that Duolingo's guide is the best approximation in English? It just doesn't feel quite right to pronounce characters like I'm told to.

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