Bonjour! Ciao! Guten Tag! Hola! Even if you don’t know French, Italian, German, and Spanish, respectively, you can at least guess the pronunciation of each greeting. Why? Because they all use the same alphabet which has letters that represent the sounds of the language (even if sounds for some letters differ among languages).

In contrast, the Chinese language uses characters to represent words and phrases. 你好 is Chinese for “hello”—can you guess its pronunciation? Not without some help, and that help is called “Pin Yin.” Pin Yin means “spell sounds,” and it is China’s official system that uses the Latin alphabet to spell each character’s sound.

Pin Yin consists of three parts: an initial, a vowel, and a tone mark.

There are four tones in Chinese, each represented by a tone mark. Tone marks sit on top of the vowel, and each one looks like the “shape” of its sound. Pay close attention to the tone mark because the same Pin Yin can have different meanings depending on the tone. Take, for instance, “ma,” which is pronounced like “mah.”

Next Up

In the next section we’ll learn how to pronounce the four tones using the vowel “a” and how to say Mom and Dad in Chinese.