This blog has been online for more than ten years, but it’s been through many transformations and, in recent years, decline. As I increase the amount of text I write elsewhere, I simply don’t feel the need to write much here. I only write when I want to write something which is too long for social media and when I have news to share that I want friends, family and acquaintances to read if they are interested.

This article is of the second type. Earlier this week, I started a new job at the Centre for Professional Development and Internationalisation in Schools (Fortbildningsavdelningen för skolans internationalisering) at Uppsala University. It’s focused on professional development for language teachers, creating courses, seminars and conferences. As you have probably guessed already, I will be responsible for Chinese

Photo by David Castor

I will still live in Stockholm, so I will have to commute to Uppsala (roughly 90-minutes door to door). I think this will be okay since I can work on my own projects on the train. This article was written on the way back home from Uppsala, for instance.

This is a part time job (50%), so I plan to combine it with all the other things I’m doing. I might be a bit naïve in thinking that I will be able to manage this, but I think it’s possible. I will of course put some long-term projects on a lower priority and I will postpone other projects I have planned, but on the whole, I still plan to continue my work on/at Hacking Chinese, Skritter, WordSwing, About.com and my thesis, along with teaching a Chinese writing course at Linköping university. It might sound like a lot. It probably is.

2015-08-12 10.27.09I applied for this job because the work description seemed to be a perfect match for me, and I think working with other people who are equally enthusiastic about language learning and teaching, but for other languages will be very stimulating. I also think that this is an excellent opportunity to familiarise myself more with Chinese teaching in Sweden and the key people involved. Up until now, I’ve had an international focus and have largely neglected Sweden, but this is still where I was born and where I live.

Right now, everything is new and it’s difficult to say anything substantial about the job itself and what I think about it. My days are mostly filled with preparations for a course that starts in a few weeks and sorting out practical things in the workplace (my desk looks quite tidy now, at least). I’ll have more to say in a month or so. Who knows, I might even write about it!

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William Gibson – Zero History

This is the last book in the trilogy about Blue Ant which started with Pattern Recognition. While the first two books were only loosely connected, this final and third book is more like a continuation of Spook Country, with mostly the same characters. Gibson is very reliable and this book is as good as the others in this trilogy. If you’ve read the others and like the style, read this one too.

James Blish – A Case of Conscience

I had a project a few years ago to read all novels that have won the Hugo Award, but it failed because I couldn’t find two of the older books that were out of print. I finally got my hands on this novel by James Blish, which turned out to be a bit disappointing. I never really understood the case of conscience that gives the book its title, or I did understand it but simply didn’t find it interesting enough. Still well-written and interesting for other reasons, but perhaps a deeper knowledge of theology is a prerequisite to really like the book. Apparently, it was first published as a novella and later extended to a novel, perhaps it ought to have stayed in its shorter form.

William Gibson – Virtual Light
William Gibson – Idoru
William Gibson – All Tomorrow’s Parties

Having finished Zero History, I didn’t feel that I had read enough of William Gibson just yet. His style is refreshing, the characters interesting, the setting fascinating and… well, I could go on, but let’s just say I wanted more of Gibson. The setting of this trilogy is the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge after a devastating earthquake. The bridge has been abandoned by the authorities and replaced by a anarchic society of ordinary people, criminals and outcasts.

Chevette Washington, a bicycle messenger living on the Bridge, who gets into a lot of trouble for stealing a strange pair of high-tech googles (the young messenger girl feels very similar to Y.T. in Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, which was published two years before Virtual Light). Rent-a-cop Berry Rydell is at the same time hired to retrieve the very same glasses, but of course it turns out that much more powerful elements are involved.

In Idoru, the story moves on to the virtual (digital) Japanese superstar Rei Toei, who has recently made the headlines because rock star Rez wants to marry her. This doesn’t go down too well with the Rez fan club and Chia is sent to Japan to find out the truth about her idol.

The bigger plot is then wrapped up in All Tomorrow’s Parties as the story returns to the Bridge and Chevette and Rydell. Most of the loose threads are tied together, including the idoru (Rei Toei) and a Taoist philosopher-assassin.

Throughout the trilogy, Gibson shows that he was a competent writer two decades ago as well, even though I must say I think that he has developed a lot as an author and his later novels are better. This trilogy is still a great read, though. Gibson is really, really good at creating great settings and populate them with interesting characters. He’s also witty and a joy to read in general.

The only novels left now are The Difference Engine (1990) and The Peripheral (2014).

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William Gibson – Pattern Recognition

This is the first book I read by William Gibson since reading Neuromancer and its two sequels more than ten years ago. Pattern Recognition is the first book in a trilogy which isn’t really science fiction, but more like a tech-oriented modern thriller. In any case, Gibson is a great author who possesses the rare combination of interesting ideas and the ability to write. While it seems he’s best known for his futuristic ideas, at least in earlier novels, I’m more impressed by his way of writing. Continued below.

William Gibson – Spook Country

This is the sequel to Pattern Recognition and is similar in many ways. That means that I also liked it a lot. The story is perhaps slightly more interesting, but the main benefit of reading this book is still Gibson’s way of writing. He’s really good at capturing both characters and scenes in just a few words, vividly and often in an obliquely humorous way. I have read few authors in recent years where I envy the author’s ability to write more than I do when reading Gibson.

Michael E. Gerber – The E-myth Revisited

I picked this book up mostly by whim, but felt that reading something business related would be interesting. The main lesson I learnt from this book is about the triple roles anyone who runs his own business plays (creation, marketing and business). This has actually helped me rethink my current situation (I run a small business), but I didn’t like the book in general. It feels way too American and has a number of ideas that are taken for granted that I don’t really agree with.

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Neal Stephenson – Quicksilver

The first book I read by Neal Stephenson was Snow Crash and I have since re-read it once in English and once in Chinese. His other books have been good, but far from awesome, so I was a bit sceptical when I started reading Quicksilver. It’s a real brick of a book, almost a thousand pages, mostly set in 17th century Europe and focusing on different themes such as natural philosophy and politics. The novel is, as far as I can tell, well researched and feels genuine. It’s written in a myriad of different styles and highly digressive, reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon, but slightly more readable (although not necessarily better). The book is divided into three sections and if all were as good as the second part, this would be a really good read, but now it just feels too long. I might consider reading the two other novels in this series later.

陈忠实 – 白鹿原

This 1993 novel is very popular and I decided to listen to it, without having read it before and without any support. The story is about two clans on the “white dear plain”, their rivalry and internal conflicts. It spans several decades, witnessing the fall of the Qing dynasty, the civil war and the rise of modern China. To be honest, listening to literary Chinese read with fervour requires full concentration from me and I still missed quite a lot. I can’t really comment in detail what I thought about the book, but it did made me realise that listening to novels in Chinese is very hard. When reading, it’s relatively easy to guess

Göran Hägg – Nya författarskolan

An interesting and well-written book about writing novels. The book mostly consists of loosely strung together articles, often just a few pages long, about a wide range of topics related to writing novels and being an author by profession. I don’t think I learnt much about writing novels from this book, but it did spark my interest to actually finish some of the projects I’ve been working on. I recommend this book to anyone who is thinking about writing fiction.

Gellert Tamas – Lasermannen: En berättelse om Sverige

I picked up this book mostly because it was mentioned in Göra Hägg’s book reviewed above as a good example of how different perspectives and time frames can be used to tell an interesting story. I wasn’t disappointed. The book is about one of Sweden’s most infamous serial killers, and even though it takes the shape of a novel, the book is actually an historical account based on a large number of interviews and other documents. This way of presenting the data is very effective and as interesting to read as any thriller.

Olle Engstrand -Hur låter svenskan, ejengklien?

I have all my phonetics training in Chinese (and some in English) so reading about Swedish pronunciation is very interesting. As the title implies, the focus of the book, at least the earlier chapters, is how Swedish is actually pronounced (as compared to orthography, how the sounds are spelt). This differs a lot from what most people think (including myself, sometimes). Still, the book then spends a lot of time talking about subjects I’m less interested in, such as various dialects and historical development. Still a good read on the whole.

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Connie Willis – Blackout

I have read several of Willis’ novels before, some of them set in a historical setting but from a modern angle (the main characters are time-travelling historians). This time, the historians get stuck in London during the Blitz, a very bad time to be stuck in indeed. As an historical novel, Blackout is great. It made the Blitz feel real and was genuinely interesting. However, the book is only the first of two, so let me finish my little review below.

Connie Willis – All Clear

Blackout ends in the middle of the story and All Clear is the sequel. Actually, it’s the story I like the least in this double-decker. The main characters are separated at the outset and way too much time is spent on people running back and forth trying to find each other. The overall plot is okay, but it takes too many pages to tell. In the end, though, I found both books enjoyable. Willis is a competent writer and manages to make the setting come alive. Four snails.

Charles Dickens – Oliver Twist

I have read a few books by Charles Dickens before, the most recent one being Hard Work, which I read as part of my studies in English literature at university. Dickens is an author I almost expect to be boring because of his fame and status, but really like when I get down to actually reading him (I remember feeling the same way when reading Hard Work). I love the narrator’s irony and the way the story is told. Dickens is also very, very good at describing villains, and although the overall story feels a bit contrived, the positive still easily outweighs the negative.

Rod Ellis – Second Language Acquisition

This is a basic introduction to second language acquisition that I picked up somewhere and felt like reading. It doesn’t contain much I haven’t already studied, but it doesn’t hurt to reread stuff like this. Rod Ellis is one of the major figures in the second language acquisition field, and this book, which is in the Oxford Introduction to Language Study series, works well as an introduction. The only drawback is that it was published in 1997, but most of the content is so basic that this hardly matters.

J. D. Salinger – The Cather in the Rye

This book has been on my ought-to-read list for a long time and now I finally got around to reading it. I must admit I don’t understand its greatness. It could be because I never felt alienated as a teenager and the setting feels distant (mid-century New York). It could also be because I seldom appreciate vernacular language in books (several “I really did” or similar per page or “that killed me” once per paragraph). As a window into teen alienation, I can see the value of reading this book, but I didn’t enjoy reading it much. I really didn’t.

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blackhedge-cropThe 31st year of my life was an eventful one, even though it certainly doesn’t seem like that if you just look at the paltry output on this website; I only published five articles since my last yearly summary. Among other things, I have left Taiwan and returned to Sweden, which includes finding a new home and settling in. I have also finished all the courses of my master’s degree program and now “only” have my thesis left. I’m also trying to convert Chinese from a very time-consuming hobby into something I can live off.

Apart from this, there have also been other changes in my life, big and small, and in this post I’m going to discuss them briefly, as well as the general state of things. To make it more accessible, I have divided the content into several parts. If you want to see what I wrote last year, you can find that year’s birthday report here.

Social life

The most significant change was my moving back to Sweden from Taiwan. Zoe and I have bought an apartment in Stockholm, and we both like it and the surroundings quite a lot. It also feels great to have put the long-distance part of our relationship behind us and to be able to look forward. Returning to Sweden wasn’t easy since we were only renting a small room for the first couple of months and, added to that, ran into some other problems, but since we moved into our new apartment, things have gone swimmingly.

I will miss my friends in Taiwan, I enjoyed all aspects of my life there immensely, but this is still where I belong. I haven’t fully grown used to living in Stockholm, bu in general, all is well on the social front.

Education

My final semester in Taiwan was as interesting as the ones that came before it (I have already written about this elsewhere), but during this time, I also started doing my own research. Or, to be more accurate, I started trying to figure out what I wanted to research, and once I had decided, to read up on the relevant books and articles. My area of research is tone perception and how it can be trained in adult learners of Mandarin Chinese. After returning to Sweden, things have been going slowly, but at least they haven’t been standing still. I should be able to do start doing actual research fairly soon!

Apart from this, I don’t study much. I use Chinese on a daily basis, write about it and most other things I do are related to Chinese in some way, so I still learn, but without focused studying. Since I launched Hacking Chinese Challenges, however, I have been able to spend more time on my own studying and that feels great. I hope I will be able to keep enjoying Chinese even if I work with the language full time.

Work

Even though I haven’t finished my degree yet, I still focus much more on work than studying at the moment. All work I’m doing is related to Chinese in some way or another. Apart from Hacking Chinese, where I spend most my time, I also do some private tutoring, translation work and freelance writing for About.com and Skritter. For Skritter, I also do Chinese language support and some other things.

On the whole, the mix is quite good, but I wish I could spend more time on my own projects. The reason I don’t is not for a lack of ability or opportunity, I’m simply too slow and avoid taking risks, preferring to stick to what I’m doing and know works already. This is something I will have to work on if I want to focus more on what I really like doing!

Creative input/output

Both creative input and output have been dismal most of the year, with a few brighter periods when I read and listened to a lot of books (I finished six in January and almost as many in February) and where I worked a little bit on my novel. Still, I haven’t produced much and I still don’t have a draft of the novel ready. Creativity is something that has been put on the back burner for too long. My recent frenzy of book reading is one sign of this, but I hope to be able to find the time and energy to actually create things, too.

Physical activity/status

While living in Taiwan, I was able to practise as much gymnastics as I wanted, which was a lot. Apart from studying, I had few other obligations and enjoyed this immensely. I competed in gymnastics for the second time in May and it went slightly better than last time. It’s still on an amateur level, of course, I started just a few years ago, but it’s still fun. If someone asks if I’m an old gymnast, I usually reply that I’m old and a gymnast, which is quite different. Since returning to Sweden, I have mostly gone to the gym, along with some jogging. Not much, in other words. Until recently, that is.

Since the beginning of February, I have been able to practise gymnastics again, which is great fun. I had almost forgotten how much I enjoy it. It’s only two days a week, about two hours each time, but the facility is excellent and so are the instructors. I have also started helping out with classes for some of the youngest gymnasts. All this, combined with some strength training at home, adds up to a decent routine. I need to do this for a few more weeks to really settle in, but I’m optimistic.

Towards a brighter future

Things are going well and I’m happy with my life. I need to make sure to not let my education slip (make too slow progress on my thesis and fail to study Chinese for my own sake) and see if I can’t allocate some time to creative output. Writing this post made these two things very clear, so now it’s just a matter of doing it. Let’s see what i have to say a year from now!

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China Miéville – The Scar

Overall well written, although less interesting conceptually than the other books I’ve read by the author before (The City and the City comes to mind). Neat story, interesting plot, okay characters. The only complaint is that the main characters felt a bit passive in the story and experienced it more than taking active part in it. Still very good. He’s good at making the very bizarre feel quite natural. Four snails.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb – The Black Swan

This is the follow-up to Fooled by Randomness, a book I enjoyed immensely. This one was interesting too, but much less so that the first book. The author presents interesting ideas in an entertaining way, but I’m not really a big fan of his style and he comes across as somewhat opinionated at times. I also feel that this book could have been shorter. Three snails.

China Miéville – Perdido Street Station

This book actually takes place before The Scar, but they aren’t dependent on each other at all, and I found no problems reading them in this order. This book has better characters, a more interesting setting and better language than The Scar, but the plot feels weaker. Perhaps the book is also a little bit too long, but I would say it’s still better than The Scar, but not enough to earn five snails. Thus, four snails.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Antifragile

This book could have been about half as long without losing much. Again, the author has some interesting ideas, but in this book, he becomes less and less convincing and starts ranting more and more. I found parts of this book brilliant, but others were either boring or simply not convincing enough. Read Fooled by Randomness instead. Two snails.

China Miéville – Iron Council

Sadly, this novel combines the bad aspects of the two previous novels (see above). Despite its length, I never got to know the main characters and didn’t really care about them at all at any point throughout the story. The sub-plots feel detached from the main plot, and while the author managed to tie together disparate threads in the two earlier novels, he fails to do so here. I hoped for something on par with either of the two previous novels, but Iron Council falls short. Two snails.

Richard Dawkins – The Greatest Show on Earth

It feels strange to me that books defending evolution and science in general should be needed, and I’m always baffled by polls showing how many people believe the world was created 4000 years ago (or whatever). I live an insulated life. I don’t think the people who should read this book will read it, though. I found the book moderately interesting with some interesting concepts and theories I weren’t previously aware of, all presented in a logical and consistent way. My grade here doesn’t mean the book isn’t good, it just means I feel I don’t really belong to the target audience. Three snails.

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I have played around with Praat a bit this semester and I have previously published two articles about my adventures in the land of phonetics, one about basic vowel space and one about monophthongs in different languages. I originally intended to write several articles, gradually building up to a guide for how to identify Mandarin syllables in Praat, but since I ran out of time, I’m jumping ahead in the series and publishing this article now. If you wan to try any of this yourself, you can download Praat here.

Identifying Mandarin syllables in Praat

To learn more about Chinese phonetics, I have been playing a little game with my self. I have a large number (1000+) syllables in Chinese recorded by a female speaker. I load one of the syllables into Praat randomly without looking. The goal is to figure out which syllable it is only by looking at it.

This is quite possible, although 100% accuracy is probably not achievable because some sounds are too hard to tell apart. I haven’t kept a detailed record of my score, but I think I get it completely right slightly more than 50% of the time and when I’m wrong, it’s usually just a little bit, such as mistaking “tán” for “pán” or similar.

The goal with writing this guide is primarily to help myself understand what I’m doing. It’ of course possible that someone else finds it useful, but probably not very many. This guide is basically a long discussion of what I do when I (rather successfully) identifies Mandarin syllables just by looking at the spectrogram and waveform.

If you have suggestion for how to improve the guide or references that can help me improve accuracy, let me know! Also note that I’m no expert, so please report any errors you find. I have taken a few courses in Chinese phonetics, but that’s about it, the rest I’ve learnt on my own, mostly in Chinese, so sometimes I might use inaccurate vocabulary in English, but it should be okay. Let’s get started!

Table of contents

  1. Step 1 – Tone
  2. Step 2 – Syllable structure
  3. Step 3 – Identify sounds
  4. Spectrogram challenge
  5. Conclusion
  6. References and further reading

Step 1 – Tone

I usually start with the tone because it’s the easiest part. Basic knowledge of the contours of Chinese tones should be enough for almost all cases. Exact F0 values (pitch) seldom need to be considered because the contour is always enough. The only potential trap for beginners is to fail to recognise that both T2 and T3 fall before they rise. The main difference is that the turning point comes later and is lower for T3. Compare:

tones23

Turning point of T2 and T3, both in ”ma”.

For the sake of completeness, here are typical cases of T1 and T4 as well:

tones14

T1 and T4, both in “ma”.

Step 2 – Syllable structure

When trying to determine which syllable we’re dealing with, it’s useful to try to get a general understanding of roughly what kind of syllable stricture we’re talking about first. The following section isn’t meant to determine exactly what these parts are, but rather to pinpoint the number of sounds and general syllable structure. Since Mandarin only has slightly more than 400 syllables (since we have already dealt with tone in step one) and the structure is very rigid (a full syllable is CGVN, Consonant Glide Vowel Nasal, where all parts are optional except the main vowel). It should of course be noted that most of the possible combinations don’t exist or don’t exist for certain tones.

Initial consonant: If voiced, e.g. [m n l], it looks like a vowel, but is generally weaker. Stops are usually visible through their releases and fricatives are easy to spot because of the noise-like turbulence. Affricates are combinations of stops and fricatives.

Glides and vowels: There is some controversy in phonology if G belongs with the preceeding consonant, the following vowel or if it fills a slot on its own, but for our purposes, it’s probably best consider it a vowel in addition to the main vowel.

Final consonants: Final consonants in Mandarin can only be [n ŋ ɻ]. If there seems to be something significant going on after the vowel has ended, it’s one of these finals. None of the syllables I’ve been playing with contains any [ɻ] finals (known as Er hua), so this won’t be part of this guide.

syllable

[an]: Note the rise in both F2 and F3 towards the end and the cancellation of F2 as the final begins (anti-resonance, see Identifying nasal consonants).

Step 3 – Identify sounds

Use this flow chart to figure out what to do next. Coloured steps in the flowchart have detailed discussions below. If you have problems with other steps, you probably need to read basic definitions of the relevant speech sounds, please refer to the relevant entries on Wikipedia.

chartIdentifying vowels

Identifying vowels can be tricky by simply looking at one single sample, but it’s still pretty easy to get the right idea by comparing F1 and F2 values. It also helps a lot being familiar with the syllable structure in Mandarin, because some monophtongs or diphthongs simply don’t occur in certain environments and can there fore be excluded.

For instance, if you think the syllable ends with a nasal, you don’t need to worry about the subtle differences between [i] and [y] because if there’s only one vowel sound, it has to be [i] because [y] can’t be followed directly by [n] or [ŋ]. Similarly, if you can identify one of the sibilants [ɕ ʂ s] accurately, you don’t need to differentiate the allophones of /ɨ/ because these are in complementary distribution.

So if you can’t identify the vowels exactly, narrow it down to a range of possible answers based on the general syllable structure. You will probably be able to guess which vowel it is later once you know more about the preceding and following sounds. However, it should be mentioned that vowels are usually the easiest to guess, so you probably want to gain as much information as possible in this step so you have fewer possibilities later.

Identifying finals

There are three finals: [n ŋ ɻ]. All of these influence the preceeding vowel to different extents (a lot in the case of [ɻ]) so identifying the final involves looking at the preceeding vowel as well, not just the final itself. In the case of [ɻ], there are some general signs (such as a drop in F3 which will approach F2), but more detailed knowledge of how Erhua influence the preceeding vowel(s) is probably necessar (see 朱川, 2013, or the article about Erhua on Wikipedia). In general, the spectrum should start approaching that of [ɻ] during the pronunciation of the vowel.

For [n ŋ] the situation is similar in that there are two things happening. First, they influence the quality of the preceeding vowel, and, second, the final itself is different. The easiest part to spot is that F2 and F3 are higher for [n] compared with [ŋ]. Let’s look at the spectrograms for [an] and [ɑŋ]:

an

[an]: Note the rise in both F2 and F3 towards the end and the cancellation of F2 as the final begins (anti-resonance, see Identifying nasal consonants).

ang

[ɑŋ]: Both F2 and F3 are dropping rather than rising.

Identifying these finals only by looking at the finals themselves is hard, but as noted, [n] is more likely to have F2 cancelled out. This is far from completely reliable, though, but it is a clue.

Identifying fricatives

Fricatives all have noise-like turbulence and can be told apart by looking at the energy of the turbulence at different frequency ranges. In Mandarin, there are six fricatives [f ɕ ʂ s x ʐ]. Let’s first deal with some of the easier ones.

  • [ʐ] can be esaily identified because it’s voiced (see Identifying voiced consonants below). Remember to combine the information about the fricative with the following vowel since many of the fricatives are in complementary distribution.
  • [f] is a non-sibiliant and generally a lot weaker than the other fricatives (including [x] and shouldn’t be too hard to identify. The energy is also quite uniformly increasing with frequency (see picture below).
  • [x] has a less evenly distributed energy (several discrenible contentrations at different frequency levels. Compare the below pictures of ”heng” and ”feng”:

fheng

Now let’s have a look at the three remaining fricatives [ɕ ʂ s]. The first thing you need to do when identifying fricatives is to make sure you’re displaying the whole spectrogram (Praat is by default set to show 0-5000, which is not enough; set the upper limit to at least 10000, possibly even 15000).

If you don’t know anything about the speaker, it will be difficult, because all of these things are individual, but if you see a few sample, you can still calibrate your guesses. The easies way to deal with [ɕ] is to look at the following vowel (which is usually relatively easy to identify). Since [ɕ] is in complementary distirbution with [ʂ s], we will only look at how to tell the latter two a part here.

In general, the main difference between the retroflex affricate [ʂ] and its non-retroflex friend [s] is that the intensity of [ʂ] starts much, much lower, see the spectrograms of ”sa” and ”sha” below. The exact freqncy ranges might be different depending on the environment, so [ʂa] might not be identical to [tʂa], but the general trend is still there (and the difference is usually very large).

retro

Non-retroflex (sa) vs. retroflex (sha).

Identifying plosives

This is by far the hardest part and I don’t think it’s theoretically possible to reach a very high accuracy. The reason is that the stops are too brief to identify properly and aren’t in complementary distribution, so looking at the following vowel seldom help. The only clue is often formant transitions.

According to locus theory, all consonants have a target frequency for each formant, even though this might be influenced by adjacent sounds. This means that the transition of the formants (F2 and F3) can help us identify the plosives themselves. This picture is taken from Kevin Russel’s phonetics site (Univeristy of Manitoba).

transition

In general, we can see a pattern that looks as follows:

  • Bilabial locus frequency: Low F2, low F3
  • Alveolar locus frequency: Mid F2, high F3
  • Velar locus frequency: High F2, mid F3

Read more here, here and here. This is all very good in theory, but I find it very hard to actually use this to determine the plosive in question. Sometimes the transitions are hard to see or they simply don’t fit the patterns described above.

Identifying aspiration

Identifying aspiration is usually not very difficult, but can be somewhat complicated by affricates (which look al ittle bit like aspirated stops) and aspirated affricates such as [t͡ɕʰ t͡sʰ ʈ͡ʂʰ]. Let’s start with the main difference between the non-aspirated stops [p t k] and their aspirated counterparts.

The main difference is in the interval between the stop release and the voice onset (VoT). Non-aspirated stops have very short VoT, usually 10-35 ms, whereas aspirated stops have a much longer VoT, usually 70-100 ms (Chao & Chen, 2008). Let’s look at the [t tʰ] pair as an example:

vot

VoT of aspirated and non-aspirated [t] in “da” and “ta” respectively.

The next problem is to separate affricates from aspirated stops. This is relatively easy if we know what fricatives look like (and we do, see Identifying fricatives above). The aspirated part looks very much like breathing out sharply [h], which is the frictionless version of Pinyin ”h”. The following spectrogram is such a (relatively) frictionless [h] in ”ha”:

ha

“ha”

As we know from our comparisons of fricatives, they don’t have such a uniform frequency distributions, so if we compare the pair [tʰ t͡sʰ], it should be relatively easy to see both the friction and the aspiration, although the two certainly overlaps to a certain extent:

tsha

The aspirated affricate [t͡sʰ]. Note the similarity to [s] and [h].

Finally, we need to look at aspirated versus non-aspirated affricates, e.g. Pinyin ”z” [t͡s] and ”c” [t͡sʰ]. As expected, we see that the fricative part similar to [s] is there for both affricates, but that the aspirated [h] part is missing for [t͡s] and it therefore has a substantially shorter VoT:

ca

Both fricative [s] and apsiration [h] clearly visible in [t͡sʰ], “ca”.

za

Only fricative [s] visible, only minor gap before start of vowel.

If you can’t see the fricative, you probably need to adjust the spectrogram settings. The above diagram stops at 6000 Hz, which isn’t really enough to analyse fricatives, see Identifying fricatives above.

Identifying voiced consonants

This is one of the trickier parts. There are four voiced (initial) consonants [m n l ʐ]. First, [ʐ] is a fricative and should be quite easy to identify. If you look at the picture below, you can clearly see the fricative turbulence and the voicing:

r

[ʐ] is easy to identify because it’s the only voiced fricative, ”ran”.

The remaining three are much, much harder and are often indistinguishable just by looking at the spectrogram because they have similar F1 and F2. I have found no way of reliably telling them apart this way, but there are clues in the waveform.

Let’s start with [l], which has a glottal perturbation (creak) in each cycle, which is fairly easy to spot (the ”craggy” looking bits, compare this with the waveforms of [m n] below):

lmn

Five cycles of [l m n]

I have found no reliable way of separating [m n], but F2 seems more likely to be cancelled out by anti-resonance in [n] compared to [m].

Formant transitions for [m] are similar to those for [b p], while those for [n] are similar to [d t s z], but this can be very hard to see. Read more baout this here.

Spectrogram challenge

I’d be really surprised if anyone actually reads this far, but if you do and think this is interesting and/or fun, feel free to have a go at the following spectrograms. Which Mandarin syllables do they represent? Post a comment with your answers!

Spectrogram #1

1

Spectrogram #2

2

Spectrogram #3

3

Spectrogram #4

4

Spectrogram #5

5

Conclusion

It’s been both entertaining and educating to write this guide. There’s obviously more to spectrogram analysis that I have written here. My goal was simply to use what i have learnt in the past year or so to see what I could do with Mandarin syllables (which are a lot easier to analyse than, say, English or Swedish). This article probably contains some errors, so if you find anything that looks weird let me know! If you want more challenges, you can head over to Robert Hagiwara’s Monthly Mystery Spectrogram page. It hasn’t been updated for a long time, but it still contains a lot of useful information!

References and further reading

phonetics600

Here is a list of books, articles and websites that I’ve found useful. I also want to thank professors 朱川 and 曾金金 whose courses in phonetics I have attended. It’s so much easier to learn these things in collaborative discussions in class compared with on one’s own!

鄭靜宜. (2011). 語音聲學:說話聲音的科學. 心理出版社.

王理嘉、林燾. (2013). 語音學教程. 五南出版社.

曾金金. (2008). 華語語音資料庫及數位學習應用. 新學出版社林.

朱川. (2013). 外國學生漢語語音學習對策(增訂本). 新學林出版社.

Boersma, P., & Weenink, D. (2005). Praat: doing phonetics by computer (Version 4.3.01).

Chao, K. Y., & Chen, L. M. (2008). A cross-linguistic study of voice onset time in stop consonant productions. Computational Linguistics and Chinese Language Processing, 13(2), 215-232.

Duanmu, San. (2007). The phonology of standard Chinese. Oxford University Press.

McQuarie University. (2008). Speech Acoustics Topics.

Wikipedia. Mandarin Phonology.

Wikipedia. Acoustic phonetics (and related topics).

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I came to an interesting realisation yesterday: I have probably spoken considerably more Chinese than English in my life so far. Exactly how much is impossible to know, but I did some rough calculations that suggest that I have spoken Chinese for almost twice as many hours as English. Note that I only estimated how much time I spent actively using the language in conversations, not how much I listened, read, wrote or otherwise studied the language.

This might be surprising to some (including myself, actually), but it’s not that strange after all. Compare these two scenarios and we shall see that there are some major differences:

English

  • Slow start in a foreign language environment (from age: 10)
  • Bilingual high school education (a lot of hours here)
  • Three semester of English at university
  • BUT: I have never lived in an English-speaking country
  • BUT: I had no native English-speaking close friends before 2009

Chinese

  • Slow start in a foreign language environment (from age: 23)
  • Arduous studying and semi-immersion in Taiwan (one year)
  • Real immersion and language studies (one year)
  • Semi-intense Chinese usage while in Sweden (two years)
  • Complete immersion in a master’s degree program (two years)

I have learnt English as a foreign language (meaning that I didn’t live in a country where the language is spoken), but I have learnt Chinese mainly as a second language (meaning the opposite, that I have lived in a country where the language is spoken).

Comparing language levels

I think my English is roughly at the level of an educated native speaker (C2), but it’s not surprising that my colloquial English isn’t excellent (note that I say ”colloquial”, I don’t mean to say that my speaking ability is bad, but I’m actually much better at talking about politics, philosophy or phonology in English than everyday topics). My Chinese, however, is not really comparable to the level of my native classmates and I would put myself at roughly at C1. So if I’ve spent so much time speaking Chinese, why is my English far superior to my Chinese?

The role of exposure and language distance

The most obvious difference is exposure. I only included speaking the language in my calculations, not how much I listened, read and wrote. I have read more than 500 novels in English and listened to more than ten thousand hours of audio (I’m not exaggerating here, we’re talking about ten years of audio book addiction). In comparison, I’ve just read about 50 books in Chinese and even though I’ve listened to a fair amount of Chinese, I’m nowhere near ten thousand hours of pure listening (yet).

Another important factor is language distance. Anyone who says that all language are equally easy (or hard) to learn is just plain wrong. Learning a language that is very distant from your native language to an advanced level takes several times longer than achieving the same for a closely related language. I’m convinced that I could reach my current level of Chinese within just a year or two if I went all-in full kamikaze on learning German.

There are of course other factors, such as age of onset and social factors being very different, but I think the main difference is still the amount of exposure combined with the language distance between the languages involved.

Some final thoughts

I still find the idea that I have spoken more Chinese than English a bit surprising. It doesn’t feel like that. However, it does explain some things. I actually feel more comfortable idly chatting with people in Chinese than I do in English (although that’s about the only situation where I feel like that). I’m pretty sure my Chinese will never become as good as my English is now, but who knows, give me ten thousand hours of exposure and ten years to read more books and we’ll see!

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Vi (Olle och Zoe) letar efter en lägenhet i Stockholm till hösten. Vi vill hyra en tvåa eller liten trea inte alltför långt från Skanstull (rimligt pendlingsavstånd) för omkring 8000 kronor i månaden. Exakt inflyttningsdatum är flexibelt, allt från augusti och framåt fungerar för oss. Om du vet något som kan passa oss eller känner någon som kanske vet, hör gärna av dig till olle@linge.se eller dela det här inlägget! Vi är tacksamma för all hjälp!

Vilka är vi?

Olle Linge läser just nu en master i att undervisa kinesiska som andraspråk. Han har också en lärarexamen i engelska och kinesiska från Linköpings universitet och driver också ett företag inriktat mot språk och översättning, samt är engagerad i flera utbildningsprojekt online.

Xiaolu Du (Zoe) är sedan 2013 anställd som lärare i kinesiska på ISSR (International School of the Stockholm Region) i Skanstull. Hon har också en lärarexamen och har läst en master i pedagogik vid Linköpings universitet.

1526398_733302706693505_1174627382_nVi är båda lugna och sympatiska personer, röker inte och har inga husdjur; hör av dig om du vill veta mer. Lättaste sättet att göra det är att skicka e-post till: olle@linge.se eller genom att svara på det här inlägget!

Tack för hjälpen,

Olle och Zoe

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