Learn how to pronounce Chinese names

Dealing with strange letters, tones and the problem of forgeting

Pronouncing names in Chinese can be very hard if you haven't studied Chinese. Many letters used to write the sounds in Mandarin (called Hanyu Pinyin) don't match the sounds they describe in English, so simply trying to read a Chinese name and guess the pronunciation will lead to many mistakes. These will often be so serious that a native speaker would not know whom you're talking about unless the context is very clear or the person is extremely famous.

Correct Pinyin isn't enough, you need tones as well

Another source of problems is that the names of Chinese people written in non-Chinese text typically don't include tones, which makes it impossible to know how the name is supposed to be pronounced unless you happen to know the who the person in question is.

For instance, if the current president of China is mentioned in non-Chinese press, he's often called just Xi Jinping. As you can see, there are no tone marks. With tone marks, his name is written Xí Jìnpíng (a rising tone followed by a falling tone and then another rising tone). Thus, even if you speak Chinese well and see a name like that, you're unlikely to be able to guess how the name is pronounce correctly.

Of course, this isn't a problem for Chinese people because they use characters to write the name and provided that they know how the characters are pronounced, they will also get the tones right (there are some names that contain very rare characters and then native speakers might be unable to pronounce them correctly).

In the president's case, the characters are 习近平 (習近平). Also remember that in Chinese, a persons family name (surname) comes first, followed by the personal name. In other words, the president's family name is 习 and his personal name is 近平.

How to pronounce Chinese names

How you learn to pronounce Chinese names depends on if you have already learnt some basic Chinese or not.

Let's look at both cases. First, if you haven't learnt Chinese, you need to find a recording and mimic. You don't need to get all sounds perfect, but try to remember that the tones matter. Whatever you do, do not simply read the name and pretend that it's English!

If you have learnt some basic Chinese and know about tones already, you're in a much better position, looking up the correct Pinyin with tone marks is enough to get the pronunciation right, but it's even better if you look at the characters. Why? Because it's very hard to remember meaningless syllables (which is exactly what names are if you don't know the characters). You don't want to forget how to pronounce the person's name immediately, so you'd better look at the characters to.

How to remember names

If you do as suggested above and look at the characters, remembering Chinese names is actually quite easy. Just translate the characters directly into English. That will usually produce a somewhat hilarious name that is easy to remember. In the president's case, we have three characters: 习, 近 and 平. 习 means "to study, to learn" and originally had the meaning of a bird flapping its wings (presumably learning to fly), 近 means "close (distance)" and 平 means "flat".

It's hard to forget Mr. Xi getting closer to you as he runs across a flat field, flapping his wings, trying to get airborne!