Improving Chinese Pronunciation


Learning and improving Chinese pronunciation is something that pretty much all learners find challenging. I have been learning Mandarin for over five years now and my pronunciation still isn’t standard enough for me. One big reason for this is that I didn’t spend enough time and energy in the beginning to nail the pronunciation and the tones. So no matter how boring it might be to drill that pinyin, it really is worth it in the long run.

I’ve been avoiding improving my pronunciation for far too long, even thinking it isn’t that important as most Chinese people can understand me. But a standard pronunciation is very crucial for a future teacher and in my opinion also an important part in mastering Chinese.

Because having a clear goal is very beneficial to our studies, I decided to prepare for a pronunciation exam. My university offers PSC 普通话水平测试 Putonghua level exam twice a year and the next exam date is in October. My goal is to get those 60 points (out of 100) and pass the exam with the lowest possible grade (三级乙等). Even that is going to be very hard to achieve I believe, but it gives me a goal to work for.

Putonghua level exam

The PSC is actually meant for the Chinese themselves, especially those who want to be teachers, actors or news reporters on TV. China is full of different dialects which affects their pronunciation in Mandarin, so an official exam is needed to test how standard their putonghua really is. A special point to be made is that Beijing dialect aka beijinghua isn’t standard Mandarin.

The exam has four parts:

  1. Read aloud the following 100 characters (3.5 minutes, 10 points)
  2. Read aloud the following ~50 words (2.5 minutes, 20 points)
  3. Read aloud the following text, randomly chosen from a collection of 60 texts (4 minutes, 30 points)
  4. Speak about the topic, choose from two options (more than 3 minutes, 40 points)



Memorizing pinyin

In my practice book I have a list of 6593 words of frequently used Mandarin words, 4000 of them being the most common. I copy-pasted all of these to my Skritter* and chose to only study the pinyin and the tone of the words. I’m doing the list in alphabetical order for now and at the moment I’m starting to have words starting with D.

There is no pinyin in the exam, so  one of the challenges is to memorize the pronunciation for thousands of characters and words. As I have already passed HSK6 last year, I already know quite a few of these words. But of course there are lots and lots of words and pronunciation to memorize before October.

Improving my pronunciation

The practice book I bought for PSC includes a mp3 and I have already downloaded that to my iPhone. It includes the pinyin, fifth tone word list, erhua word list and audio for all the 60 stories. I will be listening a lot of this audio during the following months as listening is the first step in improving your own pronunciation. You have to know what standard sounds like before you can mimic it yourself.

I also need to make a habit of watching the news on TV as the news anchors has the most standard Mandarin you can find. This will probably be a challenge in it self, as it’s a new habit to be learned. Luckily I can watch the news online when ever I want to, before going to bed for example.

I’m also going to be meeting with a tutor once or twice per week to go over the texts and have him/her to correct my pronunciation. I will also be recording my self and spotting some of the biggest mistake by listening them.

I will probably come up with others ways to improve my pronunciation, including hearing your ideas in the comments, but I try to keep it simple. I have a habit of finding too many books, too many resources and then in the end being confused what to do.

Starting level

This will also be an experiment on how much I can improve my pronunciation in 4+ months and will be sharing the journey with all of you. In order to see my progress I will first share my starting level that you can hear on the mp3 below. This is me reading the first of 60 texts just today morning.

All advice and helpful criticism are welcome in the comments!

Resources to improving Chinese pronunciation

First of all John Pasden has an excellent resource on Chinese pronunciation on his blog Sinoplice, that I recommend for everyone, especially the beginners.

Olle from Hacking Chinese also has multiple great posts on learning to speak Chinese that are highly recommended as well.

The great has lots of topics and helpful posts on listening and speaking Chinese. All Chinese learners should register to this community. I’ve been a member since 2004, that’s four years before I started Chinese lessons at the university.

The tool I’m using the memorize pinyin is called Skritter* and I have already introduces it in this post. That little star means I’m an affiliate of them and when someone follows my recommendation and buys the subscription from that link, I will get a small share. Thank you for supporting my site if you do that!


Now it’s time to hear you out! What are you doing to learn and improve your Chinese pronunciation? Or if you are a native speaker or a teacher, what advice do you have for us foreigners?