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Chinese alphabet: Accomplish easily in 10 minutes

In this article, I will talk about the Chinese alphabet System Pinyin. After reading the content and/or watching the video, you will be able to read everything in Chinese with its alphabet system, which is pinyin. 

Busy doing something else? You can listen to this blog article without reading it:

Chinese alphabet: Pinyin – The full article to listen to

Chinese alphabet seems like an odd term. After all, enough people know that Chinese is not an alphabetic language. However, the Chinese alphabet does exist. In fact, it’s a household name in China called pinyin. And this article will help you learn the entire Chinese alphabet system in 10 minutes.

Or, if you came to this site from my Youtube video, you can jump in and take the lesson right away here:

What is pinyin? The Chinese alphabet

If you have read the other article I wrote about Hello in Chinese, you probably would have noticed that I used an alphabet system to document the pronunciation of the Chinese language. This alphabet system is called Pinyin. You can see it as the Chinese alphabet. 

Of course, Chinese is not an alphabetic language. It’s a language based on characters. And there are over 50,000 of them. Have you ever wondered how the Chinese manage to know how to pronounce each one of them? The truth is, we don’t! An educated person only averagely knows about 8000 characters, and you only need 2 to 3000 of them to be able to read newspapers. Even then, you still can’t learn to pronounce them within a day or even a week or month! Therefore, you need a system to describe how to pronounce each character. After all, there is simply no way that you can magically know how to pronounce this (我), e.g..

The Chinese language uses an alphabet system to describe the pronunciation with which you are familiar. And this article will help you learn this system in 10 minutes.

How many letters are there in the Chinese alphabet?

There are 29 letters in the Chinese alphabet, in my opinion. Because this requires the definition of what the Chinese alphabet is. If we define the Chinese alphabet as pinyin, the part that describes the pronunciation, it should be 29 letters in the Chinese alphabet system.

Of course, there are some much more complicated explanations. Most answers on google tell you it’s not possible to count how many alphabets there are in Chinese because they define the Chinese characters as the Chinese alphabet – which is not necessarily wrong. But then you should make it clear that the question is about How many characters are there in the Chinese language. This raises the question:

What are the alphabet and character in Chinese?

I can understand why many people consider the characters the equivalent in Chinese as the alphabet in English or other alphabet-based languages. To clarify this, you should know one fact: The Chinese language uses two systems – the alphabet (pinyin) and the characters. Pinyin literally means: spell sound. It is the part that describes the pronunciation. Meanwhile, if you write down what’s said, you no longer use the sound system. You use single characters to document the content. Hence, the written part does not suggest the pronunciations. It is like speaking the word apple. Instead of writing down the combination using the alphabet, you draw an apple instead.

That’s why I consider pinyin as the alphabet in Chinese. The equivalent for characters would be words/vocabulary in English. While it’s hard to tell how many words there are in English, it is similarly difficult to define the number of characters in Chinese. Though it seems to be more natural to form words with characters in Chinese, the general idea is the same in English. If you consider each character as one word, you can use it alone. And you can put two characters together. In Chinese, it’s just a new word. And in English, it’s called a compound.

The only real difference is that English uses the same system for its spoken and written form, while the Chinese language separates them: One for pronunciation, one for documentation.

It’s hard to say which system is better. Despite the complexity of separating spoken and written forms, Chinese has its unique advantages thanks to the separation. After all, pronunciations change all the time. But thanks to the written form, any modern Chinese who can read and write can travel in time back to 2000 years ago and still understand almost every written word.

However, the Chinese still need a system to describe the pronunciation, which is pinyin: The part that one can spell.

These 29 letters are:

Pinyin Chart
Pinyin Chart

How does the Chinese alphabet – pinyin – work?

You see, when the Chinese kids go to school for the first day, they don’t know any characters. And they need to learn to read and write on the first day at school, just like the rest of the world. So they learn an alphabet system that describes the pronunciation – pinyin.  Then they need to remember the pronunciation of each new character they have learned. They keep doing it during the entire primary school until high school. But this process never really ends: As long as you are still learning something, there is a big chance that you are learning new words.

Imagine how this process would work in English: First, you would learn the ABC. Then, after you’ve understood how to use them, you would learn how to write basic words and sentences. Let’s say you would learn how to write “good morning.”

In English, that would already be enough. However, in Chinese, you will then need to remember, you write “good” as 好 and “morning “ as 早上. 

And whenever you see the three characters: 好 早上, you would speak out: Good morning. And this is exactly how Chinese works: It’s simply not written as it’s pronounced. Hence an alphabet system to describe the pronunciation.

So the Chinese alphabet describes the pronunciation, while the characters document the language itself. 

There are still a few Latin words that work this way in English. For example: Whenever you see “e.g.” you should pronounce “for example”. And the correct pronunciation for “i.e.” should be “that is to say”.

Of course, the Chinese language made it even more difficult using a completely different writing form. But the general idea is the same. 

In fact, Kanji in Japanese works the same way. You don’t automatically know the pronunciation. Some pronunciations are quite similar to Chinese, such as 先生, some less similar, such as 私. 

Imagine, when you hear the word restaurant, you probably would know what it is. But if I say Kuchen, what would you guess? It’s cake. It’s cake. They both originate from the same word, but they no longer sound similar. So yes, Chinese is really quite similar to that, just with a different writing form that is not related to its pronunciation. 

Is the Chinese alphabet (pinyin) hard to learn?

It’s the school kids that use pinyin most frequently when pinyin was first invented. This is, of course, quite understandable. After all, school kids are those who needed to learn new characters the most.

However, since more and more people are now starting to learn Chinese, Pinyin is now fulfilling a second function: It works as a bridge for most people who needed an alphabet system that helps them pronounce everything they haven’t known yet. And this should be as efficient as possible.

But this is not ideal so far. If you check Wikipedia or anywhere else, you will find a content table as below:

Although the content is correct, it’s too overwhelming for beginners. Moreover, most of the content is even unnecessary. It is so unless you are trying to do some linguistic research here.

However, I did find something much more practical using Chinese while searching. This page does provide a clear overview of the pinyin system.

Screenshot of a Chinese pinyin online reader website
Screenshot of a Chinese pinyin online reader website

A big minus here because it’s all in Chinese characters. So the target group is parents who are trying to help their kids learn Chinese for school. Yet still, it already provides some pretty good content.

So overall, taking pinyin as it is still looks harder than it actually is. Because they do not treat pinyin as Chinese alphabet.

That’s because, first, you will fight a long time with the tones.

Chinese Alphabet Pinyin Tones
Chinese Alphabet Pinyin Tones with ma

I’ve explained in my video Hello in Chinese that it is unnecessary to start with the tones because you can’t learn them separately. Comparing this with learning a song, it becomes self-explanatory. You can never learn a song with separate tones. But I will get to that in the next paragraph.

Secondly, and most importantly, it covers too many syllables that do not need to be covered because most combinations are international. There are just a few that you really need to learn. The rest are almost 100% identical in English or many other languages.

So the answer to the question: “Is the Chinese alphabet hard to learn?” is: It is not if you use a more practical way. And this is what I’m going to show you here.

Why it’s wrong to spend so much time on the tones

Since I started the German version of Recyte (CHI-NESISCH) in 2015, I have been explaining this to many people. Since the Chinese language has different tones, It’s considered common sense to start with them. However, it is quite suitable to compare singing with speaking Chinese. Would you ever learn each single tones separately?

You would always learn an entire song to hit the right tones. That’s because the context and connection help you develop a feeling about what’s right and what’s wrong. Learning Chinese is just the same. If you learn entire sentences, and then you break these sentences down into words, you will develop a much more holistic feeling about the language.

But what if you make mistakes?

First, mistakes are inevitable. Secondly, and more importantly, you shouldn’t start with the tones because you can’t develop a feeling about what’s right and wrong if you learn them separately. In fact, this process could take years. It can also happen that you never make it. Some Chinese native speakers don’t meet the tones either because they speak a different dialect. But that doesn’t cause much trouble in communication.

Like many Asian languages, the Chinese language NEEDS context because many words share the same pronunciation, including the tones. Only the context can make clear which word it was.

However, if you fail to learn entire sentences to provide context, people might fail to understand you, no matter how often you emphasize the right tone that you learned. Consequently, it’s far more efficient to focus on learning as many expressions and sentences as possible, instead of spending too much time on hitting the right tones at the beginning.

A much easier way to show the pinyin chart: Chinese alphabet

Pinyin Chart
Pinyin Chart

I’ve highlighted those that you need to learn to pronounce in yellow. As you see, there are only 5 alphabets that you are not yet familiar with. There is another one “i” that has two different pronunciations. But I will get to that later.

These are the Chinese alphabets you should NOT learn:

Pinyin Chart English
Pinyin Chart English

However, I read these out loud for one time so that you have a basic understanding how they sound. Also, this can confirm that it is really not very different from what you know.

The actual alphabets you should learn

Pinyin New Elements
Pinyin New Elements

I spent a lot of time in the video on these 6 alphabets, so listen to it carefully. But I will not just do it here once. Whenever a new video contains one of these 6 pronunciations, I will emphasize it and repeat it so that you can remember again. For now, it’s enough that you know how they sound.

Chinese alphabets pinyin: Vowels

a

o

e

i

u

ü

Out of the above mentioned 6, only “ü” is new to you.

The Chinese keyboard is equivalent to the English keyboard. Since ü is not part of the English language, the developer decided to used v to present ü. So keep this in mind: Always use “v” whenever ü is needed. You will need it later when you learn to type pinyin, which will be transformed into Chinese.

Chinese alphabets pinyin -Consonants:

Actually, almost all consonants are the same as in English. There are only 4 out of 21 that you don’t know. The rest are almost 100% identical. There’s one thing I need to clarify: I struggled if I should read out the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) or the actual pronunciation of pinyin. However, I decided to go with the original pronunciation just as it is supposed to sound like. Because like ABC, Pinyin also has its own pronunciation using vowels to indicate the consonants. 

Just as you would pronounce “bi” instead of “b” for B, it’s also “bo” and not “b” in Chinese. But of course, when using it, you will only use the part “b” instead of Bo. Just like you do in English. And I recommend that you also remember the order as it’s quite practical to keep all the alphabet in your mind.

b

bo

p

po

m

mo

f

fo

d

de

t

te

n

ne

l

le

g

ge

k

ke

h

he

j

ji

q

qi

x

xi

zh

zhi

ch

chi

sh

shi

r

ri

z

zi

c

ci

s

si

y

yi

w

wu

Pinyin: 4 Consonants you don’t know: j, q, x, r

So now I will focus on those 4 that you are not familiar with: j, q, x, r

j

If I use IPA (international phonetic alphabet) to describe j, the closest one is still j as in English: /dʒ/. It’s like pronouncing “j” in judge or job, but it’s flatter. In Chinese, there is no combination for jo or jou. Typical combinations are jin, jiu, ji, jun. This is because j is a flat pronunciation.

Pay closer attention to your mouth. Watch my mouth when I say it: Ji. If it’s round, then you are still pronouncing it the American way.

q

The closest IPA (international phonetic alphabet) for “q” would be /ʧ/. It’s like pronouncing “ch” in cheese or chew but also flatter. The tongue position is the same as j but you are not making any sound with your vocal cord. Typical combinations are qi, qin, qu, qiu. As you see, there is also no combination with o, a, or e. This is also similar to j.

x

X is also similar to j and q. The closest IPA (international phonetic alphabet) for “x” would be /ʃ/. It’s like pronouncing “sh” in sheet or shoe but also flatter. The tongue position is also the same with j and q. Typical combinations are also: xi, xin, xu, xiu. Just like j and q, there is also no combination with o, a, or e.

r

It’s actually no big deal if you pronounce it like in English. But for the sake of correctness: They are not the same. The tongue position is like how you pronounce sh. If you put your hand on your throat, you won’t feel any vibration. That’s because you are not using your vocal cord to make this sound. However, if you pronounce “r” in Chinese, it’s just like saying sh, but this time, your throat will need to vibrate.

Typical combination for the Chinese alphabet – vowels:

Chinese alphabet combination vowels
Chinese alphabet combination vowels

Typical combination for the Chinese alphabet – consonants:

Chinese Alphabet Pinyin Consonants
Chinese Alphabet Pinyin Consonants

Combinations that don’t exist in Chinese alphabet:

I know this sounds a bit odd, but there are indeed many combinations that don’t exist. The best way to learn all possible combinations is always to learn with the time. That’s why it’s essential to gather new vocabulary each day. Even just listening to something or reading in the combination using the Chinese alphabet (pinyin) would be great.

However, there are some combinations that you are used to but don’t exist in Chinese. They could be surprising to you in your language. That’s why I am listing some examples here so that you get a general idea of what works and what doesn’t.

The biggest surprise is probably the use of o. O is an extremely common and popular vowel that, I believe, exists in almost every language. However, in Chinese, using “o” alone as a vowel is only possible in combination as:

bo po mo fo yo wo

Any other combinations don’t work, such as:

do, to, no, lo, go, ko, ho, jo, qo
xo, zho, cho, sho, ro, zo, co, so

They all don’t exist. So whenever you feel like writing something like these, be aware that “bo po mo fo yo wo” are the only possible combinations.

Another example would be the use of e. E is also a frequently used vowel in almost every language. In Chinese, if you have taken the lesson Chinese Alphabet Pinyin, you would have learned that e is pronounced like the sound in the and not in bed. But the combination might surprise you as well. Because the following combinations don’t exist in Chinese:

be, pe, fe, je, qe, xe, we

Though the use of a is much more common, there are still some combinations that don’t work. They are:

ja, qa, xa, ra

I totally understand how boring it could be to learn the Chinese alphabet because they all seem to be things that you already know. But if you skip this step, it could become overwhelming to you later. Because what you thought was right could be wrong in the Chinese alphabet system. Understanding this, you will see why it’s worth investing time at the beginner level, even though you feel you are not necessarily learning something new.

How to remember the Chinese alphabet fast?

The answer is easy: Practice, practice, practice! That’s why I prepared an entire lesson from scratch, with different quizzes for each part (vowels, consonants, combinations), so that everyone can learn and remember them much faster with quizzes.

Then what are you waiting for? Now take the lesson and keep practising!

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Written by
Chi Zhang

A sinologist, anglicist, linguist, and a tech lover who lives in Berlin. Was once a manager, producer, school opener, language teacher, SEO agency owner, and marketing director.
She could be angry sometimes, especially about racism, but overall, she's a friendly person who's famous for her loud laughter.
Here's the place for her to express a new voice in the language world, a world dominated by the west.

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Who wrote this?

Chi Zhang

A sinologist, anglicist, linguist, and a tech lover who lives in Berlin. Was once a manager, producer, school opener, language teacher, SEO agency owner, and marketing director.
She could be angry sometimes, especially about racism, but overall, she's a friendly person who's famous for her loud laughter.
Here's the place for her to express a new voice in the language world, a world dominated by the west.