How to pronounce Tsai Ing-wen (Cai Ying-wen)

Some quick and dirty tips, as well as an in-depth explanation

Taiwanese President-Elect Tsai Ing-wen Inauguration In Taipei
Ashley Pon / Stringer/Getty Images

In this article, we will look at how to pronounce the name of the president Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), which in Hanyu Pinyin would be written Cài Yīngwén. Since most students use Hanyu Pinyin for pronunciation, I will henceforth use that, although the notes about pronunciation are of course relevant regardless of system. Cài Yīngwén was elected president of Taiwan on January 16th, 2016. And yes, her personal name means "English," as in the language this article is written in.

Below are some easy instructions if you just want to have a rough idea how to pronounce the name. Then I’ll go through a more detailed description, including analysis of common learner errors.

Pronouncing Names in Chinese

Pronouncing can be very hard if you haven't studied the language; sometimes it's hard even if you have. Ignoring or mispronouncing tones will just add to the confusion. These mistakes add up and often become so serious that a native speaker would fail to understand. Read more about how to pronounce Chinese names.

Easy Instructions for Pronouncing Cai Yingwen

Chinese names usually consist of three syllables, with the first being the family name and the last two the personal name. There are exceptions to this rule, but it holds true in many cases. Thus, there are three syllables we need to deal with.

  1. Cai - Pronounce as "ts" in "hats" plus "eye"

  2. Ying - Pronounce as "Eng" in "English"

  1. Wen - Pronounce as "when"

If you want want to have a go at the tones, they are falling, high-flat and rising respectively.

Note: This pronunciation is not correct pronunciation in Mandarin (though it is reasonably close). It represents an attempt to write the pronunciation using English words. To really get it right, you need to learn some new sounds (see below).

How to Actually Pronounce Cai Yingwen

If you study Mandarin, you should never ever rely on English approximations like those above. Those are meant for people who don't intend to learn the language! You have to understand the orthography, i.e. how the letters relate to the sounds. There are many traps and pitfalls in Pinyin you have to be familiar with.

Now, let's look at the three syllables in more detail, including common learner errors:

  1. Cai (fourth tone) - Her family name is by far the hardest part of the name. "c" in Pinyin is an affricate, which means that it is a stop sound (a t-sound) followed by a fricative (an s-sound). I used "ts" in "hats" above, which is sort of okay, but will lead to a sound that is not aspirated enough. To get that right, you should add a considerable puff of air afterwards. If you hold your hand a few inches from your mouth, you should feel the air hitting your hand. The final is okay and is pretty close to "eye".

  2. Ying (first tone) - As you have probably guessed already, this syllable was chosen to represent England and thereby English because they do sound quite similar. The "i" (which is spelt "yi" here) in Mandarin is pronounced with the tongue closer to the upper teeth than in English. It's as far up and forward ou can go, basically. It can almost sound like a soft "j" at times. The final can have an optional short schwa (as in English "the"). To get the right "-ng", let your jaw drop and your tongue withdraw.

  1. Wen (second tone) - This syllable seldom clauses problem for learners once they sort the spelling (it's "uen" but since it's the beginning of the word, it's spelt "wen"). It is actually very close to English "when". It's worth pointing out that some English dialects have an audible "h', which should not be present here. It should also be noted that some native speakers of Mandarin reduce the final to sound more like "un" than "en", but this is not the standardized way of pronouncing it. English "when" is closer.

The are some variations for these sounds, but Cai Yingwen/Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) can be written like this in IPA:

tsʰai jiŋ wən

Conclusion

Now you know how to pronounce Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). Did you find it hard? If you’re learning Mandarin, don't worry; there aren't that many sounds. Once you’ve learned the most common ones, learning to pronounce words (and names) will become much easier!