8. Initials ch, q

This lesson introduces the initials ch and q, with finals introduced in previous lessons as well as two new finals. This lesson also refers to the discussion of types of vowels addressed in Lesson 6. You may find it helpful to review that lesson before continuing with this one.

Let’s start by exploring the possible combinations of “q” and “ch” with the finals “a” and “i”.  do not always produce viable syllables in all four tones.


Now listen to exemplars of syllables formed by theese initials and finals. Remember that this is an exercise in listening for distinctions in sound, not in vocabulary building. We have included the English translations just as a reminder that these are real syllables with meanings.

Character and PinyinEnglish Equivalent
to rise up
to trudge (in mud or snow)
air; gas; energy
less than; lacking

What did you notice about these two finals? What is the difference between “q” and “ch?”

Do either of these sound like the “ch” in the English word “chalk?” If not, what is the difference? What did you notice about the vowels used after these initials? Think about what you learned in Lesson 6 and 7. Which of these two vowels is a front vowel? You may want to listen to the first group of exemplars again as you think about these questions. If you have completed Lesson 7, you have probably realized that the distinction here is parallel to that for “zh” and “j”.

Now let’s add the two new finals introduced in Lesson 7, “in” and “ing.” Both of these only include one vowel, “i,” followed by a nasal consonant ending. The finals “an” and “ang” were introduced in Lesson 3.


Which of these four finals start with a front vowel? Which two do not? Which ones can follow “q” and which ones can follow “ch?’ Do you see a pattern here?

Now listen to the following exemplars. Some of these are disyllabic words, which will give you the opportunity to hear these sounds in a more natural context. A few syllables include finals that have not yet been introduced.

Character and PinyinEnglish Equivalent
to produce
relative; family
to celebrate
dark green; dark blue
often, frequently
to abuse, bully
utensil; tool
diligent; hardworking
relaxed; relaxing
place of production
to support by the arm
to tremble

Listening Quiz 1

Again, listen carefully, and think about how the initial works with the vowel immediately following the initial. You have probably noticed that these two sounds are a little bit like the American English “ch,” as in “chart,” but not quite the same. The “q” represents a “ch-like” sound that is produced in the front of the mouth, with the tongue in a position close that used by most speakers of American English to pronounce the “ch” in “cheep.” As you may have noticed already, the difference between the “q” sound and the “j” introduced in Lesson 7 is aspiration.

The “ch” sound is made with the tip of the tongue behind the alveolar ridge and the back of the tongue curled down. Sounds made with this type of tongue position are called “retroflexes.” Again, this is like the “zh” introduced in Lesson 7, but with aspiration.

We have offered these descriptions of the way the sounds are made, or manner of articulation, in case it is helpful to you. Not all learners find this information useful. The important task is to learn to hear and identify the sounds. Listen to the exemplars until you can hear the differences clearly. When you feel confident that you can distinguish the two sounds, try imitating them. Can you match the audio exemplars?

The next group includes a tricky aspect of Pinyin spelling conventions. In Lesson 6, you learned that “ü” is a front vowel. Remember how to pronounce this sound by starting with an “eee” sound and then pushing your lips forward to make a rounded shape? The “u,” however, is not a front vowel. When you make an “u” sound, the highest part of your tongue is further back in the mouth.

Character and PinyinEnglish Equivalent
to go out
district; zone
to get rid of, dismiss; except
suffering; clear
to take
base; foundation
to go

Can you hear the difference? You may want to listen several times. Now here comes the tricky spelling part. If you have completed Lesson 7, you will recognize this pattern. You may have noticed that we spelled the Pinyin for words that combine q and ü (e.g.去to go) as qu, rather than qü.) In standard Pinyin spelling, the two dots are dropped when ü comes after q because it is assumed that readers realize that q cannot be followed by a standard “u” sound. Try starting with that front-of-the-mouth “q” and then transition to a relaxed “oo.” Does it feel awkward? Pinyin spelling conventions assume this is understood and therefore use the regular u without the dots, for efficiency and convenience.

The following chart illustrating this pattern. We have included the ü spelling in parentheses to emphasize the distribution of sounds but remember that in standard Pinyin, the dots are omitted in syllables with a “q” initial.

q-qu (qü)

Listening Quiz 2

Character and PinyinEnglish Equivalent
to eat
strange; weird
to rise up

Did you notice that, in the syllables spelled chi, you did not hear an “ee” sound or any other sound that you would typically think of as a vowel? You have probably realized that the pattern here is the same as that for zhi and j introduced in the previous lesson. The syllables spelled chi are what some linguists call syllabic consonants. They sound like the initial is lengthened into a syllable. Because the rules of Pinyin dictate that tone marks must be placed above vowels, the developers of Pinyin borrowed the letter “i” for these syllables. It was assumed that native speaker readers would realize that a retroflex such as “ch” could not be followed by a high front vowel like “i.” It is physically awkward to pronounce a “ch” sound correctly and then transition immediately into an “i” pronounced as it usually is, as “ee.” The “i” in these syllables is actually a placeholder, a fake “i” used only to anchor the tone mark.

 iɨ (i)

Listening Quiz 3

Now listen to a mix of exemplars using a variety of finals from previous lessons, as well as the two new ones introduced in this lesson. This set of exemplars also includes some two-syllable words. Focus on listening to the syllable that includes ‘q” or “ch.

Character and PinYinEnglish Equivalent
to await
to encroach upon
to stir fry
car; vehicle
interest; interesting
to rinse
basis; foundation

Check yourself: Listen to the following syllables. Write down the Pinyin, including the tone. Then click below to check your answers.

Dictation Quiz

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