Pinyin (more colloquially known as the “Chinese alphabet”) has 21 consonant sounds, sometimes called “initials.” The initials “J, Q & X” are very important to master, because they require a tongue position not natural for speakers of most western languages. How to say Chinese letter J? How about Q & X? This video is a general intro for all the “Problem Initials” of the language:
In the above picture take note that you keep your tongue down against the back of your bottom teeth. For some people, it is more on the gum, for other’s it is only on the teeth. Regardless, this tongue tip position naturally changes the timbre of the sound when producing J, Q or X. It is the crucial difference between how we say these sounds in English vs. Mandarin, so while it is vitally important, it also isn’t all that difficult. Let’s take these letter one-by-one, and then see how they combine with the vowels sounds in Chinese, called “finals.”
Just like the beginning of the car brand “JEEP” in English, but with the tongue position mentioned above. Again, other than the tongue position change there is nothing else you need to focus on particularly. The tongue tip change automatically changes the sound.
Don’t Confuse “J” & “Zh”
To the untrained ear, Pinyin letter “J” can sometimes be confused with the Pinyin initial “ZH,” but they have massively different tongue positions. They both sound somewhat like a “J” or soft “G,” but the more you practice it, the clearer you will hear the difference. To our ears, they are nothing alike, but we both remember well how similar they sounded at the beginning.
Say the first part of the English word “CHEEK.” As with “J,” place the tip of your tongue against the back of your bottom teeth.
Don’t Confuse “Q” & “Ch”
Much how “J” and “ZH” can sound similar to the untrained ear, Q & CH can be a bit tricky to delineate at the beginning. That said, “Q” is very heavily aspirated (aka a LOT of air comes out of your mouth when saying it), and it also is closer to sounding like “tch” as opposed to “ch.” As always, if you get the tongue position right, it won’t be a problem in the long run.
Say the English word “SHE” with the Mandarin tongue tip position.
Don’t Confuse “X” & “Sh”
We say it is like “she” because there is no English sound closer than the sounds of “x” combined with “i”, but because of the tongue position difference between “x” & “sh” (back of the bottom teeth & roof of the mouth respectively), the sound quality is MUCH different. Neither is precisely like the “sh” in English, but watch out for it as you move forward.
Ji, Qi & Xi
When saying “Ji, Qi or Xi,” smile a little! The tip of your tongue should be touching your bottom teeth and gum. While producing these three sounds, the tongue may move a little due to air flow, but other than that nothing moves at all.
Of course “Ji, qi & xi” have the tongue position we’ve been talking about throughout this article, but so do all of the other pronunciations that start with “Ji-, qi- or xi-,“ here they are all of them listed:
Jia Qia Xia
Jiao Qiao Xiao
Jie Qie Xie
Jiu Qiu Xiu
Jian Qian Xian
Jiang Qiang Xiang
Jin Qin Xin
Jing Qing Xing
Jiong Qiong Xiong
That’s it for J, Q & X as they combine with “i,” now onto “ü.”
Ju, Qu & Xu
Just add the “yu/ü” pronunciation (explained in this blog post) after J, Q or X. Remember, that the umlaut is not placed above the “u” for “ju, qu & xu” because J, Q & X never combine with Pinyin vowel “u,” only “ü,” so they dropped the umlaut. There are very few pronunciations that start with “ju, qu & xu,” here are all of them:
Jue Que Xue
Juan Quan Xuan
Jun Qun Xun
Details Early, Instinct Later
It may seem overwhelming all the detail we go into regarding such seemingly small features of the language. We get it. After all, you want to be learning words, speaking to friends and otherwise achieving your long-term goals with Chinese. That said, we promise you it is worth it in the long run. Mandarin requires a great deal more foundation building that most languages, but on the other side of that rock-solid foundation the improvement comes so fast it’s exhilarating. You’re going to say “J, Q & X” countless times into the future. Detailed knowledge now will convert into basic instinct later. Just be better today than you were yesterday.