Everyone’s talking about China these days…too bad it’s so hard to pronounce what they’re trying to say. Here are the top mistakes I hear English speakers make, and how to correct them.
Important note! I’m a linguist and I think it’s perfectly acceptable for you to use only English language phonemes (sounds) when you’re speaking English, even if you’re saying foreign names. I don’t expect you to learn to make Mandarin sounds. We’ll just use English sounds to find the closest approximation of the Mandarin pronunciation. Sound good?
I have a hard time believing that even major news outlets still have reporters pronouncing this one wrong. People say that ‘j’ like the final sound in ‘beige,’ as though it’s the capital of France instead of China. The ‘jing’ part should sound like the ‘jing’ in jingle bells. Bob-tailed BAY, JINGle bells, Bay-jing, Beijing. You’ve got it!
This city in southern China is fast becoming a hub for air travel around the region. But, like Beijing, it’s also located in China, not France. I know, I know, that ‘zh’ is practically begging you to pronounce it all slurred and exotic-sounding, but stick with pronouncing it like the very unexotic English name Joe. This will also keep you from making the mistake of pronouncing the ‘ou’ to rhyme with bow instead of bow. (Ha ha, my little joke on English spelling there.) Good ol’ Joe, GuangJoe, Guangzhou. Bam! You’re acing this.
3. Xi Jinping
You’ve mastered the ‘j’ and ‘zh,’ now let’s tackle the ‘x.’ It’s easiest to just pronounce it like it’s an English ‘sh’ and the ‘i’ like ‘ee,’ so xi is she. China’s current top leader is SHE Jinping, XI Jinping…but Xi’s a he. [cue laugh track]
(Anyone else remember when there was a whole “Who’s on First?” take on this? “Hu’s the leader of China? No, Xi is!” Good times.)
4. Mao Zedong
Another doozy of a Chinese leader name. Most people get the Mao part right: it rhymes with how and cow (but not tow or low. Or bow, for that matter.). The ‘z’ trips people up. It’s like the sound at the end of suds. And that ‘e’? It’s like the ‘uh’ in fun. So, Ze is dzuh. My secret stellar tip for you: try saying the Mao and the Ze parts together. Start from matzah, now change the ‘ma’ to ‘mao’. Maotzah, maotzah dong, Mao Zedong. Nailed it!
This is one of the names for the PRC’s currency. I hear people say this one as YOU-ehn, as in “You’n me should grab dinner sometime.” It’s much closer in pronunciation to the Japanese yen (cognates are our friends), but with a little mini ‘oo’ sound at the beginning. YuEHN. Note that it’s yuEHN, one smooshed syllable; not yu-EHN, two syllables. If you want to sound super authentic, though, you can call the currency kuai, which is pronounced like Elmer Fudd saying “cry.” Bonus Chinese lesson: The other name for the currency is renminbi. Yeah, never mind, let’s just stick with yuan and kuai.
6. Tsingtao Beer
This beer brewery was founded in 1903, back before Mandarin romanization was standardized. It was named for the place it was brewed, Tsingtao, which is now spelled Qingdao, but still pronounced the same, i.e. NOT Sing-tao. The ‘q’ is like an English ‘ch’. Think of making money on the stock market while drinking your beer. Ching as in “cha-ching,” dow as in “the Dow was up 87 points today”. Cha-ching Dow, Ching Dow, Qingdao. I’ll drink to that!
7. Dan Dan Noodles (Dan Dan Mian)
It’s not a nickname for Daniel Daniel Noodles. Go with Don Don (short for Donald Donald, obviously) and you’ll sound closer to the Mandarin pronunciation. Doing great!
8. Tiananmen Square
How many n’s does Tiananmen have? If you look carefully, there are three total, one at the end of every syllable. Most people skip right over that second one, pronouncing it Tian-uh-min. It’s more like Tian-uhn-muhn. Honestly, though, that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, so I can understand the deletion.
Chinese dumplings come loaded with delicious fillings…and weird letters. Don’t worry, you can do it! Just remember the ‘j’ from Beijing and the ‘z’ from Mao Zedong. ‘Jiao’ is like the first part of joust, ‘zi’ is like the last part of matzah. Jou(st)-(ma)tzah, jou-tzah, jiaozi.
You’ve done great! To celebrate your hard work, let’s meet for jiaozi, dan dan mian, and Tsingtaos at the shop down the street from Tiananmen Square in Beijing. No need to bring your yuan, it’s my treat.
P.S. If you live in China or do business in China, I expect more from you! Please take the time to learn these words – and many more – with the proper Mandarin pronunciation, not just the English approximation.
P.P.S. This would have been a whole lot easier with IPA.