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Learning to pronounce Chinese

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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.


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.


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.


-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.


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.


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.

Tags: , , , ,

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 fourth 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 (this article)
Part 5 – Analysis

A new way to identify tone problems in Chinese

Studying Chinese (or any other language), it’s sometimes hard to assess the quality one’s own pronunciation. People in your surrounding might understand what you are saying, but how do you verify how clear your pronunciation is? In an ideal world, it would be easy, you could just ask a qualified teacher and given enough time it would be possible to figure out most of the pronunciation-related problems.

However, the world in which we live is far from ideal, at least in this regards. Teachers sometimes tend to be complacent, lazy or just unwilling to point out mistakes, especially once your language level is good enough to communicate without too much trouble. I’m not trying to blame the teachers here, because this situation probably arises because students are different (I probably have loftier goals than most, for instance). Therefore, as I have said earlier, it’s really up to you as a student to take responsibility for your own learning.

A brief introduction

What I am going to talk about in this post is an ingenious way of checking if your pronunciation is clear. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it’s perfectly correct, but it will take you a long way in that direction.. I first heard this idea from my class mate, Arnaud Laraie, and even though I have added and expanded it a bit, this is more his idea than mine. Credit where credit is due!

This is what the method can achieve:

  1. Identify errors for closely related sounds.
  2. Prove whether your pronunciation is clear or not.

The second point needs some further explanation.Couldn’t you just ask someone if your pronunciation is clear or not? Of course you can, but most of the time you will get a misleading or even wrong answer. People don’t like pointing out the mistakes of others, especially if you’re a foreigner and a guest in their country. They might also have wildly different standards than you, so if you strive for a close-to-native-speaker level, they might just think that you are slightly better than the average foreigner, which is far from enough. In other words, don’t trust random people when they say your pronunciation is good!

The method consists of the following steps:

  1. Define a number of sounds you find difficult to distinguish
  2. Draw a diagram of them or just write them down in a list
  3. Read the various sounds and let a native speaker guess the word.
  4. Repeat until you make sure that no chance is involved.

In this article, I will use the tones in Mandarin Chinese as an example, but there is no reason why this method could not be useful for other languages or other aspects of learning Chinese. I will write more about this towards the end of this text, but now over to the tones in Mandarin.

The five tones in Mandarin

In Mandarin, there are five tones, numbered one to four with a fifth tone called neutral. These are different changes in pitch for a given syllable that is essential to determine the meaning of a word. It is hard for us Westerners to handle, but tones are most of the time more important than other parts of pronunciation.

For instance, if you’re in the lift going up to your apartment and you say the word “四樓“ (si4lou2, 4th floor) correctly, but with the wrong tones (let’s say you say si2lou2), the other person is most likely to hear something like 十樓 (shi2lou2, 10th floor), because those words are quite similar, especially in southern dialects of Chinese, but the tones are different. Chinese people listen to the tone more than the other sounds!

On the other hand, if you get the pronunciation slightly off (like switching sh and s, you say shi4lou2 instead of si4lou2), but get the tones right, you’re almost guaranteed to end up where you want to go. In other words, tones are something alien to us, but which is of paramount importance when studying Chinese. It’s also the perfect example to demonstrate this method of verifying clear pronunciation.

Getting started

From here on out, it’s assumed that you know how to pronounce the tones in Chinese independently and in theory, because I will deal with the real problem, which is tones in combination and in context. If you’re not clear about the tones in the first place, you can check this website.

This is a diagram showing all the possible tone combination in Chinese. I used a table almost identical to this one when I tried this out with native speakers and if you can’t come up with any smarter idea, you should try the same:

This is a simple way of rpresenting all the combinations of two syllables in Chinese. First look at the column to the left and select a tone, then combine it with any of the five available tones that can follow it. If you do this with native speakers, it might be a goo idea to use symbols instead of numbers.

Now comes the clever bit. Since native speakers tend to understand what people say even if they are pronouncing the tones incorrectly, you are now to choose a sound that has no specific meaning. There are many ways of doing this, pick one you like:

  • Use a single syllable in Mandarin (I used “ma”)
  • Use a word in your native language (“Paris”, “parloir”)
  • Use a sound without meaning (such as “mm”)

Analyse those tones!

Now, start pronouncing the chosen word or sound using the different tones! Let’s say you chose option two above and that you are using the word “parloir” to practice. Separate the word into its two syllables “par” and “loir” and add the tones. The goal is to check if the tone combination you pronounce is the same as the one the native speaker thinks you want to pronounce. Follow these instructions:

  1. Select any of the twenty combinations at random.
  2. Add these tones to your word (e.g. par2loir3, par4loir4, par1loir3)
  3. Let your friend/teacher point on the combination she hears
  4. Repeat at least twice for all combinations
  5. Repeat using a different friend/teacher

Of course, if you want to monitor your pronunciation in detail, you need to do this in a systematic manner and make sure you cover all the tones. Write it down! After you’ve practiced for a while so your friend/teacher is aware of how this works, you can also use reaction time to determine how good your pronunciation is.

  • If she points to the correct tone combination without the slightest hesitation, you can be quite sure your tones are good.
  • If she points to the right tone, but hesitantly, then you might have a problem.
  • If she points to the wrong tone, you obviously have a problem.

The really clever part here is that there is no way your friend/teacher can cheat or try to make you feel better about your language skills. If you pronounce something incorrectly or unclearly, you will know. Of course, you can still cheat, but that would defy the purpose of this exercise in the first place, so don’t do it.

Wider usage and some problems

This is a clever and very powerful way to identify and analyse pronunciation proeblems with the tones in Chinese. However, the same method can be used to teach and/or learn other languages as well. Any sounds that are close to each other in pronunciation can be used, such as n/ng in Chinese. If you want to check a students pronunciation in English, give her the following words to read:

  • World
  • World
  • Whirl
  • Were

As before, you guess which sound the student is pronouncing and thus lets her know what (if any) problems are present. However, it should be noted that this is a self-analysis tool more than it is a method to test someone else. In the setup above, it’s possible to cheat, even though this could be avoided by having a predetermined order of the sounds.

A problem with this method is that it doesn’t actually test correct pronunciation, only clear pronunciation. For instance, the sounds might be wrong, but as long as the teacher can tell which one is which, this system is useless. Let’s say that someone can’t distinguish “world” from “word” and starts pronouncing the “l” as a separate syllable. That would be extremely easy to recognise, but it doesn’t mean it’s right!


I wish someone had introduced me to this method (or something similar) about two years ago. I’ve spent an enormous amount of time and energy to correct my pronunciation and if would have known about my problems earlier, it would also have been a lot easier to correct them.

I tried this roughly a month ago and found that as long as I concentrate and stick to two syllables, I have almost no problems whatsoever. This is reassuring, but also a bit sad since I know I would have found lots of interesting things a lot earlier if I had used this method before. Please read this not as complaining, but as an encouragement for you to try this out earlier than I did! How good are your tones in Chinese, really?

Tags: , , ,

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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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!

Tags: , ,

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


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.


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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