6. Initial (n, l) and Finals (i, u, ü)

This lesson introduces the finals i, u, and ü and reviews the initials l and n. One important goal of this lesson is to help you identify “front vowels” in Chinese. This concept will help you in subsequent lessons.

This lesson is structured very similarly to the previous lesson. First, we will start by looking at the distribution of possible syllables using these initials and finals. Then you will practice listening to exemplars and checking your ability to hear the relevant distinctions, in two different groups of exemplars. You may also want to try pronouncing the syllables to test whether you can match the mental “model” you have developed.

In the chart just below are the three new finals (i, u, ü) with two familiar initials (l, n):


In this set of initial and final combinations, all combinations form viable syllables for modern Standard Chinese. This does not mean, of course, that all of the possible combinations are used to form syllables in all four tones.

We will start with i and ü. First, listen to some audio exemplars of real words formed with these two finals after n and l. (Reminder: the English translations are provided only as a reminder that these are real syllables with meanings.)

Character and PinyinEnglish Equivalent
you (pronoun)
plum (also a surname)
mud; paste
woman; female
green (color)
sharp (adj.)
to draft; write; draw up
greasy; rich; cloying (adj.)

Now, test yourself!

Listening Quiz 1

What did you notice about the vowels in these finals? You probably observed that the sound represented here by the letter “i” is virtually identical to a vowel in American English, as in the word “see.” The vowel represented by “ü,” however, may be unfamiliar to you. Here are some tips that will help you pronounce this vowel:

Make an “ee” sound (like the vowel in “see”). Keep making that sound, without changing the position of your tongue inside your mouth, and push your lips forward to make a rounded shape. Listen to that sound. Is it like the audio exemplars you heard?

You may have noticed that, as you make these sounds, the highest part of your tongue is toward the front of your mouth. That is why these two vowels in Chinese, “i” and “ü” are categorized as “front vowels.” All other vowels in Chinese are categorized as mid or back vowels.

Now, let’s listen to some examples that illustrate the difference between a front vowel and a non-front vowel.

Character and PinyinEnglish Equivalent
to exert effort
woman; female
road; path
green (color)
stove; furnace
thick gravy

Can you hear the difference between “u” and “ü”?

Now, test yourself.

Listening Quiz 2

Front Vowels vs. Non-Front Vowels

After learning to hear the difference between “u” and “ü,” try producing those two vowels. Notice where the highest part of your tongue is in your mouth. When you make the “u” sound (similar to the vowel sound in shoe in English), the highest part of your tongue is probably fairly far back in your mouth, whereas when you make the “ü,” the highest part of your tongue is near the front of your mouth. There are only two front vowels in Chinese, “i” and “ü.”  The “ü” vowel is only used after five initials in Chinese: “l” and “n,” as introduced in this lesson, and three more initials that will be introduced in subsequent lessons.

Dictation Quiz

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