How To Pronounce Chinese Names

A Guide for Native English Speakers

Oct 14, 2019
Multimedia

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Do you struggle to pronounce the names of Chinese colleagues and friends? Are you a native English speaker who wants to practice but doesn’t want to embarrass yourself? You’re in good company. Faculty, staff and students came with notepads to learn how to properly address their Chinese colleagues on Oct. 11, 2019, at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Chinese names are not difficult to pronounce if you can spot the similarities and differences between Chinese and English, said Minglang Zhou, a linguistics professor from UMD’s School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures. He taught the 45-minute crash course, organized by Maryland Smith's Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Zhou’s tutorial gave participants a baseline understanding of the main points, and some much-needed practice in a learning environment. He explained key differences in common consonants and vowels between English and Chinese, like in his own last name, “Zhou,” pronounced closer to the common American name, Joe. 

Zhou said there are many Chinese sounds that don’t exist in English. But if you practice them, listen to them and know where to place your tongue, they become easier.

Consonants that exist in English Consonants that don't exist in English
C is the same as ts in “cats” or “students,” with aspiration. Ch sounds like ch in “church,” but curl the tip of your tongue to the back of your mouth.
F is the same as f in “fan.” J sounds like j in “jump,” but place your tongue on the back of your lower front teeth.
G is the same as g in “go.” Q sounds like chee in “cheese,” but place your tongue on the back of your lower front teeth.
H, depends on the vowel; Ha is stronger than He, Hu. R sounds like r in “right,” but curl the tip of your tongue to the back of your mouth. Click for a video.
K is the same as k in “kind.” X sounds like shee in “sheep,” but place your tongue on the back of your lower front teeth.
L is the same as l in “line.” Sh sounds like sh in “ship,” but curl the tip of your tongue to the back of your mouth.
M is the same as m in “move.” Zh sounds like j in “jerk,” but curl the tip of the tongue to the back of your mouth. Click for a video.
N is the same as n in “no.”  
Ng is the same as ng in “long."  
P is the same as p in “keep” with aspiration.  
T is the same as t in “tea.”  
Z is the same as ds in “beds.”  
Vowels that exist English Vowels that don't exist in English
A is the same as a in “car.” E sounds like “uh.”
Ai is the same as i in “like.” I sounds like “ee” sometimes, but when following a z, ci or s, it sounds like the e in “buzzed.”
Ao is the same as ow in "cow." I sounds like a combination of the i in “chicken” and ur in “church” when following ch, sh, zh, or r.
Ei is the same as a in “lake.” Ü sounds like a German umlaut. Say ee while pursing your lips almost completely shut. Spelled as “y” when it is the first letter in a syllable. The initials “n” and “l”, as in “nu” or “lu” can be pronounced with “ü” or just “ooh.”
O is the same as o in “dog.”  
Ou is the same as o in “cold.”  
U is the same as “u” in “push.”  
U is the same as w in “we” and spelled as “w” when it is the first letter in a syllable.  

There are also tones in Chinese that do not exist in English. These tones determine the way you say a word, using change in pitch. Different tones can make things sound inquisitive, angry or happy. Tones are signaled by symbols over vowels. There are four types of tones:

  • High level tones: Say in a happy way, as you’d say an affirmative “Yes!” Written as: “Mā”
  • Middle rising tones: Say in an inquisitive way, as you’d say “Yes?” Written as: Má
  • Middle falling: Say in a doubting way, like middle rising but longer, as you’d say “Yeees?” Written as: Mă
  • High falling: Say firmly, as if you are harshly scolding “Yes.” Written as: Mà

U.S. Presidents Quiz

Want some examples? Take this quiz to see if you can pronounce the Chinese version of famous U.S. politicians.

Kira Barrett, Communications Writer at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business

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