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Learning to pronounce Chinese, part 2 – Attitude

This is the second 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
Part 2 – Attitude (this article)
Part 3 – Identification
Part 4 – Tones
Part 5 – Analysis

Part 2 – Attitude

Learning to speak Chinese to a level where you can communicate at a decent level with your teach and classmates is, as I have argued before, a lot easier than most people think. However, as soon as you leave the classroom or when basic communication has already been achieved, Chinese starts becoming very difficult indeed.

Chinese teachers are used to hearing foreigners speak poor Chinese and will often easily understand what a student says, even though the tones are all wrong and the pronunciation bad, but this is not the case with native speakers who have little or no experience speaking with foreigners.

Proper pronunciation becomes exceedingly important as soon as you leave the classroom or leave the realm of everyday conversation, where much of what is being said can be guessed anyway. If you don’t agree with this statement, this article probably isn’t for you, but if you want to learn more about what I think about advancing one’s own pronunciation when learning Chinese (and other languages), please read on!

Theoretical understanding

There might be various learning styles, but I’m firmly convinced that most people who learn to pronounce Chinese as a foreign language need to know theoretically what they are doing, otherwise they are bound to make mistakes they are unable to either spot or correct themselves. I suggest taking any pronunciation courses you can find, reading books in your native language about pronunciation, etc.

Make sure that you know at least theoretically how to pronounce all the sounds and all the tones. Perhaps you can’t produce these sounds fluently and accurately, but that will come with time. If you don’t have a theoretical foundation, though, this will probably not come with time.

An example from my own studying of Chinese would be the third tone (see the first article). Because of a flaw in my theoretical knowledge, I ended up pronouncing combinations of some tones incorrectly for roughly two years, without even suspecting that I did something wrong.

This bring me to the core of this article:

You are responsible for you own learning

I’ve touched upon this before a number of times, but it doesn’t hurt to reiterate such an important point: regardless of how competent your teacher is and how good your teaching materials are, only you are ultimately responsible for your own studies.

Do not passively absorb and learn and think that will be enough. Sure, if basic communication is all you want, then perhaps you could just rely on teachers and textbooks, but at the outset I did say that this article is not for this type of student.

I’ve had numerous systematical errors in my Chinese for many years, most of them which have never been pointed out to me by any teacher (and I’ve had dozens). Perhaps I still have systematical errors I don’t know about, but having spent a great deal of energy on this over the past year, i think they should be neither many nor serious.

When I say that you need to take responsibility, I mean that you need to make an active effort to make sure that your pronunciation is proper. You need to tell your teacher and other people who might help you that you’re not satisfied with being understood, you want to get it right. 100% right, preferably, even if that is highly unlikely.

You also need to constantly monitor your own pronunciation, find errors and try to correct them as best as you can. But in order to do this, you first need to know what the correct pronunciation is supposed to be like. I realise that some people can just hear if the tones are correct or not, but I also know that the vast majority of people who learn Chinese as a second language lack this ability.


If you aren’t satisfied with basic classroom communication, pronunciation will start becoming important as you advance in your Chinese studies. It is of paramount importance to find and eliminate errors as quickly as you can, because changing patterns of speech after years of making the same mistake is very hard.

In ordor to achieve this, you need two things: theoretical knowledge and a proper attitude. I’m not (yet) educated enough to teach the theory myself, but in this article I’ve tried to explain the importance of studying theory.

Regarding attitude, the most important thing is that you take responsibility for your own progression. If you simply rely on others to improve, you will end up with Chinese good enough for communication, but far from perfect. You need to constantly try to find ways to identify errors and then try to correct them.

I think that identifying errors is by far harder than correcting them, and since it’s also the logical next step in this series, the next article will be devoted to various methods of finding out your own weaknesses!

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