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Learning to pronounce Chinese, part 3 – Identification

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 third 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 (this article)
Part 4 – Tones
Part 5 – Analysis

Part 3 – Identification

Starting to read this article, I assume that you already have the right attitude (i.e. you realise that improving pronunciation is your own responsibility; see article one) and that you understand the importance of actually knowing in theory how Chinese is supposed to be pronounced (see article two). Obviously, having the right attitude and the right knowledge will not enable you pronounce a language perfectly. You still need to do two things: identify errors and finding ways of removing them. This article is about finding out your mistakes.

Passive learning won’t take you very far

It might sound easy or obvious to identify mistakes, but nothing could be further from the truth. For instance, teachers are not as much help as you might think, simply because there are too many students, they have too low demands, are complacent, think it’s embarrassing to correct foreigners too much or, in extreme cases, because they aren’t very sure of the theory themselves. I’ve written more about how to handle this in the second article.

As I’ve stated earlier, being a native speaker does not mean you know everything, so you can’t rely on friendly native speakers either (if teachers are not enough, the same is even more true for ordinary people). Most people are happy if they can understand what you say and will thus be very unlikely to correct you, even if they say they will

How to identify problems with pronunciation

There are of course a huge number of methods to do this, but  below I will discuss the ones I’ve found useful and/or interesting. A combination of many methods is more likely to do the trick that solely relying on one single strategy.

  1. Listening for pronunciation – Listening actively to native speakers is sometimes very helpful. This might be obvious, but I think most people listen for meaning and not for actual pronunciation. In Chinese, you can actually ignore what someone is actually saying (except if they’re talking to you , that is) and still learn something about pronunciation. Listen to the tones and the intonation of the various parts of the sentence.
  2. Reading easy textbooks – Find a text you can handle quite easily (i.e. with very few or no new words), a text book you have already studies or something similar will work well. Read it with your teacher, friend or whoever is kind enough to help you and make sure they point out mistakes. Read the same paragraph or sentence more than once if it’s hard. The reason the textbook has to be easy is that otherwise you will spend too much energy just understanding the sentence and thus your pronunciation will be somewhat impaired.
  3. Theoretical studies – Reading more or less theoretical descriptions of the languages (phonetics)  is helpful. There are also lots of other people out there who have had the same problems as you have. I’m only one person, there are lots of others who can help you shed light on pronunciation. As an example, take a look on this discussion of the third ton in Mandarin.
  4. Reading along with native speakers – Find a text which is reasonably easy and read it together with someone. Let them read a sentence, or even half a sentence, and mimic their way of speaking. Listen for tones, emphasis and other things which are almost impossible to learn in any other way.
  5. Record yourself – If you have never recorded yourself speaking the target language, I think you will be surprised at how many mistakes you can easily hear yourself. Reading textbooks is of course the easiest way, but I would also suggest that you record natural conversation to see how you fare when you’re speaking entirely on your own. Recording might make you nervous for a while, but this should go away quickly.
  6. Guessing games with native speakers – This is a brilliant and very effective method to analyse and identify problems with tones in Mandarin. It also works for other parts of learning Chinese and the principles involved can be used for other languages as well. Since this is such a wonderful idea, I have written a special article about it.


There are numerous ways of identifying problems with pronunciation, you simply need to find one that suits you as a person and your way of thinking. I suggest using as many different methods as possible, because they are likely to catch different kinds of problems.

If anyone has suggestions of further tactics that can be employed to spot errors, please let me know, both so that I can make this article more complete, but also so that I can improve my Chinese more easily. The important thing is to continue finding out new ways to improve, because relying on the same methods all the time is unlikely to illuminate all the aspects of pronunciation.

The next article will be an expansion of point six in the list above, i.e. it will introduce an ingenious way to identify errors with pronunciation. It’s most effective for tones, but can easily be adapted to other areas. Stay tuned and good luck!

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