If you get the distinction between u and ü (explained previously in this article) then the distinction between Zh, Ch, Sh and J, Q, X becomes easy. Without understanding the distinction Chinese pronunciation can often seem insurmountable.
This state of affairs is not helped by the fact that these initials are not the same pronunciation as their English counterparts – these are much more “foreign” sounding sounds so often trip people up.
Therefore it is super important to learn these sounds relative to other Chinese sounds and stop referring back to English “sounds-like” comparisons. This allows us to learn one Chinese pronunciation and then modify it slightly into another Chinese pronunciation which is far more efficient than going back to English every time and trying to find equivalents.
Here’s the key:
Zh = J
Ch = Q
Sh = X
But with the tip of the tongue curled back in a higher, curled position against the hard palate. As you make the sounds the curl is released to “throw forward” the sound. The hard palate is the solid part at the roof of your mouth – try to push your tongue up into your head and you’ll be pushing against the hard palate.
So Zh is simply the Chinese J but with the tongue curled back in a higher position against the hard palate.
Ch is the Chinese Q but with the tongue curled back in a higher position against the hard palate.
Sh is the Chinese X but with the tongue curled back in a higher position against the hard palate.
This sounds very, very simple but is a major cause of pronunciation difficulties in Chinese. At WaiChinese we’ve collected a lot of data about what people’s exact pronunciation difficulties are. We know what problems come up for most beginner students and this is one of the most common by far.
It’s important to learn Zh, Ch and Sh relative to their back of mouth counterparts J, Q, X rather than based on their English “equivalents” which don’t exist.
The closest English equivalents for Zh, Ch, Sh are dj- , tch- and shh- which aren’t very helpful! There are greater details about how to pronounce Zh, Ch, Sh here and J, Q, X here.
The distinction between Zh/J, Ch/Q and Sh/X can trouble a lot of learners. For this reason I focused on these sounds in my Pronunciation Package. It’s available in the Sensible Chinese Language Pack.