Learning to pronounce Chinese, part 5 – Analysis

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 fifth 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
Part 3 – Identification
Part 4 – Tones
Part 5 – Analysis (this article)

Self-analysis of my own pronunciation in Chinese

At the beginning of this semester, I decided that I would focus pronunciation and speaking in my Chinese studies. This is not because my ability to speak Chinese properly is very poor, but rather because it will be a lot harder to do this after I go back to Sweden. Continuing improving vocabulary and reading ability is, on the other hand, almost the same thing here in Taiwan as it will be in Sweden, at least in theory, so it feels stupid to focus on that now.

In order to improve pronunciation (see articles tagged with “pronunciation”), it’s essential to identify and understand whatever problems are present and then find out ways to correct them. This post is not about how to do this, but is rather intended to show the result of such a survey, i.e. what problems I think I currently have in Chinese.

If you’re interested in reading about what you can do to identify problems yourself (what I did to produce the results presented below, in other words), the article you’re looking for can be found here in these two articles: identification and tones..

A few of the problems are probably unique to me, but I imagine lots of foreigners make similar mistakes, so perhaps other people can learn from my mistakes as well.

It should b noted that this is the result of a fair amount of work, meaning that most of the mistakes have already been corrected. I feel that my pronunciation has benefited a lot from doing this; simply being aware of problems helps a lot! I don’t imagine my pronunciation to be perfect (yet), but I’m learning all the time and I know which way to go.

Method

The results presented in this article seem to be very well organised, but since this is only true because of the fact that I spent quite a lot of time arranging it properly, I’m going to explain briefly what I did to do the analysis below. I used all the methods presented in this article (including Arnauds method for analysing tone problems). Here is what I did:

  1. Focus on pronunciation
  2. Take notes whenever a problem is spotted
  3. Do this thoroughly for an extended time (4 months in my case)
  4. Look at all your notes and try to find patterns
  5. Sort the various mistakes into categories
  6. Analyse and discuss each problem with a few teachers
  7. Try to define what the problem is and what you should do about it

Below, I have separated the pronunciation problems into two categories: tones and sounds. Tones deal with the different tones in Mandarin and the way they change in context. Sounds deal with how syllables are pronounced, regardless of tone.

Tones

My biggest problem with tones in Chinese is that the pitch range is too narrow, meaning that the difference between the lowest tone (the end of the forth tone) and the highest tone (the end of a second tone) is not big enough. I pronounce these tones correctly, but not clearly enough. This problem is of course a lot more serious when I speak quickly and naturally, and doesn’t occur as much when I read aloud or speak slowly. In short, my tones tend to converge towards the centre of the spectrum; I need to fight that lazy habit. In Chinese, you would say that my tones 不到位.

In addition to this, there are some specific problems. Below, numbers represent tones directly, so if I write 3 + 2 -> 2 +2, it means that a combination of a third tone and a second tone tend to become two second tones instead.

First tone

No problems, as far as I know.

Second tone

The second tones doesn’t rise high enough, especially for 不,一 in compounds (例如:不要,一樣). These two characters are unique in that they change not according to meaning (which is true for many other characters), but according to the tone of the following character. I’ve known this basically since day one, but the millisecond required to figure out which one it is enough to render the tone less clear than desirable.

2 + 1 -> 3 + 1 (例如:學生,國家). This is an isolated error which means that the second tone followed by a first tone sometimes turns into a third tone. I seldom make this mistake when speaking slowly or reading, but it does happen.

Third tone

Only last year did I learn how to properly pronounce the third tone in Mandarin (I wrote more about that in this article). That means that even if I know how to do it now, I still have problems sometimes, especially when speaking quickly. Here are the tricky combinations:

3 + 0 (例如:兩個,椅子)
3 + 1 (例如:小偷,九千)
3 + 2 (例如:可能,口頭,有沒有)
3 + 4 (例如:解釋,好像)

As I’ve noted before, the third tone here should not be completed, but starts low and goes even lower, before it changes to the next character. It does NOT go up like you think it would if you read almost any textbook.

4 + 3 + 0 -> 4 + 2 + 0 (例如:這兩個,錄影啊). This is just yet another example, but one I think is extra tricky (it’s the same as the 3 + 0 above). It took me some time and practice before I could pronounce this correctly even when speaking very slowly.

3 + 3 + 3 + 3 (slow parsing). Third tone plus another third tone is simple enough, the first one simply changes to a second tone. The problem comes when you have lots of third tones in a row, because then you need to figure out which belong together. For instance, 馬總統 (ma3zong3tong3) should be parsed as (馬)+(總統), making only 總 a second tone. To do this, you of course need to know that 馬 is a surname and 總統 is a title. These cases are not very common and fairly easy to sort out. The problem arises when this has to be done on the fly and fairly quickly.

3 + 0 + 0 -> 2 + 0 + 0 (好了嗎). This is something of an isolated example. It seems that if I’m not careful with the third tone, it sometimes causes trouble later in the sentence. This example is very clear. If I pronounce the first character too sloppily, the two following characters suffer. If I pronounce the first third tone properly, the rest follows naturally.

Fourth tone

My fourth tones don’t go down enough or sound too mild (especially for 不,一 in compounds). This is the same problem as with the second tone, but the other way around. The fourth tone in Mandarin in quite short and aggressive and as a foreigner it’s hard to pronounce it naturally without feeling that you’re cursing. This is even more difficult when many fourth tones occur in a row (I’ve seen sentences with eight or more fourth tones in a row).

太 + 4 -> 3/2 + 4. This is an isolated case. It seems I don’t like 太 (fourth tone) followed by another fourth tone. To avoid this kind of harsh sound combination, I cheat and turn the first tone into second or third tone.

那 -> 哪 (那裡,那時候). This is probably one of my worst systematic errors. I tend to pronounce these characters the same way, which is very bad because they are frequently used and mean completely different things (one means “where”, the other one “there”). I can control this when speaking slowly, but I still get it wrong most of the time when speaking quickly.

Syllables

-un is not a monophthong. Reflexive sounds plus -un (zhun, chun, shun) lacks -en component and becomes a monophthong, but it should be a diphthong. I seldom make this mistake after non-reflexive phonemes such as lun, dun, tun, kun, etc. After becoming aware of this problem, I found it relatively easy to change.

The n/ng distinction is not the same as in English or Swedish and also affects the previous sound. This is a problem especially for -ing and -in, such as distinguishing between 林 and 凌 or 心 and 星. The problem is that the i-sound is different depending on the following n or ng. It should be noted that many native speakers in Taiwan can neither hear the difference or produce it themselves.

Syllables that start with y in pinyin do not start with a simple i vowel sound, but rather with a faint consonant sound akin to j in Swedish, a kind of fricative. Here are some examples: such as yi, yin, ying, yu, yun. This is not common in everyday pronunciation in Taiwan, but is very clear when proper pronunciation is important, such as the recorded instructions for a national test.

I produce the three sounds j, q and x too far forward in the mouth sometimes. This is not a big problem and something I’m aware of. The situation is possibly aggravated by the fact that many Chinese dialects really pronounce these sounds very far forward in the mouth (Cantonese is the most obvious example). Examples: 希望, 期望, 冀望.

Miscellaneous

Of course, not all mistakes are systematic, even though most turned out to be just that. Here are two problems I’ve found that I have problems with if speaking quickly:

I sometimes pronounce 自己 sloppily and the first syllable becomes unvoiced. This is a bit strange, because I have not noticed similar problems with other words.

別人 sometimes becomes 1 + 2 instead of 2 +2, but this seems to be an isolated case again, because I don’t have problems with other similar words such as 其實.

Conclusion

The above analysis the result of hard work over several months. This means that I have already corrected most of these problems at least to an extent. I need more practice to erase old habits, but I think that I’m on the right track. The above analysis would not have been possible without the help of several teachers and friends, so a big thanks to everybody who has helped me so far.

I don’t think my pronunciation will be perfect after these mistakes are corrected, because there is still a lot to learn about intonation and tone changes, but I do believe that when this is done, I will have come quite a long way down the road towards my goal of achieving perfect pronunciation in Chinese.

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