How to Pronounce ‘Can’ and ‘Women’ in Chinese?

How do you pronounce the words ‘can’ and ‘women’ in Chinese?

If you are conversant in English, chances are that you would pronounce them the English way. Unfortunately, the proper pronunciations happen to be quite different. The word ‘can’ is pronounced in a manner similar to ‘chan’, and ‘women’, ‘wuo mern’.

It is, therefore, helpful if you can have some understanding of how the Chinese phonetics works, before you start learning the language. This will save you time, and probably also embarrassment.

Here, I’ll like to highlight the four things that you’ll need to know about Chinese phonetics.

First, Chinese have developed systems using Roman-letters to notate the sounds of Chinese words. Although there is more than one system around, you don’t have to know all of them. The most popular among them, hanyu pinyin – which means phonetics of the Chinese language — has been widely recognized and accepted by the Chinese government and organizations like ISO.

It is safe for you to begin with and stick to only the Hanyu pinyin system.

Second, the Roman-letters of the Chinese phonetics do not follow the English convention. Although it uses the alphabet, the letters can be pronounced quite differently. This is why ‘can’ is not pronounced as the ‘can’ you are familiar with, and ‘women’ not the ‘women’ you know. You may want to go to this video demonstration to hear how the two words sound.

Third, the Chinese phonetics can be grouped into consonants and vowels as well – just like English. The good news is that many of them are similar to the sounds of English. For example, b is pronounced more or less like ‘b’ of ball, and t is similar to ‘t’ of turf. As a result, if you can isolate the consonants vowels that the distinctively different from that of English, giving them prior attention, you would get the hard nuts to be cracked first, and speed up your learning process.

There are around a dozen of the distinctive sounds that deserve your special attention. They include z, c, s, r, zh, ch, sh, j, q and x. You may want to go to this video tutorial to learn more about them.

Forth, pinyin is a wonderful tool to help you start learning Mandarin Chinese.

Chinese is written in characters rather than alphabet. So it is pretty difficult for many to recognize the words and commit them to memory. This can be a great huddle from the language learning points of view. With the pinyin, you can do away with the characters, and focus only on the pronunciation. This makes the learning process so much less intimidating.

It is, however, important for you to understand that although pinyin can be a convenient tool to help you get started, it cannot replace the roles of the Chinese characters. This is because there are simply too many Chinese words sharing same pronunciation. For example, the pinyin ‘siren’ can refer to both the words for ‘private’ and ‘dead body’. There are tons of other similar examples. It is simply too confusing to rely on pinyin alone for written communication!

It is, therefore, important for you to know that if you are serious about learning Chinese, you will have to learn the Chinese characters eventually.

For that reason, you should always find out the Chinese characters whenever possible when learning a new word. Just have an idea of what they are. It will make the process so much easier if you have to learn the characters eventually.

Tekson Teo is a bilingual writer, speaker and business consultant specializes in Chinese language and culture. He Obtained his BSc Econ (Hon) from University of London and MBA and DIC from Imperial College London. For pinyin examples, go to

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