For two years now, I’ve been trying and failing to say “toilet” in Chinese. I was so bad at pronouncing “toilet” that people couldn’t even guess what I was saying. And “toilet” is an important word to know; I’ve had the “I really gotta go and this convenience store clerk can’t figure out what I’m asking about”-experience one too many times!
“Toilet” in Mandarin is 厕所 (click for dictionary), pronounced cè suǒ (click each word for audio). I couldn’t figure out for the life of me what my problem was. I was sure it was the beginning sound, which is represented by a “c” (click for audio) in pinyin (? in bopomofo, I think). I just found out in class that actually, it was the “e” sound (ㄜ in bopomofo, I think). It’s one of the sounds that native English speakers typically mangle because we don’t usually hear any significant difference between it and one of our short vowel sounds (short u). Plus, it’s really like two sounds pressed together; your teeth and tongue (apparently) change position slightly as you say it (the audio I’ve linked to doesn’t demonstrate this very well).
Long story short, for two years I’ve been not making a sound that I couldn’t hear anyway, even when people said it to me, and that’s why it took me two years to learn how to ask for a toilet in Mandarin. And, of course, it turns out that it’s more common to use either of two other phrases for bathroom that are easier to pronounce anyway.