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Say It Right Series

Pronunciation...the hardest aspect of Chinese?

Posted by xiaohu January 22, 2008 in the Group General Discussion.

I was wondering what other Chinesepod users felt was the hardest aspect of learning Chinese, is it Grammer, Characters, Particles, Pronunciation?

Also I was wondering if any Chinesepod users have any tips for accent reduction?

I wanted to relate a story of my own experience and some thoughts about the issue of pronunciation that I thought could be of some help to other Poddies, and would also welcome stories about other's experiences learning the Chinese language.

Also I was wondering if anyone else thinks written pronunciation guides are useful, or do you think sticking with pure, listening and repeating is the way to go?

So without further ado...

(Don't worry, the story is mainly in English!  LOL!!!)

To get Chinese pronunciation really authentic it's not that easy, but just remember, if you really want your pronunciation to be perfect, then it's a combination of careful study of the pronunciation guides (I think the ones here on Chinesepod are really good) and careful listening.

If you really listen and repeat and compare your pronunciation with the native speakers, then you'll know what you're doing wrong and the pronunciation guides give you the tools to fix it quickly.

I'll give you an example from my own experience, the three sounds, "ji, qi, xi" I always had trouble with.  From the beginning I knew there was something wrong with them but didn't have any idea how to fix it.  Most pronunciation guides (as well as my private tutor) only concentrated on the sounds, "Zhi, Chi, Shi and Ri", since if we pronounce our "Ji, Qi & Xi" with an American accent, then no misunderstanding will arise, and besides I was always told my pronunciation was really good and that I had a special gift for pronunciation.  Not just by my teacher but by all the Chinese People I came accross you'll see sometimes scrutiny and fair, constructive criticism can help you immesurable more than emply compliments!

I would listen to native Chinese speakers and the speakers on my Pimsleur CD's, and would hear things like, "在一起" (zai yi qi) and when I would make the "Qi" sound, it just never quite sounded right. 

I'd say some of the most basic words, like “谢谢" and "小姐" (xie xie and xiao jie) and absolutely cringe at the sound of my own voice because I KNEW EMPHATICALLY there was something I was doing wrong...but I couldn't figure it out!  Even my $50 dollar an hour private tutor said there was nothing wrong with the way my "Ji, Qi, Xi" sounded!  But that's only because when I would say the sounds all alone I couldn't really clearly hear what I was doing wrong. 

When you say the words in a sentence, then you can plainly hear the American accent come accross.  But I'll get into that more in a minute.

Then just about a year ago I went on John Pasden's (Chinesepod's John Pasden) website and discovered his pronunciation guide for correcting the common mispronunciation of "Ji, Qi and Xi" and I knew I'd found the answer I was looking for!  Keep in mind this is after FOUR YEARS of study of this language...and I STILL couldn't get a handle on what I was doing wrong by listening alone!

As it turns out, these sounds are completely foriegn to English speakers but they are much harder to correct than the Ü with the 2 dots (umlaut) because you can't SEE what you need to do to pronounce it correctly!  As in the case of the Ü with the Umlaut, you can see the lips rounded in a tight hole and the dimples forming in the cheek so saying words like 绿茶,and 身略 (LÜ Cha and Sheng LÜe) are pretty easy to figure out because it's VISUAL, but with the "Ji, Qi, Xi" it's INTERNAL!  It's a sound produced from completely inside the mouth. 

The "Ji, Qi and Xi" sounds are actually made by pressing the tip of your tongue on the bottom of your lower teeth, with the center of the tongue touching the Alveolar Ridge.  The way we make the sounds in English is with the tip of the tongue turned up, touching the Alveolar Ridge, thus giving the American sound to it.

That's why the Chinese describe it as being a "flat tongue" sound, and that's why you hear a sort of soft hissing sound with this group of sounds, as the air travels downward on a slope accross the surface of your tongue and out of your mouth.

So to really hear the difference between the sounds, reverse everything.  Replace your English "she" with the properly pronouned Chinese sound "Xi", say, "Xi said xi wants to take a xiao-er (shower) in a xi-ny (shiny) new  xiao-er (shower)" and the difference between the individual sounds really comes accross!  I thin much more so than when pronouncing our butchered "Gee, Chee, She" sounds in Chinese, and I feel this can help really help bring it all together! It helps you to realize how important these little details of pronunciation are.

But I digress, anyway needless to say I was ELATED!  I finally had the answer to the question that had been plaguing me for all those years! 

Correcting these sounds didn't happen overnight, I had to constantly concentrate on proper tongue placement, as well as having to learn how to move the tongue smoothly through quick combinations between, the flat tongue and rolled tongue sounds, words like 洗手间 (xi shou jian...bathroom) were especially difficult because it's a quick transition between Flat Tongue, (to) Rolled Tongue, (and back to) Flat Tongue...but after a months of constant work I finally got it.

So...that being said my Chinese speaking abilities gained newfound confidence!  I know it sounds corny but it's true, and actually, finally getting that group of sounds correct led me to totally re-examine my pronunciation and by being honest with myself I found there were plently of other sounds I wasn't pronouncing correctly either!  Since then I've gone on to fix pretty much all the pronunciation problems and I honestly feel my pronunciation is really really close to sounding totally Chinese!

To tell you the truth, when you want to blend in perfectly with a society, the more like them you SOUND...the more like them you LOOK! 

One time I was out with a group of my Chinese friends and we went to a place where it was necessary for me to speak English, so I was busy conversing with the Clerk in English and when I came back to my group they said that, when watching me speak English one of them remarked, "哇, 小虎的英文很厉害啊" (Wow, Xiao Hu's English is really great!), the others started busting up and said,

"小虎就是美国人并不是中国人,当然他的英文很好呗!"  (Xiao Hu is American, not Chinese...of course his English is great!)

The other told me, "我已经这么习惯跟你说中国话好像我完全忘记你是美国人!" (Apparently I'm so used to speaking Chinese with you that I totally forgot you are American!)

It sounds kind of dorky to say I owe so much improvement to John Pasden, but I do!

So, the point of my long winded story is just that if you want to correct your pronunciation, first consult the written guides to give you the clues on how you are supposed to place your tongue, lips, etc., and what you are supposed to do with the passage of air out of your mouth, once armed with that knowledge, then go back to the Pinyin sound chart and listen to each sound individually.  Having previously studied the pronunciation guide you will know basically what to do to replicate those sounds, after which you, MIMIC, MIMIC, MIMIC!  Mimic the sounds individially at first, then start combining them into words, and finally sentences, and before you know it, you yourself will actually become widely regarded by the Chinese People as a true 中国通!


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