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.


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.


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 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!


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:


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

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


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.


[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]: 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).


[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”:


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).


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).


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 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”:



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:


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:


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


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:


[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):


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


Spectrogram #2


Spectrogram #3


Spectrogram #4


Spectrogram #5



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


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:


  • 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


  • 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 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: eller genom att svara på det här inlägget!

Tack för hjälpen,

Olle och Zoe


In the previous article, I discussed vowel space and cardinal vowels, trying to establish a foundation to use to discuss more practical details of actual languages, such as pronunciation of vowels. In this article, I will use the data from the previous article to compare vowels in Chinese and Swedish. I originally meant to include English, but I skipped that for reasons that will become apparent below.

The main focus is of course Chinese. Vowels are known to be fairly easy to get roughly right (communication), but very hard to get native-like (accent). This is most likely because they exist in a space rather than on a spectrum (actually, a volume might be a better representation if we include lip-rounding). It’s simply very hard to create an abstract representation of a sound in another language when there are already partly overlapping phonemic categories from your native language (most research suggests that language interfere with each other in all kinds of ways, thus making it impossible to become like a monolingual native speaker).

So, my main question today is to see whether or not my pronunciation of Chinese vowels closely resemble my pronunciation of Swedish and whether or not they resemble some kind of model in Chinese. Intuitively, I would say that they don’t resemble Swedish much and that they are roughly correct. Still, at the time of writing this little prelude, I don’t really know, so let’s check it out!

My vowel space

Except for the below graph, I won’t repeat what I wrote in the previous article. This is what my attempt at producing the eight cardinal vowels looked like:

cardinal vowel chart olleAlthough not perfect, this roughly represents the range of sounds I can comfortably produce. Of course, I could possibly refine the blue line a bit by trying to produce vowels between e.g. [a] and [ɑ], but this would probably not change the overall picture by much. Still, as we shall see, some of my Swedish vowels go quite far beyond the confines of the blue line.

Chinese monophthongs

The most common way of counting Chinese monophthongs gives us ten different vowels. There are actually more allophones, but I have to draw the limit somewhere, so I’ll stick with the textbook examples. Keeping the blue line from the cardinal vowel chart above, I have plotted F1 and F2 of my monophthongs in Chinese. These were produced in real CV syllables when available (otherwise just V or VC).

chinese monophthongsTo make comparisons easier, let’s include the F1 and F2 values as well:

Vowel F1/F2
[i] 264/2135
[y] 260/2064
[ɛ] 438/1901
[a] 635/1100
[ǝ] 486/1316
[ɤ] 483/1064
[o] 496 718
[u] 430/683
[͡ɯ] 317/1420
[͡ɨ] 374/1625

Before we start comparing this with other languages, it makes sense to know roughly if these values are in the ballpark to start with. The following diagram is scanned from 朱川’s 2013 book 外國學生漢語語音學習對策, but is originally from 吳宗濟’s 漢語普通話單音節語圖冊 (1986). Based on the frequencies, I would guess this includes both male and female speakers, but I don’t know exactly how these values where elicited. If you happen to know of a better source, please let me know!

vowel distributionNot all sounds in this diagram are present in my sample and not all sounds present in my sample are in this diagram, but the general picture looks quite promising. All my vowels seems more closed that the samples here, but I think that’s either due to the way I normally speak (in any language) or because of the shape of my oral cavity. I have tried to produce [a] with a higher F1 than 700, but I simply can’t do it. The below graphs compare my vowels (left) to those from 吳宗濟 (right).

shape comparison

I note the following:

  1. My [y] is roughly as closed as my [i], but it’s meant to be slightly open (I have seen this in numerous references, not just the above graph. This difference ought to be very slight and perhaps not even noticeable.
  2. My null final [͡ɯ] might be a bit too closed. Perhaps this is a result of trying to pronounce this sound as clearly as possible. In any case, I’m pretty sure this isn’t a big problem, the difference is pretty small. Also, these vowels are apical and therefore might behave differently than normal vowels.
  3. My [u] is pretty open compared to the model. This should actually be immediately obvious when you look at my monophthongs, the [u] is very far from the top-right corner. Still, I think my pronunciation of the cardinal [u] is very exaggerated and quite far from the correct sound in Mandarin. I’m not sure if my [u] is too open or not.

I will add these observations to a list that I will later check with native speakers to see if the difference is significant or not. Still, the most striking observation is that apart from the mentioned oddities above, the shapes are very similar indeed. Now, let’s see how this compares to my Swedish vowels.

A cross-linguistic comparison

The main question I want to answer is if rely on my native Swedish vowels when pronouncing Chinese. I don’t think this is the case, but let’s find out! If you don’t know anything about Swedish vowels, I suggest you check out this article on Wikipedia. In short, it’s a lot more complicated than Chinese. Mastering the Swedish vowel system must be a nightmare for native speakers of Chinese! To do this, I simply recorded the same words used in the Wikipedia article. The syllabic environment isn’t identical, but anything I write here contain similar levels of error anyway, so it’ll have to do. Here’s the formant data for my Swedish vowels:

Vowel F1/F2
[iː] 250/2189
[ɪ] 287/2321
[eː] 251/2480
[e] 449/1977
[ɛː] 798/1774
[ɛ] 521/2084
[ɑː] 590/982
[a] 733/1194
[oː] 490/1038
[ɔ] 532/667
[uː] 495/727
[ʊ] 273/657
[ʉː] 275/1727
[ɵ] 385/1178
[yː] 273/2051
[ʏ] 317/1913
[øː] 387/1747
[œ] 441/1561

I plotted all that into the same graph, but I can’t be bothered to label them all. The most interesting finding is that it seems my vowel space drawn earlier is much too narrow. I have quite a few vowels outside what I thought were my extremes!

swedish chinese vowelsHowever, when I started comparing Chinese with Swedish, I soon realised that this approach is deeply flawed, and doesn’t work very well for the long vowels. I didn’t realise this before, but the long vowels in Swedish undergo quite a lot of change. For instance, this is a spectrogram of when I say the word “hel” (“whole” in Swedish (the light red area is the vowel):

helI have no training in Swedish phonetics and I don’t know how to measure this. The first part is quite similar to [i] and the vowel then gradually shifts to [e]. The results will obviously be very different depending on which part of the vowel I choose to measure.

There are other oddities as well. How come that [ɛː] is considerably more open than my [a] produced earlier, but still roughly in the middle in terms of front-back? There are obviously too many things going on here to make further analysis worthwhile. I think most of this comes from different modes of pronunciation or different linguistic contexts.


Even though this didn’t really turn out as expected, I still learnt a few things about my own voice. First, it seems like I’m definitely capable of producing sounds that are considerably more open than what I produced for the cardinal vowels. Perhaps I should use these sounds as a reference point and try to redraw the vowel space from the previous article?

Second, my Chinese vowels look pretty good when compared with the expected values. I noted three differences that ought to be investigated further: 1) my [i] and [y] differ only in lip rounding in Mandarin (almost exactly the same tongue position), this isn’t the case for the model I used; 2) my [ɯ] is too closed, it should be at roughly the same height as [ɨ], although I don’t think this is an issue, 3) my [u] is very open compared with both the model and my Swedish pronunciation, which is very interesting and should be checked, although I’m pretty sure my [u] in Chinese is pretty good.

Third, the method I’m using here isn’t very good. There are several reasons for this, but the most obvious one is that the phonetic environment differs quite a lot between the recordings. In Chinese, I read mostly open syllables (CV), whereas all the Swedish examples on Wikipedia are closed syllables (CVC). The initial consonants are also different, as is vowel length. I simply don’t know enough about Swedish phonetics or acoustic phonetics in general to be able to say how much an impact this has, but my guess is that it’s pretty large.

Thus, I will abandon my attempts at comparing between different languages for now and just stick with Chinese. In my next article, I will look at diphthongs and triphthongs (or glides followed by diphthongs if you prefer). Stay tuned!

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Phonetics is great fun. In this article series, I will share some self-experimentation in Chinese phonetics that I simply think are too nerdy to share on Hacking Chinese (perhaps I will find some way of publishing something about this there later, but this is the unedited director’s cut). This is the first of several articles where I discuss Chinese phonetics and some related experiments I’ve done with my own pronunciation. Before we get to the actual Chinese, we need some basic knowledge of phonetics, so I will talk mostly about vowels in general first and will start talking about Chinese vowels next time.

About this article

A word of warning, don’t expect this to be helpful or useful, but expect it to be interesting. I do think that a deep understanding of phonetics can really help learning to pronounce a foreign language, but it’s certainly not the most efficient method of learning. If you’re interested in what I spend my spare time doing at the moment, read on. If you want quick fixes to your own pronunciation, go mimic a native speaker instead or read articles about pronunciation on Hacking Chinese.

If you find anything wrong or dubious in this article, just leave a comment. I don’t pretend that I actually know these things well, so there might be errors here and there. Since part of the goal is to learn more about phonetics, pointing out a mistake I’ve made is equivalent to doing me a big favour!

This article is going to contain some jargon and it will require you to already understand some basic theory. Rather than spending hours explaining these thing, I will simply link to Wikipedia articles whenever necessary. I will try to make the narrative understandable even if you haven’t taken several courses in phonetics, though, but I might be a bit blind to what uninitiated people find hard.

If you want to, you can do everything I’ve done here yourself, you just need a microphone and Praat, which is a program developed for speech analysis and is free of charge. I’m not going to go into any details about how to use Praat now, but it’s fairly easy to find tutorials online.

Vowels and vowel space

Basically, vowels can be defined in a two dimensional space determined by how the tongue separates the oral cavity into two compartments, which will result in a signal with different formant frequencies. This means that if you look at the spectrogram of a vowel, you can actually see these formant frequencies and thereby roughly determine the place of articulation of this vowel. The picture below is from my pronunciation of [i] and the lower line with the red dots represent the first formant frequency, F1, and the second line with red dots represents the second formant frequency, F2.


The value of F1 is related to the openness of the vowel, i.e. how much you open your mouth and lower your tongue when pronouncing it.  Try pronouncing “bin” and “ban” in English and you should feel a big difference openness.A low F1 means that the vowel is closed, so the [i] above is a closed vowel because F1 is very low.  The opposite would be [a], which is an open vowel and has a relatively high F1. See the below spectrogram for [a].


The value of F2 is related to the back-front aspect of the vowel, i.e. how far forward or backward your tongue is positioned. Try pronouncing “beat” and then “boot” in English and you will feel difference between a front vowel in “beat” and a back vowel in “boot”. F2 decreases as the tongue retracts, so a [i] in “beat” has a very high F2, whereas [u] in “boot” has a lower one (although not as low as the cardinal [u] described below). Compare the formant frequencies of [a] above and [u] below. Note that F1 and F2 overlaps in this diagram, the formant at around 2100 Hz is F3, not F2.


Cardinal vowels and my personal vowel space

What the above means is that there is a range of possible vowels and that vowel quality can be defined in terms of the location in this space. In phonetics, there are eight cardinal vowels that occupy the corners and edges of this space and they can be represented in what’s called a vowel chart. You can check the IPA vowel chart on Wikipedia, which also has audio recordings or York University’s site which also contains a neat chart with audio. There are eight cardinal vowels, four front and four back, each set comes with different degrees of openness.

(Actually, there is a third dimension I have mostly ignored and will continue to ignore, and that is lip rounding. As you can see in the Wikipedia article above, there is a second set of cardinal vowels that matches the first eight, but are opposite in terms of lip-rounding. This is too complicated for this article and I will ignore anything else beyond the basics for now.)

One problem with these charts is that they are schematic rather than accurate representations of the oral cavity, the produced sound or the perceived sound. For instance, since the shape and size of the oral cavity and other resonance cavities vary between individuals, you can’t just compare someone’s formant frequencies for one vowel with those of someone else and conclude that A’s vowels are farther back than B’s.

One way of approaching the issue is to draw your own vowel space and see what the cardinal vowels look like when you pronounce them. This is very simple to do in theory:

  1. Record the eight cardinal vowels
  2. Measure F1 and F2 for these vowels
  3. Plot them on a formant diagram (F1 against F2)

Each step isn’t as easy as it looks, though, but more about that in a moment, I’ll show you my results first. This diagram shows F1 plotted against F2. Note that actual frequency is not the same as perceived frequency, so therefore the scales aren’t linear.

cardinal vowel chart olleThese are the eight cardinal vowels and their F1 and F2 frequencies. Here are the relevant numbers:

Vowel F1/F2
[a] 253/2309
[e] 335/2094
[ɛ] 461/1702
[a] 636/1404
[ɑ] 580/1007
[ɔ] 424/672
[o]  361/609
[u] 245/446

You can also plot the frequency of F1 and F2 for each vowel, which in my case gives something like this, which is fairly close to what it’s supposed to look like. Remember, the order of the cardinal vowels is from closed front via open front and open back to closed back. Thus, we expect F1 values to first increase and then decrease. We also expect F2 values to fall through out the cardinal vowel sequence. This is also what we find.

cardinal vowel formant graph

I don’t think much can be said about this, even though my ow rendering of the cardinal vowels isn’t perfect. It would be interesting to see what the model talker on York University’s site would look like plotted in a similar way to what I have done above. Still, I think the blue polygon in the first graph shows pretty well the limits of my articulation. I have tried to produce even more extreme vowels in each direction without succeeding. Brief checks show that my vowels in actual languages (Swedish, English, Chinese) fall within this range, but more about this later (especially Chinese, of course).

I want to be as cool as you, what should I do?

As promised, I won’t go into details in how to use Praat, but I will describe the general process briefly based on the three steps above. The first thing you need to do is record the cardinal vowels. This can be quite hard if you have no experience with trying to pronounce sounds other than those in your native language. Note that even though the same letters might be used in your alphabet, if you are a native speaker, the cardinal vowels typically don’t match the vowels in English. For instance, “i” in English can represent two sounds: /i/ and /ɪ/, but none of them are as open and fronted as the cardinal vowel [i]. Therefore, some practice is required. Start by mimicking the audio charts I linked to above.

Second, you need to measure the frequencies of F1 and F2 in Praat. You’ll have to figure out how to install and use the program on your own, but I’ll give some suggestions for measuring F1 and F2 for the vowels. The main problem is where to measure and there are several ways of doing this. The key is to be consistent. You can either choose the time where the intensity is the highest or when the vowel looks the most stable (i.e. F1 and F2 aren’t fluctuating). I don’t think it matter much which method you choose in this case, but I usually go with the highest intensity since that’s much more objective than the idea of stability.

Third, plot F1 against F2 in a graph. The easiest way is probably to do what I did and simply take a picture of a chart and then manually plot your vowels in any decent image editing program. Creating a graph like my cardinal vowel graph is pretty easy with any spreadsheet software.


The main point with writing this article is that I enjoy it. There are also secondary reasons, like sharing what I have done with others and the fact that I learn a lot about this simply by being forced to write about it rather than just doing it. This is just the first article in this series, next time I’ll look at monophthongs in Mandarin Chinese and how these relate to the vowel space I drew in this little experiment. I will then move on to diphthongs, triphthongs before leaving vowels altogether and start looking at tones, consonants and so on. Stay tuned!

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Today I reach one of life’s predefined milestones: since I was born, the earth has completed a number of revolutions around the sun equal to three times the number of fingers on the human hands. Is this worth celebrating? Probably not, but it’s an opportunity as good as as any to write a little bit about what’s been going on since my previous birthday post. Since I have been notoriously bad at writing anything on this blog (I have only published nine posts in the previous twelve months), it feels like I owe the internet a summary.

bowtie-600According to popular psychology, I ought to experience some kind of crisis right now. Thirty is roughly the age where people start asking questions like: What am I doing with my life? Is this what I really want to do? Is this all there is to it? I have so far failed to experience any of this, but that might be because my life cycle is a bit delayed compared to the average. Sure, I have a degree and so on, but I’m still studying (which reminds me that I have forgotten to write about last semester) and haven’t got a proper job. Sure, I have a girlfriend with whom things are going well, but I don’t have a house, a cat nor any kids. All in due time. Perhaps the crisis will catch up with me later, but I don’t really think it will. I have proved quite immune to crises before.

In fact, I feel very optimistic about the future and feel that I know exactly what I’m doing. I might have been able to get to where I am now a few years earlier if I had made different choices earlier in my life, but since I feel that most of what I have done is useful in some way and I have enjoyed most of it so far, I don’t think this is a problem. In accordance with earlier posts, I will talk a little bit about what’s been going on in different areas since last time. Because most things have stayed roughly the same, I have less to say than usual and will try to sum it up briefly for anyone who is interested.


I’m still in the same master’s degree program at National Taiwan Normal University here in Taipei. I’m now past the time when I worried about courses being too difficult or time-consuming and feel that I can relax and invest some energy elsewhere. This is great, because I’m going to need all that time to be able to focus properly on my research. I haven’t decided on a topic yet, but I’m fairly close to doing so and might write more about that shortly. It’s related to perception and production of Chinese speech sounds and how to learn/teach these at any rate, so no surprises there.

Hacking Chinese

The main reason I haven’t written much here is that I feel I get more out of writing articles on Hacking Chinese, a website about how to learn Chinese. The site has been expanding rapidly ever since its inception in 2010 and seems to keep growing at a healthy pace, even if I only spend a limited amount of time and no money on the project. Providing quality content once a week and sharing it on social media has generated about half a million page loads in 2013 alone. The more I think about Hacking Chinese, the more certain I become that this isn’t just a side project, it has the potential of becoming a serious job. There are many, many different paths to try and you are likely to see some of them surface in the coming year, some of them directly related to Hacking Chinese, others only indirectly so.

Social life

Things are moving steadily onwards and not much has changed since last year. This is good, though, because I have now been together with Zoe for more than two years and things are going better than expected. Sure, all relationships have their ups and downs, and don’t work smoothly all the time, but ours certainly looks a lot more stable than ever. My hope is that it will settle down properly once I get back to Sweden this summer when my life abroad will be mostly over, at least for the foreseeable future. It might prove tricky to find an apartment in Stockholm immediately, but I’m not too worried about the future. If you happen to have a nice apartment in Stockholm to rent to us starting this autumn, let me know!

Creativity input/output

I have stuck to mostly reading in Chinese (I read 25 books in Chinese last year), but I have also listened to a few audio books in English and my appetite for reading more is growing. I have also continued the work on my first novel, which should have a finished draft relatively soon. My hope is to have a version ready for other people’s eyes (although not publicly) at the end of this semester. Creativity is an important part of my life and I can feel that if I don’t have enough of it, I’m not really happy. I need to find a way to incorporate creative output in my weekly schedule even if I’m busy with other things! I have some ideas for how to do this, but more about this later.

Physical activity/status

I’m still practising gymnastics more than a dozen hours a week and love it. Sure, gymnastics can be very frustrating at times, but it’s such a beautiful sport in that it incorporates so many different skills and abilities, as well as raw strength, endurance and flexibility. I competed once last year and it went considerably better than I thought (I earned two individual bronze medals, one silver and one team gold). The next competition is fast approaching (about two months from now) and I’m doing my best to be better prepared this time. I also realise that I will (probably) never have such a good opportunity to practise gymnastics again, so I’m trying to make the most of it.

Towards a brighter future

As you can see, not much has happened that wasn’t predictable last year. I have done more of the same things, which is satisfactory in one way because this is what I like doing, but I can also feel that I want to move further faster. I’m quite sure that the direction I’m moving in is the right one and I’m also sure I go about it roughly the right way, but I think I’m too cautious, resulting in a slower pace than desired. This feeling has been with me for many, many years and I suspect that it will stay with me for a long time still, perhaps forever. I simply want to learn more, write more, read more, socialise more, practise more and so on, but there’s not enough time to do everything. It’s this feeling that keeps me going.

Even if this year’s birthday post was a bit boring, I’m quite sure that next year’s will be more interesting. Even if I probably won’t graduate before then, I will still finish my courses and move back to Sweden to do my research. This will bring a lot of changes and I hope that most of them will be to the better. It’s also likely that several projects will at least partially come to fruition this year and even though I certainly don’t think that all of them will succeed, I’m confident that some of the will. I will try to write a little bit more here, both about said projects and other things, so stay tuned!


I have never really understood people who say that they have nothing to do. There are so many interesting things to do and so many fascinating things to learn that I will never feel that I run out of things I want to do. Sure, I might still be bored at times, but that’s certainly not because of a lack of things to do. Two things I like a lot are sports/exercising and cookies, so before we move on to the central part of this article, let’s talk about sports and cookies.

Sports and cookies

I have practised some kind of sport for as long as I can remember and I have never stopped; there has never been a period in my life where I haven’t practised or learnt some new sport. At the moment, I’m in the gymnastics team at National Taiwan Normal University and I’m enjoying it immensely. I practice as much as can, which normally means around fifteen hours a week, but sometimes more than that. During the summer while I’m back in Sweden, it’s much less, but I still practise.

Counterbalancing this, literally speaking, I also have a penchant for cookies. However, I’m not an epicure or something, I just like eating cookies, usually quite a lot of them, something most of my friends know (cookie monster!). If it weren’t for my arduous exercising, my body shape would probably be spherical by now, so in a sense, cookies and sports cancel each other out, at least when it comes to body weight.

However, practising swimming, running, diving, martial arts or unicycling, body weight isn’t really a crucial factor. Sure, all these sports will be easier if you are strong per kilogram, but you can still practise them at an amateur level without caring too much about what you eat. When I competed in martial arts, weight mattered, but not in a sense that really influenced my life. It was more a matter of seeing how much I weighed and then applying for the correct weight class.

Gymnastics and the weight of weight

Gymnastics is different. Every single exercise is a battle against gravity. When you go to the gym, you have an absolute scale of reference and you can see that today, you managed 80 kg whereas last month you could only handle 75 kg. You also gained weight, mostly muscle mass.

This wouldn’t necessarily be good fro a gymnast, simply because what matters is the ratio between your strength and your body weight. In other words, the goal isn’t just to get stronger, it’s to get stronger per kilogram. If you want to make a reasonable gym comparison, you should stop recording kilograms and just report % of body weight for all exercises.

handstandWhy it’s hard to lose weight

Thus, I have deliberately tried to lose weight ever since I realised that one obstacle in the way of achieving some things I’m working towards is body weight. In short, everything I do when practising gymnastics would be much, much easier if I weighed less, so it makes sense to lose weight. The first challenge is to successfully do this while still consuming a reasonable amount of cookies.

The second challenge is that I can’t lose weight if that impairs endurance or strength too much. That would be stupid and defy the whole purpose of losing weight in the first place. Some basic research told me that most people who try to become stronger (in absolute terms) while losing weight at the same time seem to aim towards losing no more than 0.5 kg a week.

Think about that for a bit. For someone with my weight and daily exercise volume, it means that I should decrease my calorie intake by around 7%. Everyday. For several months.

A question of discipline

That requires some serious discipline. I know that some of you labour under the false impression that I’m the uncrowned king of self-discipline, but this is a very good example that I’m not. I have tried to accomplish this for many, many years (at least five or six) and failed every time. Provided that I keep to the above plan, one package of cookies puts me back by more than a week! If That means that if I’m diligent all days of the week except one, I will be standing still. I’m pretty good at being disciplined for limited amounts of time, but even the strongest resolve weakens sometimes.

In short, being determined to succeed 99% of the time isn’t enough, because that 1% renders the 99% meaningless. It sounds harsh and it is.

A milestone reached

This time is different, however. I write this article as some kind of monument. I have have succeeded reaching a goal I set up quite a long time ago, which was to weigh 75 kg on average for an extended period of time without significantly losing strength in absolute terms. That’s what I have done. It took me about half a year to go from just below 79 kg to just below 75 kg today. This is what the long and winding path to my goal looks like:

weightWhere do I go from here, then? In theory, I could lose a few more kilograms before it starts being unhealthy, but I don’t think it’s worth it. Instead, I plan to keep my weight just below 75 and try to improve my strength and endurance without letting my body weight bounce up again. This goal is open-ended, of course, but I think that simply maintaining my current state is an achievement in itself.

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