As a native English speaker I have encountered all the usual problems, frustrations and setbacks that can be expected learning Chinese. They can, however, be overcome. And it’s easier than you might think. Not to say that it is easy, it’s still difficult. My pronunciation is far from perfect and I’m still working on it, but I have had the occasional telephone call in which the person on the other end seemed non the wiser, and a couple of instances of shouting my order over to a waiter who turned round and, much to their surprise, saw a white face with a big pointy nose. It wasn’t always this way though. For the first couple of years studying Chinese my pronunciation was extremely bad, but once I finally decided to work on correcting it I was actually able to remedy the situation quite quickly. The following guide should be of help to others.
To point out the obvious, Chinese is phonetically different to English. It therefore would be advisable to find a private teacher to help you at first, although this is not essential. A good alternative would be to use software such as Rosetta Stone or simply listening to the recordings that come with any good textbook. What’s important is that time needs to be spent listening to Chinese, because if you don’t even know what the Chinese language sounds like you definitely won’t be able to speak it correctly. Personally I didn’t learn pinyin when I began learning Chinese because, as a native English speaker, I was concerned that using pinyin as my pronunciation reference from the very beginning would run the risk of me thinking of the Chinese language in terms of English language phonemes. Pinyin is extremely useful as a guide for how to pronounce words, but it is important to understand that the letter “R” in pinyin represents a sound very different to the “R” in English. The more you listen to Chinese the more familiar you will become with the sounds. Repeated exposure to spoken Chinese and a considerable amount of listening are very helpful.
The four tones of Mandarin Chinese
Chinese has a reputation for being difficult because of “the four tones”, and almost every English-speaking learner has at times struggled with this aspect of pronunciation. Those self-studying usually have a more difficult time, not because the tones are so difficult, but simply because of the tendency to be intimidated by the tonal aspect of pronunciation and as a result neglect it. I have met many self-learners who believe they can say a sentence in Chinese but when asked what the correct tones are for each word it turns out they do not know. The simple fact is that speaking the correct tones is infinitely more difficult if you don’t even know what the correct tones actually are. There is no point even trying to say a word in Chinese if you haven’t learnt the correct tone. You might be able to guess, and there is a one in four chance you will get it right. But there is also a three in four chance you will get it wrong, and each time you pronounce the word wrong you are teaching yourself incorrect pronunciation, which will take more time to correct than the amount of time it would have taken to learn the correct pronunciation in the first place. There is one very simple fact with speaking Chinese: if you learn a word but can’t remember what tone it is then you haven’t learnt that word.
Learning the tones is actually not difficult at all, but it takes time and can be tedious. In order to remember the tones I would write the tone marks above each word/ character whenever I write it or see it. Most elementary level textbooks have the texts written in both pinyin and characters. Read the pinyin text then read the characters text and write all the tones above each character. Then look back at the pinyin and see if the tones are right. Circle each character you wrote the wrong tone for so you have a strong visual indication of the frequency with which you put the wrong tone. Hopefully you should be able to see that frequency go down as you study more. Similarly, every time you write a sentence write the tone marks above each word and then check them in the dictionary. It’s time consuming, but it works. You can also try to be more creative, perhaps making flashcards with the pinyin/character on one side the tone on the other. You can play simple games in which you match words/characters separate them into groups on the basis of tones, flipping the card over to reveal the correct tone after you have guessed it. However you go about learning the tones, it is only when you know the correct tones for a word that you can then attempt to pronounce that word.
You need to speak lots. Saying the word once is about as useful as going to the gym and doing one pull up. You might learn how to do a pull up but you won’t do much to exercise your body. Similarly, you might learn how to say a word but you won’t exercise the part of your brain processing these new words. You need to give your brain a workout, so listen to the recording that comes with the textbook, then record yourself speaking and listen back to it. It can be painful listening to your own voice, particularly when it’s mauling a foreign language, but it has to be done. If your hair is in a mess it is difficult to correct without a mirror to see what it looks like. If your pronunciation is a mess it is difficult to correct without a voice recorder to hear what it sounds like. A simple smartphone app will work perfectly. Record yourself, listen to yourself, listen to the textbook recording, record yourself, listen to yourself again. To increase fluency simple pattern drills are a tried and trusted technique. An English sentence pattern drill might be as follows: “I am a student. He is a student. She is a student. My mum is a student. My dad is a student. My dog is a student…” It doesn’t actually matter whether you, your mum, or indeed your dog, are students or not. What is important is that you speak these sentences out loud so that you are able to use the sentence structure without having to consciously stop and think how to say that sentence.
One source of immense amusement for many Chinese is how native English speakers will “sing” Chinese. Whenever native English speakers speak Chinese they will “sing” everything. Many Chinese people will go as far as mimicking this way of speaking whenever they talk to someone they believe to be a foreigner. This is because spoken Chinese has a completely different rhythm to spoken English. If you maintain the rhythm of spoken English when speaking Chinese the result is that, to a Chinese speaker, you sound like you are trying to sing. Even more problematic is that maintaining the rhythm of spoken English when speaking Chinese makes it almost impossible to say the correct tones.
There is one very simple way around this. Speak. One. word. At. A. Time. This might result in the speaker sounding like the Chinese equivalent of Stephen Hawking’s robotic voice, but no one ever had trouble understanding the pronunciation of Stephen Hawking’s robot voice. By contrast, lots of Chinese people do have trouble understanding foreigners with terrible pronunciation. The intonation and rhythm of spoken Chinese is very different to that of English. Furthermore, each syllable in Chinese is a separate word, so completely breaking down the rhythm of your natural speaking and pronouncing clearly each individual syllable when you speak Chinese will result in Chinese people considering you to have a surprisingly clear and “standard” pronunciation. You might feel stupid at first, but to a Chinese speaker you will sound far less stupid that someone who is attempting to “sing” Chinese with incorrect tones. Chinese is very different to English in terms of tones, intonation, rhythm and phonemes, so if you don’t feel stupid when you’re speaking it then you’re almost certainly not pronouncing it right.