Ep02: Unaspirated & Voiceless

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Bite-size Taiwanese | Pronounce it like a Pro
Ep02: Unaspirated & Voiceless

In this episode, we learned 11 Taiwanese consonants and the important features about these sounds: voiced, voiceless, aspirated, and unaspirated.

(These show notes use tables and rich formatting. Please visit the episode webpage for an optimal viewing experience.)

For those of you who are familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), the chart below is a quick summary for you:

Place & Manner of Articulation Voiceless Voiceless Voiced
  Aspirated Unaspirated --
Bilabial ph- /pʰ/ p- /p/ b- /b/
Alveolar th- /tʰ/ t- /t/ --
Alveolar affricate (Palatalization) tsh- /tsʰ/ (tshi /tɕʰi/) ts- /ts/ (tsi- /tɕi/) j- /dz/ (ji- /dʑi/)
Velar kh- /kʰ/ k- /k/ g- /g/

1. Aspirated consonants: ph-, th-, tsh-, kh-

When you say an aspirated consonant, you can feel a puff of air coming out of your mouth. Try putting your hand in front of your mouth, and say “pass”, “pen” or “pink”.

The Taiwanese ph-, th- and kh- are just like the normal English “p”, “t” and “k”. The tsh- sound is similar to the “z” in “pizza” with a strong air stream.

2. Unaspirated consonants: p-, t-, ts-, k-

There isn’t a strong burst of air when you say the Taiwanese p-, t-, ts- or k-. In English, it only occurs when a “p”, “t”, or “k” follows another consonant, for example, the “p” in “spend”, “spit” or “spill”.

Taiwanese p-, t- and k-, may be difficult for English speakers because they can sound quite similar to English “b”, “d”, and “g”.

3. Voiced consonants: b-, j-, g-

Your vocal cords rev up when you say a voiced consonant. Place your hand over your throat, and slowly say: “bat”, “bell” and “beak”. If you exaggerate the “b” sound, like “bbb-bat”, “bbb-bell” and “bbb-beak”, you will feel your vocal cords start vibrating even before you release the obstruction created by your lips. That early vibration of your vocal cords is what you need when saying Taiwanese b-, j- or g-.


Here’s a little experiment to help you see the difference between aspirated and unaspirated consonants. Try holding a piece of paper just a few inches in front of your mouth, and then say the following word pairs:

pain - Spain park - spark peak - speak pot - spot pin - spin port - sport

You should see when you say the aspirated ones, the puff of air from your mouth will move the paper, whereas the unaspirated ones won’t.

Since English speakers aren’t used to starting a word with an unaspirated consonant, here’s an exercise you can try to help you isolate that sound.

  1. Slowly draw out the “s” sound: sss-pend, sss-pit, sss-park
  2. Split the “s” and “p”, so that there’s a slight pause right before you say the “p”.
  3. Gradually make the “s” quieter and quieter, until you eventually drop the “s” part. But, still keep imagining that you’re making that “s” sound right before the “p”, and you should be able to make a syllable with an unaspirated “p”.

You can also practice this with “stand” or “sky” for an unaspirated “t” or “k”.

  1. Try to slowly say the words “bbb-bat”, “bbb-bell”, “bbb-beak” and feel the vibration of your vocal cords. You can also do it with “ggg-go”, “ggg-get”, etc.
  2. Remember the feeling of this “early vibration” of the vocal cords, which is needed for saying the Taiwanese voiced consonants b-, j- and g-. Without such vibration, they would sound like the Taiwanese p-, ts- and k-.

Practising with minimal pairs like “bió” (second) vs. “pió” (watch) will help you master these sounds in Taiwanese. In our podcast, we’ve provided a list of them. Try listening to the audio a few more times.

bió 秒 (second) pió 錶 (watch) --
bí 米 (rice) pí 比 (to compare) --
bōng 墓 (grave, tomb) pōng 磅 (to weigh; pound) --
pha̍k 曝 (to bask/dry in the sun) pa̍k 縛 (to bind; to tie up) ba̍k 目 (eye)
phah 拍 (to hit) pah 百 (hundred) bah 肉 (meat; flesh)


kin 巾 (scarf, towel) khin 輕 (light)
tshiò 笑 (to laugh) tsiò 照 (to shine, to illuminate)
tha̍k 讀 (to read) ta̍k 逐 (each, every)
phóo 譜 (music score) póo 補 (to mend, to supply)
tsian 煎 (to pan fry) tshian 千 (thousand)


tsím 枕 (pillow) jím 忍 (to endure, to put up with)
kâu 猴 (monkey) gâu 賢* (to be skilled)
bān 萬 (ten thousand) pān 辦 (to deal with, to do)
jû 如 (as, if, like) tsû 慈 (loving, affection)
guán 阮 (we, us) kuán 管 (to administer, to be in charge)

*alternate character used due to encoding issue.


kì 記 (to memorize, to record)
tsú 煮 (to cook)
ji̍t 日 (day)
tshá 炒 (to stir fry)
tn̂g 長 (long)
khóo 苦 (bitter)
pit 筆 (pencil; writing utensil)
gōo 五 (five)
that 踢 (to kick)
bîng 明 (bright, clear)
phang 芳 (fragrant)

Music Credit: TeknoAXE

3 replies on “ Ep02: Unaspirated & Voiceless ”
  1. That’s a great lesson! You even provided a table with place and manner of articulation, and the IPA. If you’re doing this on such high level, I was wondering if you are planning to make podcasts and “lecture notes” explaining all sounds of Taiwanese that are not present in English (or even better, all sounds of Taiwanese)? Speaking of some sounds in this lesson, I’m not sure for example how exactly to pronounce tsh, ts, j.

    I believe it is much more useful to master the phonetics and understand which sounds correspond to which letters/combinations of letters in TLPA (or whatever system you prefer) before actually practicing speaking (even on the “newbie” level). Otherwise, if one doesn’t know e.g. that the Taiwanese “o” is not the English “o”, they may be tempted to substitute it with the English “o” when reviewing your notes from the Newbie series. Just mimicking native speakers is not enough, one should actually understand how to make each sound.

    So I really hope you will make podcasts on the phonetics of Taiwanese. I’d like to learn Taiwanese, but I’m afraid learning how to speak without knowing the phonetics may be harmful in the long term because one may get used to the wrong pronunciation without realizing that their pronunciation is wrong.

    Thank you for your work!

    1. Hi Pav,

      Thanks for your message! We’re so glad to hear that you enjoyed the episode! We’re actually close to releasing a pronunciation “cheat sheet” that will help our listeners break down all the different sounds found within Taiwanese. We agree that just listening can only take you so far (especially as adult second-language learners), so our “cheat sheet” will provide english approximations, IPA, examples, and links to audio clips. We’re also exploring putting together a pronunciation guide in print with a more rigorous treatment, but this idea is still under development. For now, we hope our “cheat sheet” will be enough to get you started on practicing speaking. Be sure to sign up for our newsletter, so you’ll be notified when this comes out!

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