3. Initials (m, n, f, l) and Finals (a, ai, ao, an, ang)

In Lesson 1 we examined the use of Romanization to represent Standard Chinese. We also discussed the traditional view that a syllable in Chinese includes three parts: an initial, a final, and a tone.  In the last lesson we looked at tones in some detail.  In this lesson we are going to learn the initials m, n, f, and l, and the finals a, ai, ao, an, ang. All of these sounds, or virtually identical sounds, are found in American English, so they should not be too difficult to learn. This first lesson will introduce you to the structure of future lessons and help you to build confidence to tackle the more challenging elements to come.

Look carefully at the following table, which shows the syllables that can be created by combining initials (running down the left column) with finals (running along the top row). While this process of creating syllables is fairly straightforward, you will note that some cells in the table have dashes in them.  While speakers of Chinese would certainly be able to pronounce these combinations of initials and finals, they are simply not used.  As we learn more initials and finals, we will discover that a large number of the possible combinations do not actually occur in the language.


As we consider the possible combinations of initials and finals, we must also remember that tone is also a crucial element of the syllable.  And much as each combination of initial and final does not occur in the language, not every syllable exists in all of the possible tones.

Now let’s listen to some audio exemplars of real words formed by these initials and finals.

Character and PinyinEnglish equivalent
to arrive
indigo plant

Listening Quiz

Listen to the following audio and then select the correct Pinyin from the choices provided.

Dictation Quiz

Listen to the following audio prompts and fill in the blanks with what you hear. The answers will include the initials m, n, f, and l in combination with all the finals introduced in this lesson. Rather than entering the tone marks, indicate the number of the tone after the final. So, if the answer is , you should enter ma3.

Applying Your Knowledge

In the first lesson we learned how to look up a word in pinyin in an online dictionary in order to find its corresponding Chinese character.  Now let’s take that a step further by looking up a word through its English translation.  Look up the English words below and then provide their pinyin equivalents using either diacritics (tone marks) or by typing the tone after the final.  As there may be several options, use the character to find the correct ones. As you do exercises like this try to get into the habit of reading the syllables aloud as you type them.