Note: See the bottom of this article to learn how to get free human feedback on how good your u and ü are. Very useful!
Boy oh boy this one is a doozy. That said, if you nail the difference between the u and ü sounds in Chinese then a whole bunch of other sounds (Zh, Ch, Sh and J, X, Q in particular) fall into place. So getting this one right is very important.
Just be glad you aren’t Korean. U and Ü are incredibly difficult for Korean speakers to get a grip on. If you are Korean – sorry! If it’s any consolation your food is AMAZING.
I’ve got a whole blog article about the difference between U and Ü available here so this will be a shortened version. If it’s still not clear I recommend checking the article, listening to the recordings and doing the quizzes.
To make the ü sound start with the “ee” in the English bee but round your lips into the “oo” of the English too . The result is the Chinese ü. It’s also the French –u in tu. Unlike the Chinese u, ü requires you to tightly curl your lips into a circle. Getting the lips rounded properly is the key to producing the correct ü sound.
This is important because it determines which sounds ü can be used with. There are only 6 initials that can be used with ü and those are : n, l, j, q, x, y.
The reason these initials can be used with ü is because they are made at the front of the mouth. Their back of the mouth equivalents zh, ch, sh cannot physically be pronounced alongside ü.
This becomes super important when distinguishing sounds like 出/去 (chu and qu). In this case the “chu” sound must be the normal –u whilst the qu must be the –ü.
Because it must be the ü and never the u when combined with j, q, x the ü is written as u. Gah!
Understanding the distinction between back of mouth (zh, ch, sh) and front of mouth (j, q, x) sounds unlocks the most difficult Chinese pronunciation. It’s not a distinction that is talked about enough so take the time to understand it. Again, if you need some more details check the blog article about the distinction here.
There are a bunch of exercises on that page that ask you to listen and distinguish the sound. If you can do this reliably enough understanding why there is this distinction doesn’t matter too much. But if you keep getting confused then understanding the why can help to untangle the confusion.
That’s all right? Sorry, not quite…
Unfortunately there is one more twist in the distinction of u and ü. The initials n- and l- can be pronounced with both u and ü . Confounding!
To make the distinction of these two easier the ü is actually written with the dots (umlauts) when it appears in nü and lü. See the table on the next page for a summary of the usage. Print it out and stick it up and if you get confused use it as a handy reference.
|Initial Consonant||Can it take u?||How it is written||How it is said|
|n||Yes!||nu, nü||nu or nü|
|l||Yes!||lu, lü||lu or lü|