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Say It Right Series

Nice To C You - The Chinese C

Posted by xiaohu October 12, 2008 in the Group General Discussion.

Tags: Aspiration, Aspirated Sounds, Aspirate, Pronunciation of Chinese C, Unvoiced Sounds, Voiced Sounds, Reduce American Accent, How To Guide To Reducing Western Accent In Chinese, Correct Chinese Pronunciation Mistakes, Correct Pronunciation of Chinese Sounds, Accent Reduction, How To Sound Natural In Chinese, Natural Chinese Accent

The Chinese "C" Sound

The next in our series about aspiration is one that is deceptively easy to non-native speakers, yet the vast majority of foreigners say wrong:

  • C 

This sound combines three sounds together the following factors.

  1. Aspiration
  2. Voiceless Sounds
  3. Fricative Consonants

Great command of fricatives isn't as necessary to master as is aspiration, but it is something one needs to bear in mind.

The 舌尖前音, Tongue Tip Frontal Sound

As I mentioned earlier in the article, most foreigners believe they say this correctly because of the "C" sound's similarity to the English "TS".  In fact, my hero Sir Thomas Francis Wade in his famous "Wade Giles" Chinese Romanization System also denoted this as "TS", which is deceptive because in our English "TS" sound, the tongue tip is in a different position, our "TS" is produced by placing the tongue tip against the Alveolar Ridge.

Mastering this sound, (as with many sounds in Mandarin Chinese) is also dependent on learning new tongue positioning.

Take the tip of your tongue and press it against the back of your front teeth.  Make certain your tongue is flat. 

The tip of your tongue should be placed in the same spot as when English speakers start to say, "Th" but before the tongue flecks in between the teeth.


I'd wager almost no non-native Chinese speaker aspirates this sound, the aspirated quality is vital to sounding natural.  Remember, aspiration is, simply put just giving the sound an extra puff of air.  Let the air come from your diaphragm, much like in singing, and if you do it right, the sound should sound especially hissy as the air slides past your tongue and out your mouth.

Unvoiced Sound

The Mandarin Chinese is another unvoiced sound.  An unvoiced sound, is one that you can't sing.  Voiceless sounds are those that are not produced by the vocal chords.


Now, while holding your tongue in position against the back of your front teeth, where the front and lower teeth meet, say the word "Ci" (ironically the Chinese word for "word"), the tip of your tongue should slide a bit upward against the back of your two front teeth, remember to aspirate the sound.

The aspirate is easier to say if you imagine there is an "H" between the "C" and the rest of the letters. 

To practice the aspirate, try saying the Chinese word 菜 "cài" this way, "C-high", then faster and faster without separation between the "C" and the "high".

This will help you get used to the aspirate being there.

Now, contrast this sound with our English, "TS" by saying the "The boats floats in the moats". 

Now, again say, "The boats floats in the moats", but this time substitute our native "ts" for the Chinese "C" complete with the aspirate.

Did you hear the difference?

If you did it correctly, there should be a striking contrast between the two.

Practice your "C" with all the following sounds

  • Ci
  • Ca
  • Ce
  • Cai
  • Cao
  • Cou
  • Can
  • Cen
  • Cang
  • Ceng
  • Cu
  • Cuo
  • Cui
  • Cuan
  • Cun
  • Cong

Remember, repetition is key to a natural Chinese accent, don't be afraid to repeat each sound 20 - 30 times.  Once you are comfortable with the Chinese C, you are ready to move on.

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