By: Jingwen Wu
妈, 麻, 马, and 骂 can all be phonetically spelled as “ma.” Yet, when pronounced in different tones, 妈 means mother, 麻 refers to a state of numbness, while 马 refers to horse and 骂 means “to curse.” The Chinese language has four main tones which serve the purpose of distinguishing the different meanings of words - in this sense, correct pronunciation of the language is crucial to communicating in Chinese. Of course, this can be challenging - I remember when I was first learning Chinese, I had a lot of trouble figuring out the correct tones for each word. I had to be very careful here, because pronouncing words in the wrong tones can lead to many misunderstandings. Nevertheless, along the way, I collected a series of tips that I think could be potentially useful for new Chinese learners!
Tip #1: Listen and Repeat
Listening to Chinese speakers and their pronunciations is one of the most effective ways of picking up on the different tones of the Chinese language. I find it really helpful to watch a Chinese show with subtitles and mimic the tones that the speakers use to distinguish between different words. Gaining more exposure to the Chinese language is extremely helpful for grasping control over the pronunciation of the different words. Moreover, shows or movies are a great way to grasp this control in a natural setting, and you can even pick up on new words and phrases along the way!
(Image Source: Cao)
These four different tones can be difficult to practice alone, but applying their pronunciations in context can be often more helpful. Sometimes in sentences, it sounds somewhat different than one might imagine. However, knowing how each of these tones sound in natural conversation is extremely useful for formulating sentences with correct pronunciation on your own!
Tip #2: Learn Pinyin Well
Although Pinyin may seem counterintuitive to how Chinese is actually pronounced, and is tricky to get the hang of, learning Pinyin can be greatly helpful in pronouncing words correctly. Since each word has a Pinyin spelling, when first learning to pronounce Chinese words, it can be helpful to obtain a book that has pinyin spellings on top of each character, so that pronunciation can be clearly delineated. Learning how to pronounce Pinyin spellings such as “cai” or “qing” can be greatly helpful in solidifying the correct Chinese pronunciation, especially because Pinyin also indicates which of the four tones the word should be pronounced with. A research study conducted by Scott McGinnis, member of the Department of Asian and East European Languages and Cultures at the University of Maryland, denotes that using a tonal spelling system that literally spelled out how words were supposed to be pronounced was less effective than using Pinyin (228). In essence, learning Pinyin well is a largely effective method of grasping Chinese pronunciation. It provides a uniform way to designate pronunciation of each word using letters of the alphabet that English speakers may be more familiar with.
Tip #3: Utilize All Your Resources!
It can be immensely helpful to connect with a native Chinese speaker, start a conversation with them in Chinese, and have them correct your pronunciation throughout the natural flow of the conversation. Learning by conversing and having someone immediately correct your mistakes is one of the most effective ways to improve, despite how embarrassing or defeating it might feel. For me, that resource was my parents and the friends I had in China and the United States that were familiar with Chinese. I found that practicing conversational Chinese with them was immensely beneficial to making my pronunciation more accurate - it also expanded my vocabulary, which was a plus!
Looking up some tongue twisters and practicing them daily can also be an effective and simultaneously fun way to get yourself accustomed to Chinese pronunciation. In addition, looking up a Chinese song’s lyrics and singing along, following the singer’s pronunciation, can also be fun methods of practicing Chinese! For younger children, songs such as the alphabet song or children’s tunes can make learning seem just like leisure. Making the act of practicing a language more than just work can also improve an individual’s willingness to learn, which can serve as an added benefit. When I was a child, I remember reciting Chinese poems and singing along to children’s tunes, and to this day, I can still recall how much doing these activities helped me with my Chinese language skills.
With these tips in mind, I hope that grasping Chinese pronunciation is even just a little less scary now. Through ample practice and time, Chinese will no longer seem so daunting - best of luck on your exciting language journey!
Jingwen Wu is a first-year student at Stanford University hoping to major in Mathematical and Computational Sciences. She is deeply fascinated by how technology can influence healthcare outcomes, especially in the coming years.
Cao, Jing. “Chinese Pronunciation: The Complete Guide for Beginner.” Your Guide To The Chinese Learning Jungle, 12 Mar. 2020, www.digmandarin.com/chinese-pronunciation-guide.html.
Mcginnis, Scott. “Tonal Spelling versus Diacritics for Teaching Pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese.” The Modern Language Journal, vol. 81, no. 2, 1997, pp. 228–236., doi:10.1111/j.1540-4781.1997.tb01178.x.