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Mastering Mandarin Pronunciation

A New Resource

Twenty-five years ago, I was a newbie cross-cultural worker fresh off the plane in Taiwan beginning an exciting journey that would take me to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Indonesia with China Ministries International. Dr. Jonathan Chao, founder and president of China Ministries International issued me this challenge: “If you really want to have a successful ministry among the Chinese, you must master the language. . . . So goes your Mandarin, so goes your ministry.” Dr. Chao continued, “Most missionaries only dabble at the language. Very few ever reach a point of proficiency to be able to teach the Bible in Chinese.”

Partly out of naïveté; partly because I was a conservatory-trained trumpeter, choral conductor and singer, and had the ears to hear a tonal language; and partly because I had fallen under the spell of inspiration cast by the biographers of James Hudson Taylor, I promised Dr. Chao, “I will master Mandarin . . . or die trying!”

Today, after countless hours of learning Mandarin in a variety of contexts and teaching the language at various levels in many locations,[1] I now am in a position to help other cross-cultural workers and Mandarin students in their quest to connect with the hearts of Chinese friends by speaking a language that is music to their ears.

In my first year of learning Mandarin, though I could only speak casual, chit-chat phrases, every time I said something in Mandarin, I got the same response, “Your Mandarin is really good.” Even though I was far from fluent, my musical ear had given me the advantage of reproducing accurate pronunciation—to the point where often on phone calls, the person on the other end thought I was Chinese.

After almost 150 trips to China, living in Taiwan for 17 years, and living in China for more than a year, I discovered time and time again, that people wanted to listen to what I had to say because they liked the sound of what came out of my mouth. I also learned that those who attained a measure of fluency, but whose Mandarin pronunciation was riddled with tonal mistakes, permeated with a non-standard accent, and offensive to the ears of the locals, were not taken as seriously. Dr. Chao was right in every respect. The receptivity of my ministry can be tied not only to a love for the people to whom I was called, but to a love for the language that allowed me to bring the gospel into their lives.

In spite of the excellent teachers and Mandarin training I had over the years, I realized that almost all the teachers I had, and all the programs of study I took, had the same weakness—they over-emphasized the importance of fluency before students could accurately pronounce the words and sounds of Mandarin. This weakness sets the Mandarin student on a life-long path to linguistic failure.

There are several reasons why this happens. First, most Mandarin teachers teach second-language learners as if they were children, using only an “imitate me” approach. They lack the analytical abilities to diagnose what is wrong with the student’s pronunciation, and are even less able to tell the student where to place their mouth, tongue, and teeth or tone in order to make the proper sounds. Group classes that are curriculum driven have even less time to help students fix these pronunciation errors before they become life-long unfixable habits.

Many curriculums accentuate learning Chinese characters at the same time as the student is learning to speak, thus adding more difficulty to what already is a daunting task. Add to these problems the number of students who use the pinyin romanization system without completely learning the proper phonetic sounds to go with the system, and you have a recipe for Mandarin frustration, inaccuracy, and failure

So the question then is, what can be done to tackle these problems, conquer these challenges, and increase the Mandarin student’s chances for ultimate success? The answer to that question is simple—take six hours to master how to correctly pronounce all the words in the Chinese dictionary using the pinyin system before starting any course of Mandarin study .

There are only 399 pinyin words in the entire Mandarin language. Each word is spoken on up to four different tonal inflections and the language is full of homophones i.e. words that sound the same but have different meaning. I developed the Mastering Mandarin Pronunciation course so that students who are just beginning their language study, or students who are committed to fixing their pronunciation errors, could do so in the shortest amount of time possible. This new online course, available at will teach you how to put your mouth, tongue, and teeth in the right place to correctly pronounce every word in the Mandarin dictionary.

This course trains students how to read any pinyin textbook, before they start their curriculum course of study. This course can be used for all ages from second grade up and can be integrated into any course or curriculum. It can be especially helpful in schools where students join the Mandarin class after the class has begun or in mid-year.

One of the options when taking the course is that the students can send in a recording of them speaking each one of the 399 words on all four tones and receive back an assessment of which words they have successfully mastered and which words they have yet to learn how to accurately pronounce. Students have the option of purchasing lessons with teachers who are trained to help students master Mandarin pronunciation and specifically correct pronunciation errors.

Future courses will focus on mastering Mandarin tones and mastering pinyin transcription, so that students can accurately write down the phrases and sentences that they hear spoken.

So, what about you? How’s your Mandarin pronunciation? Can you correctly pronounce every word in the Chinese dictionary? If you can’t, then this course is for you. 


  1. ^ Including countless hours of private tutoring at Taipei Language Institute (TLI), two China-focused Masters degrees and a PhD in Chinese Politics, three years’ experience running a branch of TLI in China, and four years of teaching Mandarin at a university in Indonesia as well as seven international schools in Indonesia and Hong Kong.
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Timothy Conkling

Timothy Conkling

Rev. Timothy Conkling, PhD, is a cross-cultural worker with China Ministries International. He has been a pastor and church-planter in Taiwan and a researcher of the church in China. His book, Mobilized Merchants-Patriotic Martyrs: China’s House Church Christians and the Politics of Cooperative Resistance, chronicles the development of the church in …View Full Bio

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