Chinese Pronunciation: It’s Not Just Tones
There you are: wandering through an unfamiliar Chinese town, lost and alone. It’s a scorching summer day. Your phone is out of battery. You’re staying at a nice hotel in the centre of town, one that all the locals are sure to be familiar with. You pop in the nearest convenience store and prepare to ask for directions. Here’s the decisive moment: Whether or not you make it to your hotel depends entirely on your Chinese pronunciation.
Now, the first thing most people think of when they hear “Chinese pronunciation” is tones. It’s all anybody ever talks about. You might think Chinese just has tones and nothing else. Fortunately for you, I’ve already covered Chinese tones in another article, and shown why they aren’t as scary as they seem. In today’s article, I’ll go into a few different aspects of correct Chinese pronunciation, focusing on the Mandarin variety.
Why does proper Chinese pronunciation matter?
In contrast to English, most Chinese speakers aren’t at all used to hearing non-native speakers attempt their language. In some places in China, you could very easily be the first Chinese-speaking foreigner the locals have met. Wouldn’t you want to make a good impression?
And besides the social aspect, if people aren’t used to foreign accents it’s much harder for them to understand you. The best strategy by far is to get good pronunciation habits ingrained in your speech patterns from the get-go, so that you’re constantly refining your speech instead of having to correct old mistakes.
Pinyin: Tricky yet consistent
Mandarin Chinese is a pretty restrictive language when it comes to syllables. The syllables have to end in a vowel, n, or ng, and there are also several rules restricting the number of initial sounds. Today I’d like to tackle the trickiest of the initial sounds.
The way pinyin is written, you might think that you can just pronounce the letters like their English equivalents and get by that way. The truth is, most of the letters of pinyin don’t have English counterparts at all! Instead, Mandarin differentiates sounds that English speakers hear as very similar. Learning to understand the difference is key to good Chinese pronunciation as well as good understanding of native speakers.
Probably the most troublesome sounds are the zh ch sh, j q x, and z c s initial sounds. These are the first sounds of extremely common words like Zhōngguó, xǐhuān, and cèsuǒ. The important thing to recognize is that each group follows the same pattern. I’ll bring in some linguistic terminology to explain.
Zh, j, and z all represent unaspirated sounds. That means there’s no puff of air accompanying them. In English, we aspirate the sounds p, t, and k at the beginning of words. Hold your hand in front of your mouth and say “pit”, followed by “spit.” Each one has the p sound, but you should be able to feel the puff of air accompanying “pit.” That’s aspiration. The ch, q, and c sounds in Pinyin are the aspirated versions of these – they’re made in exactly the same way, except they’re followed by a tiny burst of air. Sh, x, and s are called fricatives, which means they’re one smooth long sound that you can draw out. They’re not aspirated either.
Now, there’s one more distinction being made here. Zh, ch, and sh are retroflex sounds, meaning they’re made with the tongue curled back just a little bit. J, q, and x are alveolo-palatal sounds, meaning they’re made with the tongue curled forward and down, just behind the bottom teeth. Finally, z c s are the dental sounds, meaning that the tongue is just barely touching the back of the upper teeth.
It’s a lot to absorb, but understanding these distinctions is key to making these sounds correctly. Otherwise, like me when I first started learning, you’ll confuse them and not be able to hear any difference. The best way to learn pronunciation, as always, is with lots of native audio to guide you. After you’ve read these descriptions of the sounds, check out the introductory Mandarin activities on LingQ to tune your ear. And make sure to practice aloud!
Let the tones flow through you
The next thing I’d like to cover is sentence flow. If you’re going to pronounce Chinese well, you can by no means stop at the syllable. You have to learn how words are pronounced, how phrases are pronounced, and how whole sentences are pronounced. I can tell if my neighbours are speaking Mandarin or Cantonese through my thin walls, even though I can’t make out a single word. It’s all in the rhythm of the muffled sentences I hear.
Unfortunately, there’s no great way to convey Mandarin sentence intonation in text. Just as with any language, a good reference grammar will have a short section on general rises and falls, but it doesn’t even scratch the surface of what’s going on. Think about it: even if you pronounce each tone perfectly, it’ll be like you’re reading the sentence aloud word by word. You need to have a rhythm, a melody, a cadence. Your Mandarin needs to sound like speech, not a robot voice.
If you’re stressing about how to make sure your tones and your sentence rhythm sound good, don’t sweat it. If you can mimic any voices or accents in your native language, however poorly, you’re already on the right track. Listen to an example of speech you’d like to mimic and play it on repeat. Shorter segments are better for this – perhaps just a few seconds long. It’s also best to do this after you have a good grounding in how to say the words individually.
But don’t let that prescribed book-standard fool you. People push sounds together and glide from tone to tone far more often than you’d think in natural speech. Listen to your little segment of speech over and over and eventually your tongue will start loosening up all by itself. You’ll want to speak aloud. Remember, repeat what you actually hear, not what you might read aloud from a transcript.
If you add enough of this relaxed rhythm practice, natural-sounding Chinese sentences will be popping up in your speech left and right. But as I always say in pronunciation articles, you need to practice aloud. Reading this article won’t change anything unless you get those mouth muscles used to natural speech. So fire up some Chinese exercises on LingQ and get started today on your path to perfect Chinese pronunciation!
Alex Thomas loves the sounds of every language, but it is perhaps the Chinese varieties that excite him the most. He has visited many of China’s cities, large and small, and cannot wait to return.