Difficult Chinese Syllables Were Yesterday

The “I” In Zhi, Chi, Shi, Ri, Zi, Ci, Si Needs Special Attention

In the “i” final section of the Pinyin chart (if you don’t know what a “final” is, check out our Pinyin Primer), there are 7 Chinese syllables that have an “i” final but don’t sound like the other “i” finals. Why? Well, the vowel sound is unique hence why some consider them to be the most difficult Chinese Syllables.

None of these seven Chinese syllables contain any discernible final vowel, but without a vowel in the spelling, it is difficult to tell on paper where one syllable ends and another begins. They had to choose a vowel, so they went with “i”. After all, the English alphabet only has so many vowels to choose from!

Most difficult Chinese Syllables

The Fake “i” in Chinese Syllables

Not All "i"'s are Created Equal! At least in Pinyin 😉

How to Enunciate Zhi, Chi, Shi, Ri

  1. Roll the tongue back and up towards the roof of the mouth.
  2. Relax your jaw muscles with the mouth slightly open.
  3. Curl back your tongue with a little angle at the tip.
  4. Your tongue, as a whole, is further back than it is while resting.

With the Chinese syllables “zhi,” “chi,” and “shi” make sure to think of the “i” as 3 “r”s, sort of like a pretend growling sound. The “ri” pronunciation is purely this growling sound.  

ZHI = Explosive burst of air (like the phonetic “j” sound in English)

CHI= Explosive burst of air (like the “ch” sound in English)

SHI= Smooth flow of air (like the “sh” sound in English)

RI = Similar smooth flow of air to “shi,” but sounds very similar to the 2nd “g” in “garage” or the “s” in “measure.” This pronunciation is merely the ending of the previous three syllables.

Chinese Syllable ZI, CI & SI

Chinese Syllable ZI, CI & SI

Pay careful attention to the tongue position in the diagram. Your tongue should be in approximately the same position as when you say the letters “D” or “T” in English when producing either of these syllables.

ZI – Explosive too, but voiced right from the beginning. Try saying the word “kids”, but in two syllables, like this: “KI – DS,” and you’ll get it right.

CI – Explosive, soundless puff of air at the beginning, then the sound comes afterward. Try saying the word “cats” in two syllables, like this: “CA – TS,” and you’ll get it right.

SI– Easy, much the same as English, just put the tip of your tongue against the back of your bottom teeth.