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The 6 most commonly mispronounced sounds in Chinese – and how to pronounce them like a native

Most people think that the hardest part about Chinese is learning tones, but in reality, many of the Sounds in pinyin are just as, if not more difficult to perfect then tones. Here, I'm going to go over 6 of the most difficult and most commonly mispronounced sounds in Chinese, and show you how to pronounce them like a native speaker.

  1. sh/ch/zh

  2. x/j/q

  3. the "r" sound

  4. fo/po/bo/mo

  5. –un/-en

The key to mastering pronunciation in any language

Before we get into each of the sounds, I want to share the secret to mastering pronunciation in any language: muscle memory. Whenever we want to train our body to repeatedly perform a new movement, we have to develop muscle memory. Basketball players, pianists, artists, and chefs all need muscle memory to smoothly and effortlessly execute the movements associated with their craft. Language learners need to develop muscle memory in their lips, tongue, vocal cords, and mouth in order to fluently speak a new language.

How do you develop muscle memory? Reps. Reps. More reps. Take a break, then do more reps. You are strengthening previously unused neural pathways that connect your brain with your mouth--this doesn’t happen overnight. Go to sleep, wake up, then do more reps.

What is a rep? How do you do a rep? A rep is short for “repetition”--a deliberate action or movement that trains your mind-body (or in our case, mind-mouth) connection. For basketball players, a rep is taking a jump shot. For a chef, a rep is one single stroke of the knife blade. The question we should be asking ourselves is not, “Am I talented enough to speak Chinese fluently?”, it’s “How many reps do I have to do to train my mouth to produce the sounds of Chinese fluently?”

As you read the rest of this article, remember that you will not pronounce these sounds perfectly on the first try. You probably won’t even get it on the second try, or the third, or the tenth, or the 50th, or even the 100th. You need to say these sounds over and over again until those neural connections between your brain and your mouth turn into high-speed fiber optic cables.

How many times should you practice each of these sounds? Probably more than you currently imagine. Practicing these sounds in isolation, it may take anywhere from 100-500 reps before you are able to produce them accurately and instantaneously on command. Then you have to practice saying these sounds in words, phrases, and sentences! It may take another 1000-2000 reps before you can fluently execute each sound in all of its different possible contexts.

If that sounds like a lot, think about how many reps it takes for a basketball player to “fluently” execute a jump shot? Remember that basketball players don’t just practice free throws--they practice taking jump shots fro