Mandarin Chinese Pronunciation -
8 Secrets to Success

It is frustrating when your Mandarin Chinese pronunciation sounds like anything but Mandarin Chinese. Tones are tricky. X's and Zh's and odd vowel sounds that don't exist in our own language can present some difficulties.

Don't despair, though! I'm still far from perfect myself, but I've made a lot of headway with Mandarin Chinese pronunciation over the years. So here are my 8 secrets to sounding more Chinese that have helped me make some breakthroughs in my learning.

You'll have to read on to get a real understanding, but here is a quick overview of the tips:

  1. Think in Pairs
  2. The Grunt
  3. Sing Your First Tones Like You Couldn't Possibly Be Serious
  4. Take a Silent Period
  5. Thinking and Not Thinking
  6. Ready, Set, Record
  7. Error Patterns at the Sentence Level
  8. Zoning Out

So now let's break it down - eight tips to help you realize perfect standard Mandarin Chinese pronunciation...

1. Think in Pairs

When beginning to learn Mandarin, it's sensible to learn the four Chinese tones one at a time. However, you may want to quickly graduate to thinking about the tones in pairs. Get used to what the different combinations sound like.

Choose a word which is familiar to your ear - for example, 'ní hǎo' (你好) which is pronounced with a 2nd tone followed by a 3rd tone. You can transfer this familiarity to other words with the same combo. The result will be that you have a feel for the pronunciation of a new word immediately.

Let's try it...

Take a moment to feel the rhythm of this tone combination in ‘ní hǎo’. Say it to yourself, paying attention to the rhythm of the tones, as opposed to the sounds of the 'letters'.

Now if I introduce a word, for example, yíng yǎng (营养) - meaning nutritious (I find Chinese folks are often wanting to give helpful advice about what foods are or are not good for you, so I hear this word often). If you simply mimic the rhythm of 'ní hǎo' that you are familiar with, then your Mandarin Chinese pronunciation of this new word will, without much effort, come off accurately.

Did you try it? Pretty neat, huh?

So once you have a feel for tone pairs, you can feel your way through a lot of Mandarin Chinese pronunciation very skillfully.

Think in tone pairs. It helps immensely!

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2. Grunt your third tones

Third tones as they appear in real spoken sentences often do not have the same feeling as the classic third tone that is taught in isolation by a typical teacher or textbook. Sometimes that classic third tone is no help to us when we are actually trying to express ourselves.

You need a shortened third tone in your toolbox that comes out almost as a little grunt, coming from the back of the throat.

For my first few years of learning Chinese, the word or character 'yě' (也), meaning 'also' was a character that used to confound my Mandarin Chinese pronunciation skills. When speaking it alone it was no problem - it was when that little bugger would want to sneak into the 2nd or 3rd character place in my sentence that it made a mess of everything and made me sound so, well, un-Chinese.

The grunt solution has taken care of this problem like a charm. And it can do the same for you.

3. Sing Your First Tones Like You Couldn't Possibly Be Serious

You will find that first tones - those ones that hang up high - while easy to imitate in isolation, can be very unnatural when placed in a sentence.

The solution is to exaggerate those first tones in your sentences or phrases. Hang up there on that first tone more than you feel anyone but a fool would do. Especially with a first tone that ends a sentence, which are particularly unnatural. Sing it out.

The result?

The result is not that you will sound foolish, but in fact that you will sound like you're speaking Mandarin - good Mandarin! And those exaggerated displays will make an impression on your own mind that will easily lead you from using this as a technique to actually forming the habit of hitting your first tones correctly.

Trust me on this one. Exaggerate those first tones. It's safe. Your Mandarin Chinese pronunciation will flourish for it.

4. Take a Silent Period

This is the easiest tip of all to put into practice. If you are getting regular opportunities to speak Mandarin throughout your normal week, whether with a tutor, language exchange partner, in a class, etc., then take a week, or even more (up to a month), to stop speaking.

Very important, though, is that you continue to get input (continue to listen to Chinese) during this silent period. The period is just to take all pressure off the language production department of the brain.

The mind is a mysterious thing. You may be surprised to find that when you return to speaking again your brain had been busy doing some reorganizing and consolidating behind the scenes. And lo and behold, your Mandarin Chinese pronunciation has improved!

Now, if you are in an immersion-like environment or close to it, I would actually suggest you could take a break from that environment altogether, listening included, for a week or more.

I have experienced this a few times myself, usually unintended, and instead of leading to a regression in my abilities, as one might expect, I seemed to experience a little jump in both control of my tones and fluency.

The mind seems to take advantage of the freedom it has once it has a break from us imposing on it our limited ideas of how it should be learning.

In fact, researchers in the area of second language acquisition already have evidence that a silent period is good at the start of learning a new language. To my knowledge, no research has been done about returning to silent periods after that.

But why shouldn't that work just as well?

5. Experiment with Thinking and Not Thinking

What is the effect when you pay close attention to your Mandarin pronunciation, particularly to speaking the tones correctly? What is the effect when you speak, maybe the same phrase, and do not pay so much attention, but just say it out? In which case is your pronunciation better? (It's best to get a native speaker to help you make this judgement.)

The answer to this question can be revealing.

In many situations, it is helpful for you to pay attention to tones carefully. This will improve your Mandarin Chinese pronunciation. Don't give that up. But in many cases, particularly when you are closer to internalizing the phrases than you realize, your pronunciation will be more on target when you don't think so much.

The Myth of Speeding Up to Hide Tones

You may hear some people say, either in jest or not, that you should just speak quickly, and then nobody will notice your mistakes with tones. I do not agree with this. Or rather I should say that I don't agree with the reasoning. But in practice, it could be true.

Let me explain.

When someone says they have success by doing that - just speaking faster so the tones go unnoticed - there is one of two things going on. Either:

a. Yes, he or she doesn't hear the mistakes; but that doesn't mean a native speaker is not hearing them.

or more likely (and this is where it gets interesting)...

b. he finds he is more easily understood, not because his tones are unnoticed, but because his tones actually are better when he speeds up. By speaking Chinese quickly, he is tapping into what he has learned and internalized about the words, or phrases.

Slowing down and visualizing the pinyin and tone marks can shut down access to your internalized source of knowledge - your inner ear.

So play with this power of attention. See what happens when you relax it. Is your pronunciation better? You might be surprised. On the other hand, if your attention already is relaxed, and your tones are a mess, then your efforts have to be more on the awareness side.

6. Ready, Set, Record...(Chin Up and Playback)

Get set up with a recording device - anything will do, no need for high tech - and have some simple phrases (or sentences if you're more advanced) recorded by a native speaker ready to listen to and imitate - the phrases shouldn't feel too challenging to repeat.

Listen to the Chinese phrase and repeat it. Do this a few times until you feel fluent with it. Then press record. Now...get ready and prepare yourself for some possible disappointment as you listen back.

In your head, you may be hearing the tones correctly, but you may be surprised when you listen back. In fact, you didn't hit the tones as you imagined you did. (If you are pleased with the results, congratulations. Now choose something longer or more difficult.)

This little shocker can do wonders for your Mandarin Chinese pronunciation. This was my experience. Ignorance may have been bliss for me, but I doubt it was pleasant for Chinese friends who had to listen to me make a mess of their language. The added awareness helped me bear down on the tones and give this problem the attention it deserves.

Do this self-recording exercise periodically - say, every 3-5 months and see how your Mandarin Chinese pronunciation is coming along. Celebrate your improvements, even the small ones.

Especially the small ones!

7. Identify Error Patterns at the Sentence Level

Awareness, awareness, awareness! Again, that's your weapon in this Mandarin Chinese pronunciation battle. Increased awareness pays long term dividends.

As you probably know, knowing the tones of a word or a character and being able to produce it well in isolation doesn't necessarily mean you can carry it off well in the context of a sentence. Sometimes emotions or just our habitual patterns of speaking our native language get in the way.

But these error patterns reoccur. (That's why they're 'patterns', right?) If you can identify them and become aware, you're halfway there to solving the problem.

Here are some common infractions you may be making:

  • Giving the first character in a sentence the first tone (no matter what tone it has)
  • giving the wrong tone to the character where you are pausing, perhaps thinking of what to say next - for many people that pause is a rising tone.
  • Habitually falling at the end of sentences (No, not on the floor. I'm still talking about tones.)
You can get a teacher, tutor, or whomever you speak with often to help you identify what your particular Mandarin Chinese pronunciation error patterns are. Make it sound like a fun challenge to see if they can catch your patterns.

8. Zone Out and Listen to the Melody of Mandarin

Another passive exercise that's easy and fun to do:

Try listening to a speaker who has very nice, melodic Mandarin Chinese pronunciation, and does not speak too quickly - what I mean by melodic is that the tones are very distinct, perhaps sound more exaggerated than other speakers. And they flow nicely into each other.

It is almost as if she is singing. Do you know someone like that?

Get lost in her voice.

Listen to her voice with no regard for what she is actually saying. (Yes, it could be a 'he' as well as a 'she'. So happens my muse was a she. Go figure.) Get lost in the melodiousness of it. It really is special, isn't it, this Mandarin tongue?

We have all heard it said that Mandarin is 'a tonal language.' And we know this in our heads beyond doubt. But when you know it in your heart, too, through this kind of experience, this appreciation will help your Mandarin Chinese pronunciation. If not sooner, then later.

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