Is There a Correct Way to Speak Chinese Incorrectly?

What exactly counts as incorrect pronunciation?

A couple of years ago I was travelling around the south of China with my sister, hanging out at hostels and meeting lots of cool new people. My sister, like most the people we met, didn’t speak any Chinese, so when they talked about the places they had been to they inevitably pronounced the place names incorrectly.

One thing I noticed is that they were pronouncing the pinyin “zh” (as is Shenzhen and Guangzhou) like the English sound in the words “vision” and “leisure” and “measure” (represented by the symbol [ʒ]). For me this raised two interesting questions. Firstly, what is the specific, correct pronunciation of the “zh” sound? Secondly, what does it mean in general to pronounce something incorrectly?

The second question is particularly controversial because native speakers like to believe they have authority over their language. If a Chinese person says you’re pronouncing “Guangzhou” incorrectly you must be pronouncing it incorrectly, right? I don’t think it’s as simple as that. My sister is a native English speaker, she was talking to another native English speaker, she pronounced “Guangzhou” with English phonological features and was understood by the person she was talking to. How can it have been incorrect?

If we assume that language is simply nothing more than a tool for communication then the only criteria by which we can judge pronunciation as “correct” or “incorrect” is if it results in successful communication or communication breakdown. In other words, if people have no problems at all understanding you, you by definition have correct pronunciation. If people don’t understand you, or find it difficult to understand you, your pronunciation is not correct.

If you accept this view then it will seem bizarre to claim that a Chinese person has any authority to say that an English speaker is pronouncing something incorrectly when they are talking successfully in English to another English speaker.

But what about when an English speaker is speaking Chinese? Mandarin Chinese is a standardised language and Chinese people are taught a codified, standard pronunciation in school. If we take this standard as “correct” then anything that differs from the standard is incorrect. It is by this criteria that Chinese people will often say that another Chinese person’s Mandarin is “bad” or “not standard”.

How do Chinese people say it?

The “zh” sound in Mandarin Chinese is one of those sounds that even Chinese people, particularly those from the south of China, have trouble with. So what is the standard Mandarin pronunciation of “zh”? How do most English speakers pronounce it incorrectly? And is it the same as when Chinese people pronounce it incorrectly?

Warning: linguistic jargon incoming

The pinyin “zh” is an unvoiced, unaspirated, retroflex affricate. “Unvoiced” means that the vocal chords don’t vibrate, “unaspirated” means there is little force of breath, “retroflex” means the tongue is curled back and “affricate” is the type of movement that the tongue makes. Confused? I’ll try to explain…

In English the “ch” sound in the word “chair” is an unvoiced affricate, so we can take that as our starting point. Basically, if you say the English “ch” the tip of your tongue will be pointing forward and you should be able to feel a puff of air come out of your mouth if you hold your hand in front. If you try to say the English “ch” with your tongue curled back and with less force so you cant feel air puff of air against your hand that should be pretty close to the Chinese “zh”. And yes, I know this is easier said than done.

By contrast, the [ʒ] sound in the English word vision is a voiced, postalveolar fricative. This is quite different to the pinyin “zh” because in the English sound your vocal chords vibrate, your tongue is not curled back and the movement of the tongue to restrict the airflow is different.

The problem many Chinese people have with the “zh” sound is the retroflex element (curling the tongue back). Many Chinese people simply can’t do it. Instead they produce a unvoiced, unaspirated, alveolar affricate. The is very similar as the “ts” sound at the end of the English word “cats” but with less force of breath, similar to the “ds” sound at the end of the word “cards“. This sound is represented by “z” in Pinyin.

This raises an interesting question; if you can’t pronounce the “zh” sound correctly, is it okay to just replace it with the pinyin “z”? The pinyin “z” is generally easier for English speakers than “zh” and lots of Chinese people themselves pronounce it this way, which will probably make it a better option than replacing “zh” with the English [ʒ] sound.

Even though incorrect by the standards of Chinese textbooks, if you replace “zh” with “z” you will probably be understood by Chinese people without any problems and by that definition it will not be incorrect. By contrast, if you try to replace the pinyin “zh” with a different, English sound Chinese people might not understand you. In other words, is there in fact a “correct” way to pronounce Chinese “incorrectly”?

Food for thought.