The /y/ vowel in Mandarin

The objective of this module is to teach you the pronunciation of the Mandarin vowel /y/ based on pronunciation of English sounds you already know. The Mandarin sound /y/ is spelled as “ü” in the pinyin romanization (e.g. in the word “” (绿) for “green”), which some speakers familiar with the German language may find similar-looking to the umlauted u and in fact will find similar to pronounce. French speakers will find it similar to the vowel sound in the word tu. When it occurs at the beginning of a syllable in Mandarin, it is indicated with the pinyin spelling “yu”, as in the word “yuè” (月) for “moon” .

There are two ways speakers are commonly taught to start pronouncing this unfamiliar sound. Watching these videos enhanced with ultrasound tongue imaging can help you improve your pronunciation!

1: Rounding the lips

The first method for pronouncing /y/ begins by pronouncing /i/, as in “green” or as in “bee”, then rounding the lips, as is needed to pronounce the /u/ in “cool”. Note the movement of the speaker’s lips as you watch this short video clip.

2: Moving /u/ forward

The second method for pronouncing /y/ involves attempting to pronounce the sequence of vowels /ui/ as in “buoy”, but keeping the lips rounded as you move into the second vowel. The resulting sound approximates /y/. Note the movement of the tongue forward and the way the lips are kept rounded by the speaker as you watch this clip.

These are the two main ways you can improve your pronunciation of /y/ for speaking Mandarin. Watch this additional clip of just the sound /y/ to practice along with.