Four Steps to Sounding Like a Native
Learn to say hello in Chinese. You will find here the mp3 audio at both slowed and natural speeds to help you along.
I believe you will come to agree that the little time spent learning to say hello in Mandarin (and say it properly) is time well invested. I could hardly think of a better or simpler way to begin to make a great impression and make friends with Chinese people easily than with a smile and well-pronounced 'ní hǎo'.
We can cover here just what you need for success with the basic Chinese greeting, no more and no less.
And so what is it you need? Let's spell it out in four easy steps.
- An audio example of a native speaker saying hello in Chinese naturally
- Another mp3 of the Chinese hello, repeated, and slowed, so you can follow easily and imitate
- Pronunciation tips, to help you avoid the common mistakes that people new to Chinese tend to make when they first learn to say hello in Chinese
- Cultural notes about greetings in Chinese, so you know when to use your new useful skill (and when not to!)
1. Listen to Audio of a Native Speaker at Natural Speed
Listen to the above audio as the male speaker says hello in Mandarin at a normal speed. You may also repeat.
The pinyin representation for the Chinese word will be helpful. It looks like this:
More explanation for the pinyin is given in step 3 below. But if the pinyin confuses you at this point, try this:
2. Listen to Speaker at Slowed Speed, Repeated
learn top ten most useful Mandarin phrases with more slowed audio
Above you have a female speaker (my wife, Audrey) repeating the Mandarin greeting, first at a slowed speed, then getting progressively faster. This really gives you a chance to focus in on the Chinese tones, which will be absolutely key in saying it cleanly and clearly.
Do imitate what you hear as you listen to the audio above. Audrey pauses to give you space to speak.
Seriously, if you just listen and don't repeat aloud, then I'm afraid when you later try the phrase out in public, you may get that smile that says 'Oh, how cute! The foreigner is trying say something in Chinese.
Really, it's best to repeat and experience how it truly feels to say hello in Chinese if you want to get it right and make that good impression.
3. Essential Pronunciation Tips
You may find it difficult to believe, but your Chinese listener will actually make a judgement on how well you speak simply by the pronunciation of your 'níhǎo'. So make the right impression and take the time to learn to say it correctly.
And that means paying very close attention to the tones.
Tones in the Chinese language are the way your voice rises, falls, or hangs with each syllable. And the tones can't be ignored if you desire to be understood. So let's break down the simple parts of this Chinese phrase.
Breaking Down 'Ni-hao' into its Two Parts
As you saw in the pinyin, the Mandarin hello greeting is made up of two characters：
你 (ni) 好 (hǎo)
你 (ni): This character means 'you'. When saying 'nǐhǎo', this first character is pronounced with a rising tone. It starts low and then rises. As for the pinyin, remember, tones aside, it's similar to 'knee'.
好 (hǎo): This character means 'good'. And it is pronounced with a tone that dips, which is to say, it goes down and then rises. Again, if the pinyin throws you, remeber the English word 'how'.
Put the two syllables together, and you have the key to a friendly Chinese hello. It's as simple as that!
Cultural Notes - Getting Formal
The more formal version of the Chinese 'hello' is pronounced slightly differently. The pinyin spelling is like this
and simply adds the 'n' sound at the end of the first 'ní'.
You would use this version of the Chinese hello with people who you may want to address more formally such as teachers, elders, or those you are less familiar with when wanting to strike a more polite tone.
However, it's more commonly used in the north of China. Southerners are more likely to be comfortable with the common Chinese hello - ni hao - in all kinds of situations. For example, I tend to use the informal version even with my wife's parents, who are from the South of China.
When we were first dating, 'nin', even in the South, would have been the appropriate term to use with them, but I wasn't as well informed as you are now, back then!
Anyway, this is how the formal hello in Mandarin sounds. Notice the difference with the added 'n' is only slight. But it won't go unnoticed by your hearers!