Chinese Pronunciation: The First Steps to a Native Accent
If you've come here hoping to find a few tips to implement in order to be speaking Chinese with native pronunciation by this time tomorrow I'm afraid you'll be sorely disappointed. I do trust, however, that since you obviously know how to read, you must be intelligent enough to realize the impossibility of such a fantasy.
So what should you expect to find here? Well, for those who are willing to put in a little time and effort, I hope to give you a few pieces of advice to at least steer you in the right direction towards better Chinese pronunciation. These tips come from what I've learned helped me to speak Chinese with near native pronunciation and also from mistakes I've seen others make in their quest to do the same.
So, without further ado, let me give you what I trust will be helpful advice ...
1. Stop talking!
I know this might sound counter-intuitive. We're always told the best way to get better at doing something is to keep doing it. Practice makes perfect, right? Wrong. Practice often makes worse. Good practice makes perfect (or at least better), but practicing something the wrong way over and over will only further entrench you in poor pronunciation that will take a whole lot of work to crawl out of.
Thus the advice to "stop talking." If you want to speak Chinese with native pronunciation you'll need to first do a lot of listening. That should be common sense, though. After all, if you want to learn about Astrophysics or Biology or Knitting what are you going to do? You find the experts and you sit at their feet and listen. Here it's no different. And when it comes to learning Chinese or Chinese pronunciation in particular, guess who's NOT the expert. You're not, and neither am I. Sometimes we need to just shut our mouths and listen.
But you must be careful not to be a passive listener either. You'll gain as much from passive listening as you gained from that "listening" you did in all those giant lecture classes back in college. Don't remember attending any giant lectures in college? My point exactly. So, listen to the sounds and even while at the beginning you won't be able to tell where one word ends and another begins, try your best to pull apart the sounds you hear in your mind. Listen for certain sounds you hear repeated. Once you're able to regularly identify one particular sound every time it shows up in someone's speech, work on isolating and identifying a new one. This may not seem like much, but it will automatically force you to be an active listener and your brain will do a whole lot more work on its own than you realize, storing away those sounds to be used in your own arsenal at a later date. That you don't have a clue what those sounds mean is of no consequence.
2. Learn Pinyin
If you haven't already, do make it a priority to learn pinyin. There are tons of free resources online, but if you're the type that likes to have something you can hold in your hands, mark up with notes or show off to guests admiring your bookcase, you'll find plenty of helpful to choose from as well. books
Put succinctly, pinyin is Chinese written with the roman alphabet to give new learners (both Chinese and foreign) a better chance at learning the language. It's what enables you to pronounce 路 (lù) when all it looks like to you is a random assortment of straight and squiggly lines. No doubt you've seen those dictionary and phrase books that promise to come to the aid of tourists and business travelers to China who have had absolutely NO prior knowledge of Chinese and yet either because of some emergency or desire to show off have some need to speak the language while there. They claim to write Chinese out for you in "English spelling" -- in a way that you can read it and they can understand it.
For example, they'll tell you to read 你好 (hello) as "knee how." Or 七 (seven) as "chee." Now, I don't even know you, but I'm gonna be a pal and give you some free advice ... don't waste your money! If you had to rely on that book to save your life in an emergency, I'm afraid you'd not be coming back home. No one is going to understand a word you're saying. And why not? Because it's going to sound just like the writers of that book have claimed it can sound like ... nonsensical English.
I understand and appreciate the desire to make Chinese more accessible to the average person. But the idea that someone with no knowledge of a language is going to be able to communicate effectively in that language is merely fantasy. I know everyone's always looking for shortcuts and ways to gain without putting in effort, but (like in nearly everything) it just doesn't work that way. If you get nothing from this section, just get this: if you want to speak Chinese with native pronunciation do not associate that pronunciation with English. It's tempting, I know. It seems so fun, so clever, so innocent ... but just don't.
Learn pinyin as much as you can from native speakers (again, there are free resources online for this). As you listen, start to associate what you hear with the phonemes you learn in pinyin. If you associate Chinese sounds with Chinese phonetics, you're going to be in a whole lot better shape than those who associate Chinese sounds with English phonemes.
3. Don't be intimidated by tones ... but don't ignore them either
I know some people that are so intimidated by the tones in Chinese that they will make no effort to work towards a more native Chinese pronunciation, or will write Chinese off as “too hard” altogether and will never give studying it any consideration just for that reason. Now, does the fact that Chinese is a tonal language mean it’s more difficult to learn? For most people, yes, probably. Does it mean it’s as hard as they fear it is? Maybe not.
Don’t forget, although English is not by definition a “tonal language,” it too uses tones. You use tone. You use it intentionally and you use it all the time. And if you were to use tone in the English language wrongly there’d be a lot of misunderstanding on the part of your listeners, not to mention a lot of odd looks directed your way. Let’s take a look at a simple example:
A: “Tomorrow I’m going to go dancing in the park with a rooster strapped to my back.”
B: “What are you going to do tomorrow?”
Person B could ask that question with a great variety of intonations. What would be most obvious and logical would make us believe that B did in fact hear what A said about his plans tomorrow, but can scarcely believe what he’s heard. But if B changes his intonation (that is, tone) he could ask that same question and make it sound like he completely ignored what A just said. We’d have to believe B was either stupid or deaf. And all that was manipulated was tone. I trust that’s easy for you to see. So how hard, in that situation, would it have been for you to use tone to achieve your purpose? Not hard at all; it’s second nature. So how hard is it to speak a tonal language? Maybe not as hard as you think. But just as it was when you began learning how to manipulate tone as a very young English learner, making something second nature does take a little time.
I write this to encourage you not to feel intimidated by the tones in Chinese. But at the same time, you need to respect them. I’ve also met a number of people who think, “Hey, I might not speak Chinese with native pronunciation, but I can still be understood without bothering myself with those crazy tones.” And they’re right, they might be understood … by about .0035% of the Chinese population. It’s the exact same thing I came across when living in China. My first year there I had quite a bit of difficulty understanding the English of many of my Chinese friends. But, wouldn’t you know it, by my fourth year I could make sense of nearly every bit of English that came out of their mouths without giving it a second thought. So what happened? Did the entire English speaking population of China somehow progress together into more “standard” English pronunciation? Or had I become so used to hearing poorly pronounced English and Chinglish that I had become fluent in this new hybrid of a language? When other American friends came to visit I would literally have to translate the English of my Chinese friends into an English that my American friends could understand – it was virtually unintelligible to them.
And that’s what’s going to happen to you, too, if you don’t respect the Chinese tones. You might find a select few who are fluent in “butchered Chinese” and make you feel like a great communicator; but by far the majority of the Chinese population won’t have a clue what you’re talking about. When you find them giving you a polite smile after everything you say but no more feedback besides, that should pretty much tip you off.
4. Find recordings
Some of the more practical advice I can give you will seem a little boring, and probably pretty obvious, too. But just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean people do it. Find recordings (either audio or video) of native speakers in dialogue with each other. This really goes back to point #1 made above, and that is if you are ever going to speak Chinese with native pronunciation you’re going to have to do a lot of listening. This is extremely important, particularly in the beginning stages of your Chinese learning.
My introduction to Chinese was in the final semester of my senior year of college. I had by that time already determined to move to China after graduating and decided to get what I could of the Chinese language in school before going. A semester is roughly four months long. Particularly in the first two months I gave a lot of attention to my pronunciation. I was determined by the end of that semester to sound as much as possible like a native Chinese speaker in my pronunciation (knowing I wouldn’t get there in vocabulary or grammar!). I listened to mp3s of Chinese dialogues over and over and over. I played them line by line, pausing to mimic them as I went along. Any time I felt the pronunciation awkward (which was all the time) I would just listen again and speak it back again and again until it rolled off my tongue fluently. If a long sentence tripped me up I would pull it apart, work on it in two or three smaller pieces, saying each part over and over until it was comfortable and then put it all back together again.
Honestly, by the second half of the semester I didn’t have to do that nearly as much as I did in the first half. Slowly the pronunciation began to stick, the different combinations of phonemes and tones began to come out more and more comfortably, and by the end of that semester, though I had a ton of Chinese yet to learn, I had a great foundation of near native pronunciation to build on. I did go on to spend the next four years in China where my pronunciation was again enforced by more listening (this time to real live people) and mimicking what I heard, but to be honest, my pronunciation was pretty much set upon my arrival in the country and didn't change much afterwards. Chances are, you don't have the time, money or even desire to move to China to see your Chinese improve. The good news is, though, you don't really have to.
I know there is nothing extremely novel in anything I’ve written above. But I do hope that it encourages some of you who have their aims set at native sounding Chinese pronunciation and gives you some things to consider and put into practice.