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‘xue’ is not the same sound as ‘shui’!

xue ≠ shuiI’ve noticed that a lot of people studying Mandarin don’t distinguish between the syllables xue and shui. Usually this is at the beginner stage, but sometimes it seems to have become a habit that sticks right the way through.

In any case, it’s a glaring pronunciation mistake that’s easy to fix. These two syllables are written differently in pinyin because they’re pronounced differently! It seems obvious, but for whatever reason a lot of learners seem to pronounce both as shui.

Pinyin finals üe and ui

It’s not actually limited to those two syllables, but to the pinyin finals (vowel sounds) üe and ui. It’s just that xue and jue are the most common syllables that contains this üe sound. Apart from these, there’s lüe and nüe, which you rarely come across, as well as the semi-common que.

The ui sound, on the other hand, is very common. If you take a look at the ui column in the pinyin chart, you’ll see there are thirteen syllables with this final. And a lot of them are super-common, like dui, shui, wei, tui and so on.

An example

I think this mistake occurs most often with the character 学 (xué​). The word 大学 is xué but some learners seem to pronounce it as shuí. Similarly, 学习 (xué), seems to come out as shuí. Some people also pronounce 觉得 (juéde) as zhuíde.

Another example is the character 雪 (xuě). If you’re pronouncing 雪 the same as 水, then unfortunately you’re doing it wrong. They’re xuě and shuǐ, respectively.

The üeui mistake

Because the ui sound is so much more common than üe, it’s easy to miss the difference and pronounce them both as ui. Another problem is that when üe is written with an initial x, j or q, you don’t have the dots. So it’s just written xue, jue or que, which look more similar to shui and so on than they really are.

These two sounds are actually very different.

Both of them are diphthongs, which means a vowel sound composed of two ‘shorter’ vowel sounds. Diphthongs also called gliding vowels, as the two sounds glide smoothly one after the other. Have a look at the different sounds that make up ui and üe:

ui: u + ei

üe: ü + e

As you can see, these two finals don’t actually share any of the same vowel sounds! There’s technically nothing similar about them.

u vs ü

First up there’s u vs ü, which is a hurdle for just about every English-speaking learner. The u usually isn’t difficult – it’s pretty much an oo sound. Remember, though, that even this basic sound differs subtly between languages. Copy native speakers as much as possible to pin it down! But the closest thing in English is oo as in boo. That’s a starting point.

The tricky one is ü, which standard English doesn’t have. French and German both have this sound, though. The easiest way to get started with it is to say ee with your lips rounded. That should help you get the knack of it. Again, though, you’ve really got to mimic native speakers as much as possible. Have a listen using this pinyin audio chart.

ei vs e

These sounds should be a little less tricky for English speakers. The closest thing to ei in English is an ay sound like in able. As always, this is only a starting point. It’s essential to listen to native speakers and copy them to actually get it right. The pinyin e sound is similar to the vowel in pet or bet (but you should still mimic native speakers to learn it!).

x vs sh

It’s also worth pointing out here that the x and sh sounds are different as well! This one is pretty nasty and very difficult to get pinned down. Have a good read of the Chinese Pronunciation guide at Sinosplice – it’s probably the best explanation available for learners. And, as ever, keep listening and copying. The more you mimic natives, the better.

I won’t go into a lot of detail about the difference here as I think you’re better off doing a lot of actual practice. The key point is that x is formed with the tongue behind the teeth, whilst sh is formed with the tongue much further back in the mouth. The x sound is much sharper than the sh sound.

Putting it together

Once you’ve listened to those sounds and copied them enough, it’s fairly easy to put them together. Remember:

shui: sh + u + ei

xue: x + ü + e

So xue is very distinct from shui. All of the component sounds are different, in fact. If you’re pronouncing them the same, fix it! It’s not a difficult mistake to fix, and it’s worth fixing.


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  • Zifre

    Although almost no English speakers understand IPA, sometimes I wonder if learning the basics of how the IPA chart works would help people learn foreign languages. Once you know the places and manners of articulation, it becomes almost trivial to pronounce new sounds. “Aspirated voiceless alveolo-palatal affricate” is a much better way to explain pinyin “q” than trying to come up with equivalent English sounds that don’t exist. And you really don’t need to listen to natives if you know exactly how to pronounce the sound.

    Also, for “lazy” students that can’t be bothered to learn the irregularities in pinyin, zhuyin might help. The only irregularity I can think of is ㄩㄥ making the pinyin “yong” sound when ㄩ is normally “ü”.

    I know several people who also study Chinese (all beginners) and I have never heard them pronounce “shui” and “xue” the same. However, they still get them horribly wrong, because “shui” becomes [ʃwi] and “xue” becomes [ʃwɛ].

    • Alan

      I think learning IPA instead of pinyin is terrible advice for most Chinese learners.

      Find a native speaker, or some online audio/videos and learn what a pinyin “q” sounds like- even better say it back to a native speaker and ask them if you got it right.

      Language learning is more than just knowing what an “Aspirated voiceless alveolo-palatal affricate” is – how do you pronounce that with different tones? What about in different syllable combinations?

      I will grant you that someone who knows IPA would do a much better job of learning pinyin from written material than someone who doesn’t, but both would be better off using native speakers than books to learn pronunciation.

      • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

        I agree, to be honest. Especially if you’re only learning Chinese – why learn the whole IPA system when there’s pinyin, which is tailored to Mandarin?

      • Zifre

        I should note that I probably gave the impression that I think people should spend hours memorizing every symbol on the IPA table. What I meant is that it takes like ten minutes to learn basic phonetic concepts and then be able to pronounce the individual sounds of almost every foreign language without much difficulty.

        “Find a native speaker, or some online audio/videos and learn what a pinyin “q” sounds like- even better say it back to a native speaker and ask them if you got it right.”

        Except that if you don’t know HOW to make the sound, just listening and trying over and over again might not help. Some people are very good at replicating sounds just by hearing them. Others can’t do that.

        “Language learning is more than just knowing what an “Aspirated voiceless alveolo-palatal affricate” is”

        Yes, of course. But once you know how to combine places of articulation and manners of articulation, it becomes trivial to learn almost any new sound.

        “how do you pronounce that with different tones? What about in different syllable combinations?”

        Obviously you’re going to need practice to actually use the sound in fluent speech. But if you can at least pronounce it correctly on its own, you have a lot more time to worry about things like tone, grammar, etc. that can’t be logically reasoned about ahead of time.

  • http://twitter.com/PhilsChinese Phil

    The syllables “jue” and “que” also have üe in them, and they could be confused with “zhui” and “chui”. But unlike those examples, I’ve definitely heard the xue/shui mistake. It’s pretty fascinating to stop and realize these syllables actually have nothing (or little) in common. And while there are some syllable pairs that native speakers can conflate, I don’t think this is one of them.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      Ah thanks yeah, missed those when I was looking at the table for some reason. Then I remembered that the same people often pronounce jue as zhui as well, like you say.

  • Charles

    In the late 90s, I attended a intensive summer Mandarin immersion program in the USA that was pretty famous. I noticed that all the first year students pronounced xue as shui. After ten weeks, I asked one of the teaching assistants why the students were still making this mistake and he told me that the students were not corrected because they were taught to say it that way. He said it saved a lot of time in the early weeks and that they’d learn the difference later on during their studies. Needless to say, I was dumbfounded. You’d think any teacher would be ashamed to purposely teach an incorrect pronunciation.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      It’s so wrong as an approach. I remember when we started, the teachers just corrected us constantly to the point where it got really awkward. Some people were brought to tears at being repeatedly corrected until they got it right. Maybe that was a bit too far in the other extreme, but it certainly made us knuckle down and get our pronunciation sorted out.