This is part of our Sensible Pinyin Course. To see an overview of the course check out this Sensible Pinyin Course homepage!
The basic pinyin vowels of Chinese are a, e, i, o, u and ü.
For now we’ll deal with a, e,i, o, u right now and deal with ü a little later.
Use the English equivalences to help work out where tongue and mouth position but do not rely on them. Instead listen to the native recordings.
English approximations are very rough and can never be applicable to everyone – for example the English “a” sound is often different to the American “a” sound and your personal “a” sound may be something entirely unique! Therefore the text instructions can never be perfect and you should always follow the recordings on this page.
a – “ah” – like the a in mama or papa.
The sound is longer than the usual American a, closer to the British “ah”, requiring the mouth to be widely opened as if you were sticking out your tongue at the doctors – “ah!”. Tongue neutral and relaxed.
e – “uh” like the e in earn and learn or the -ur in fur.
Wide mouth, perhaps wider than you are used to when speaking English.
i – “ee” like the -ee in bee.
Lips stretched out as if in a smile but with the upper and lower rows of teeth touching.
Note: The final -i changes after s, z, r, c, sh, ch, zh when it sounds like “uh” in duh. We’ll cover this later when we introduce these consonants later so focus on the “ee” sound for now. Do not try to memorize these lists of exceptions and rule changes – instead we’ll be introducing sounds gradually over the course and familiarizing you with each in turn. Focus on listening and repeating naturally rather than learning the ins-and-outs of the rules.
o – “oh” like the o in more, office
Similar to the English “o” in office but with more rounded lips. Close to the English expression of surprise “oh!” Tongue neutral and relaxed.
u – “oo” like the u in flute.
Shape your mouth into a tight circle, lips tight, and make the spooky ghost noise “oooo”.
If having difficulties matching the sound start with the O sound above and shrink the size of the circle. Keep your tongue neutral and relaxed.
These are all approximations (and silly over the top ones at that!) which will help you get into the right area. However, make sure you listen to the native audio because how you personally pronounce the example words will differ. The best guides are native recordings.
Below is a quick quiz to check you can distinguish the vowel sounds from one another. Each time you start the test you’ll get different questions. Repeat it as many times as you need to feel comfortable with the sounds. Listen to the recording and try to repeat what you hear before answering the question.
When you feel you are ready move on to the next section on Basic Consonants.