Learning to pronounce Chinese, part 1 – Introduction

Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


This is the first article about pronunciation and I will continue writing about this subject as long as I think I have something worthwhile to share with others. So, far this small series consists of these articles:

Part 1 – Introduction (this article)
Part 2 – Attitude
Part 3 – Identification
Part 4 – Tones
Part 5 – Analysis

Introduction

Earlier, I’ve been arguing that Chinese is quite an easy language to learn, although it does take a lot of time if you want to be able to read and write. There is one aspect of Chinese that isn’t very easy, though, and that’s pronunciation. Various people have difficulties in different areas; some think the tones are difficult, others find it difficult to distinguish between the many sounds that simply don’t exist in most western languages. Learning any language, I think good pronunciation is very important and Chinese is no exception. In this post, I’m going to share with you some experiences and reflection about learning to pronounce Chinese properly.

Learning pronunciation as a beginner

First, you need to accept that learning to pronounce Chinese will take some time and some effort. Reaching a level where you can communicate isn’t that hard, but advancing beyond that is quite a different endeavour altogether (as it is in any other language). As a beginner, the most important thing is that you understand what you’re doing; do not be fooled into thinking that you can learn pronunciation simply by repeating a word somebody else says! There are a few people who can do this, but the likelihood is that you’re not among them.

If you study Chinese in your home country, it’s probable that you will have a teacher who can at least make him or herself understood in your language. This is good, because it means that you can learn the tones and the sounds, how they are made and what’s the difference between them. If you’re studying Chinese in Taiwan or China, try to find somebody who knows how to explain it to you (searching the web might be a good alternative if you can’t find somebody to teach you).

I haven’t don much research, but New Concept Mandarin’s page about pronunciation is extremely useful, and Patrick Zein’s page about Mandarin Phonetics is also good. Regardless of what you do, make sure you’re doing it right from the start. It’s incredibly hard to change a pronunciation pattern you’ve learnt incorrectly.

Being taught pronunciation

I haven’t studied Chinese in China, but here on Taiwan, teachers default attitude isn’t to try to teach every student perfect pronunciation, because they know that most people are not interested in that or feel that it’s embarrassing to be corrected in class. Therefore, it’s imperative that you tell your teacher(s) that you want to focus on pronunciation, and you might have to remind them again after a while so they don’t forget.

I spent two years studying Chinese pronouncing some combinations incorrectly. Nobody told me. How are we supposed to learn if we don’t even know we’re making mistakes? Make sure the teacher tells you what you’re doing wrong and what you can do to improve.

Practice speaking

There are many ways you can improve on your own. Read texts and read them slowly, making sure to pronounce everything correctly. Speed will come later. Listen to somebody else reading, preferrably the audio recording that comes with most text books; compare, adjust, improve. Keep focusing on the areas you know you’re having trouble with and if you find yourself saying something wrong, repeat it slower and make sure you get it right.

Better than this is of course if you can find a native speaker to practice with, but keep in mind that you probably need to remind them about what you want, because they are usually a little bit uneasy about correcting your pronunciation, especially if they can understand what you say, even though you say it wrong.

Speed is fairly important for pronunciation. If you speak very quickly, it’s easy to cheat, which will probably be good enough for communication, but it’s no good if your aim is perfect pronunciation. Speaking slower than you can allows you more time to think about what you’re doing and it’s also easier to spot mistakes. Speaking slowly is very difficult (just try doing it in your native language and you’ll find out), but I’m convinced it’s very good for a number of reasons, reaching far beyond the realm of learning pronunciation.

The third tone

To be honest, it’s only the third tone that causes real trouble for me, the others are fairly easy to handle. I think there are two reasons for this, the first one being very obvious: the third tone changes according to what tone comes after it, so naturally it’s harder than the others.

Secondly, I think the traditional way of teaching the third tone is deeply flawed, resulting in many students misunderstanding how it’s supposed to be pronounced (I only recently understood how it works, and I’ve been studying for two years; I’m sure there are many students out there who still don’t know).

In fact, many native speakers (including some teachers!)  cannot describe the third tone correctly in combination with other tones, even they of course pronounce it correctly themselves. Some will actually tell you that you should go up on a third tone followed by a first, second or fourth  tone, which is wrong and in defiance both of their own pronunciation and the theory.

The problme is that the third tone is usually pictured as being a v-shaped tone, first falling and then rising again. This is hardly ever the case. Instead, only the first half of the third tone is used before a first, second or fourth tone, which means we end up with a tone starting low and going even lower, i.e. completely different from the long down-up v-shape of the textbook. Third tone plus another third tone naturally results in something similar to a second tone plus a third tone, but I think most people get that.

Please read this post for a suggested different way of picturing the third tone. Although perhaps not more accurate, it does shed some light over why the traditional method isn’t very good either.

If you think it’s difficult to understand how the third tone changes depending on the following character, try to draw tone diagrams for sample sentences, i.e. draw a line representing the tone of each character as it is truly pronounced, not the way it’s written in pinyin.

Using some sort of physical representation might also be useful, such as letting a finger follow the tones as you read/speak. I’ve encountered people who use their heads for this, but I’d advice against that because it look quite silly.

Conclusion

Learning to pronounce Mandarin requires conscious effort and diligent studying. It might be possible to do it simply by immersing oneself in a Chinese-speaking environment, but that’s definitely not the most effective way and I doubt everybody can do it. If you think pronunciation is important, do it properly and from first principles.

Listen to what people say and to what you yourself are saying, but also try to learn and understand the theory. True language wizards might be able to do without the theory, but it truly is helpful for us mere mortals. Good luck and see you in the next article!

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