Why you should learn Chinese in Chinese

14110181271432669791Relying on your native language when learning Chinese is natural and one of the main differences between adult and child language learning. As adults, we already have one or several languages in place when we start learning Chinese and we also have complex knowledge of the world around us.

This leads to huge amounts of mostly unnoticed positive transfer.. You don’t need to learn what a cat is, you just need to know what it’s called in Chinese. Thus, using your native language to learn Chinese is an advantage and the main reason that avoiding it completely is a bad idea.

Learning Chinese in Chinese

However, this doesn’t mean that Chinese lessons should be held in English or that relying extensively on English to learn Chinese is good. Quite the opposite is true. You learn a language by using it, so from the very start, you (and your teacher) should make a serious effort to use as much Chinese as possible. Not 100%, that would be impractical, but the closer you can get, the better.

One of the first things you should learn to say in Chinese are those sentences you use to learn. A good rule of thumb is that if you find yourself saying something (anything) in English a few times, you should learn it in Chinese instead. I’m not going to give you a list of classroom phrases in Chinese here, but just to show you what I mean, here are a few examples:

  • How do you say X in Chinese?
  • What does X mean?
  • Sorry, I don’t understand.
  • …can you please say that again?
  • …can you please speak more slowly?

(There are many lists with classroom phrases, check this, this, this and this.)

Note that you don’t necessarily have to be able to say all these things yourself. Students seldom need to say “open the book on page 54″, but they definitely need to understand such sentences. Only learn to say the phrases you use yourself, at least to start with.

Classroom phrases in Chinese

These sentences are very, very important, on the same level as introducing yourself and asking basic information about other people and your surroundings. They should appear early in all textbooks and all teachers should introduce them long before the students are actually ready to understand the grammar and vocabulary used in them.

Still, this is rarely the case. I have seen a few textbooks that have a separate prologue with such phrases and this is great, but most textbooks have nothing to offer in this area. Some teachers still do it on their own, but don’t count on it. In any case, the point is that the best way of learning Chinese is to use it, and the best way to use it is by saying things you would like to say anyway. Common classroom expressions should be in Chinese!

The reason you should learn these phrases are that you’re wasting free review time if you don’t. By knowing the meaning of these, you start being able to communicate in Chinese immediately. Because these phrases are so common when learning Chinese, you don’t really need to spend much effort learning them. Sure, it might take a number of repetitions before they sink in, this won’t be instantaneous, but the highly repetitive nature of the phrases means that you will learn them soon enough. If you keep saying them in English, you will never learn.

Advanced learning

The more advanced you become, the more Chinese you can use. For instance, starting using Chinese-Chinese dictionaries is an important but fairly difficult step, something I have written more about in this article: The Chinese-Chinese dictionary survival guide.

Other examples involve listening to Chinese-only podcasts targeted at language learners (such as ChinesePod), which is excellent practice. You often learn more from hearing the hosts talk about the dialogues than you do from the dialogues themselves.

Conclusion

I think the point should be clear: Use Chinese to learn Chinese. It shouldn’t be 100%, don’t be afraid of translating things if that saves a lot of time, but never rely on English more than you have to and always learn common words and phrases in Chinese.

Learning Chinese by playing Mahjong 麻將 (májiàng)

Image credit: Sigismund von Dobschütz
Image credit: Sigismund von Dobschütz

One of the most important pieces of advice I give beginners is that they should, as much as possible, learn by doing. This can be difficult when you only know a few words, but there are lots of things in your life you can convert to Chinese after just one week of studying. The most obvious example is counting. Don’t just study the numbers and learn them for the exam, count in Chinese whenever you get the chance. Use 三 (san) eggs for your pancakes, do 十二 (shíèr)  pushups, count 三十六 (sānshíliù) steps up to your apartment.

Playing 麻将/將 (májiàng) to learn Chinese numbers

Once you have the basic numbers, down, you’re ready to play 麻将/將 (májiàng) or Mahjong as it’s often spelt in English, a game which is extremely popular in most Chinese speaking societies and beyond. It’s also fun and teaches you a bit about Chinese culture at the same time,Knowing how to play the game will also be much appreciated by native speakers. Although you can play for money, the games works equally well without doing so.

Apart from the numbers 1-9, you only need a handful of words and most of them are useful outside the game as well. I have played in Chinese with people who don’t even study Chinese, so it’s definitely doable. From a language point of view, playing mostly consists of naming the tiles you play and, sometimes calling an action based on what someone else just played. Naturally, Chinese people tend to talk a lot while playing the game, but most of this isn’t related to the game or isn’t strictly necessary.

The rules of the game

I’m not going to give a detailed description of how the game is played, but if you think of it as a card game (which it originally was), it becomes much easier. The game is played by drawing one new tile each round, then discarding one. Gradually, you upgrade the tiles you have on your hand until all tiles are part of different sets of three or four. The first person to combine all his or her tiles in this way wins.

I’m not going to go into scoring here, because there are so many different variants that it would make little sense. I have played the game many times with different native speakers, and even though the basic premise of the game stays mostly the same, the scoring system can be completely different. If you care about games in general (I do), this is frustrating, because changing the scoring system obviously changes the way the game ought to be played.

If you want a beginner-friendly introduction of how to play, check this video on YouTube.

The vocabulary you need to play

Below, I have included the basic vocabulary you need to play. There are of course more useful words than these, and there are also variants of some of them, but this is just meant to get you started, not teach you everything there is to know. There are also regional variants, so don’t be surprised if this list isn’t identical to what you have heard or what your Chinese friends teach you.

Numbers

  • 一 (yī) “one”
  • 二 (èr) “two”
  • 三 (sān) “three”
  • 四 (sì) “four”
  • 五 (wǔ) “five”
  • 六 (liù) “six”
  • 七 (qī) “seven”
  • 八 (bā) “eight”
  • 九 (jiǔ) “nine”

 General

  • 洗牌 (xǐpái) “shuffle tiles (or cards)”
  • 出牌 (chūpái) “play a tile”
  • 摸牌 (mōpái) “draw a tile”
  • 和了 (húle) “I’ve won!”
  • 吃 (chī) said when you take a tile to complete a straight
  • 碰 (pèng) said when you take a tile to complete a set of three
  • 槓 (gàng) said when you take a tile to complete a set of four

Tiles

  • 筒 (tǒng) “circle (suite)”
  • 条/條 (tiáo) “bamboo (suite)”
  • 万/萬 (wàn) “characters (suite)”
  • 东风/東風 (dōngfēng) “east wind”
  • 南风/南風 (nánfēng) “south wind”
  • 西风西風 (xīfēng) “west wind”
  • 北風 (běifēng) “north wind”
  • 红/紅中 (hóngzhōng) “red dragon” (lit. “red centre”)
  • 发财/發財 (fācái) “green dragon” (lit. “make a fortune”)
  • 白板 (báibǎn) “white dragon” (lit. “white board/slate”)

If I’ve missed anything important, please leave a comment!

Playing the game with Chinese people

I’ve played a fair amount 麻将/ games in Chinese and the only drawback is that if you’re not already quite good at the game, it’s hard to chat and play at the same time. Some people also play ridiculously fast, so if you’re new to the game, you might need to ask them to slow down. If you want to familiarise yourself with the game on your own, there are plenty of computer programs and smart phone apps out there. If you have any specific recommendations for good apps, please leave a comment!

Will a Chinese-only rule improve your learning?

chineseonlyMany language schools have a “Chinese only” rule, which means that neither students nor teachers are allowed to speak anything but Chinese on campus. The obvious goal is to make sure that all teaching is done in Chinese and that students practise as much as possible by avoiding their native languages, even during breaks.

You can of course also create a “Chinese only” rule for yourself, regardless of what your school requires of you. This post is not about language schools in particular, but about enforcing 100% Chinese language use in general.

While everyone agrees that immersion is great, is a “Chinese only” rule really as good an idea as it seems? In this article, I’m first going to look at some pros and cons, then present my conclusion.

Why having a Chinese-only rule is a good idea

The main advantage of committing to a Chinese-only rule is that it’s likely that you will speak more Chinese if you do that if you don’t. Learning a language is to a large extent about using what you know to express yourself, even if the words and grammar you know are limited. This is exactly what you practice if you force yourself to speak Chinese, even in situations and about topics you really don’t feel comfortable with. Leaving your comfort zone is the best way of learning anything.

Furthermore, by committing to speaking only Chines,e you avoid establishing habits and situations where you use English. For instance, with a Chinese-only rule in place, you’re not going to hang out with other expats who use mostly English. Instead of playing ball with some American guys, you’re going to have to find local players. Practising sports is just an example, but a very good one. Avoid the expat bubble, don’t be a tourist.

The benefits of binary choices

Students are often shy, lazy or both, which means that they avoid speaking Chinese even when they have an opportunity to do so. Without speaking, you will never learn the language, so speaking more is a good idea in general. Having a rule that says that you can only speak Chinese gives you no choice, you have to speak. If you just “try to speak Chinese more”, you’re much more likely to end up speaking English.

This is related to a psychological effect that I would like to explore further in future articles. In general, it seems like binary choices are easier to both to make and to later maintain, compared with choices that are more open. If you have a rule that says “100% Chinese, 0% English”, that’s that, there’s no discussion. You know what it means and everybody else does too.

If you instead create a rule that says “90% Chinese, 10% English”, things get more complicated. How do you count? How do you know if you actually spend 90% of the time using Chinese? Should you count per day? Per week? Can you “save” time for later periods? And so on. If you instead commit to only Chinese, you don’t have to deal with all these issues.

Advantages of using Chinese-only rules in classrooms

Before we move on to the disadvantages of Chinese-only rules, we need to briefly look at two classroom aspects, one related to teachers and one to students.

First, it’s easy to forget that having a conversation at a very basic level with a beginner is demanding not only for the student, but also for the teacher. Therefore, without a Chinese-only rule in place, it’s tempting for teachers to give up earlier and use English instead. This is sometimes warranted (see below), but not always.

Second, in classes where students come from a variety of language backgrounds, the only language everybody has in common is Chinese. What other language is the teacher supposed to use, English? What about the students whose English isn’t so good or who don’t like speaking English? Thus, in some situations, enforcing a Chinese-only rule is a practical considerations, not one related to what is best for an individual student. The rest of this article, therefore, assumes that there is a real choice to be made.

Why having a Chinese-only rule isn’t a good idea

This part of the article is slightly more controversial, because to be honest, I’m not a fan of Chinese-only rules. With all the advantages listed above, how can I support such an opinion? Let’s look at a few of the main disadvantages of adhering to a Chinese-only rule:

  • Weak explanations – Learning languages is to a large extent about being exposed to and gradually learning to use various words and sentence patterns. However, some things really need to be explained to be learnt properly (pronunciation, grammar, characters). This is very hard to do entirely in Chinese. I have met many, many students who simply don’t know even the most basic things about pronunciation. I doubt this is because no-one has told them, but I strongly suspect it’s because they were taught in Chinese and simply didn’t get the point. This isn’t true in all cases, but it is in many of them.
  • Hidden misunderstandings – When you don’t understand something and know it, you can ask questions or seek the answer elsewhere, but when you don’t know that you don’t understand, you have a problem. This happens often when a teacher tries to explain something in Chinese, but the student’s listening ability is not up to par. They both think that the student has understood, but that is in fact not the case. Sometimes, you know that you didn’t get everything the teacher said, but you simply don’t want to ask again, so you’re left with only a vague notion of what was going on. Vague notions are very hard to remember.
  • Wasting time – Most of the time, using Chinese to convey meaning is the point of language learning, but not always. Sometimes, you or the teacher just wants to get the meaning across as accurately as possible. If I correct your tones, I want you to be really sure that you understood what I meant; I don’t really care if you learnt the related Chinese vocabulary along the way. I could have explained what you did wrong in Chinese, but it would have taken ten times longer and the risk of misunderstanding would have been much higher.
  • Harder to integrate knowledge – One of the biggest advantages of learning Chinese as an adult compared with as a child is that you already know a lot of things about the world. You don’t need to learn all these things from scratch. Sure, describing the meanings of words in Chinese can be great fun and is an excellent way of practising, but it’s not very efficient. Translation allows you to draw on your existing knowledge of the world. You can draw parallels to other languages, translate abstract words for which definitions are hard to understand, use English to verify that you really understood what you just read. And so on.
  • Risk of drowning – Language immersion is great, but it should only be done to an extent you can survive. Feeling uncomfortable because you haven’t adapted yet is fine, it’s even good for you, but burning yourself out or quitting learning altogether because the pressure is too high is obviously not so good. If you enforce a Chinese-only rule, you need to make sure that you have safety valves that allow you to vent frustration. If you’re a brave soul with lots of time on your hands, kamikaze-style immersion is great, just make sure it isn’t an actual suicide mission!

Conclusion

I don’t like Chinese-only rules because they are inflexible. The ideal proportions will vary depending on your level of Chinese, but let’s say 90% Chinese and 10% English is desirable, those 10% of English can really make a difference. At the same time, decreasing the amount of Chinese from 100% to 90% is not going to affect the amount of Chinese you use or are exposed to much.

That being said, the psychological effect regarding binary choices mentioned above means that I think that imposing a Chinese-only rule is mostly a good thing, even if you don’t end up following it in all situations. Scott Young went to Chinese with about 100 hours of preparation and wrote this about his failure to use Chinese all the time with his friend and roommate:

Even though I wasn’t able to maintain the no-English rule with Vat, I still maintained it with nearly everyone else I met. One of the big reasons to use the no-English rule is to avoid forming your social groups out of people who can’t or won’t speak the language you’re trying to learn. Had I not done that, I believe it would have been much easier to just spend my time in China with other expats and only make friends with Chinese people whose English was decent.

 This hits the nail on its head and leads to the general solution: Chinese-only should be the default mode you use for almost all situations. You can then create a small list of exceptions where you think English is essential for one reason or another. This can involve speaking English with a specific person, during a certain class or once a week when you hang out with other foreigners. The rest of the time is Chinese only. This means that you can reap most of the benefits offered by a Chinese-only rule, but still have enough flexibility to make use of English when it’s truly necessary.

What do you think? Have you tried a Chinese-only approach? Did you decide to do so on your own or was it a requirement where you studied? How did it go?

How learning some basic theory can improve your pronunciation

phoneticsIdeally, all students would acquire perfect pronunciation through listening to and mimicking native Chinese audio. Sadly, this doesn’t really work for adult learners, but it seems to work well for children.

This is easy to prove, because all normal children learn to pronounce their first language, but most adults fail to acquire native-like pronunciation in foreign languages. It’s obvious that for most people, simply being exposed to the language and using it isn’t enough.

Still, age should never be taken as an excuse for not learning. In many regards, adults are actually better language learners than children, even though it is true that pronunciation is one of the areas where age makes the most difference. This certainly makes it harder to learn as an adult, but not impossible! Don’t think that adults can’t acquire good pronunciation. You can if you really want to. As I have said elsewhere, you might be too lazy to learn Chinese, but you’re not too old.

The best way to learn proper pronunciation in Chinese

As most people probably know already, the best way to learn to pronounce Chinese (or any other language) is to combine large amounts of listening with lots of practice, plus having a teacher who can act as both a role-model and give you feedback at the same time. Large amounts of listening is relatively easy to get, as is lots of practice, but accurate feedback is harder to get. 

Few students have access to one-on-one teachers who can correct their pronunciation (even though apps like WaiChinese makes this easier). In addition, in most classrooms pronunciation is often neglected after the first few weeks or months of initial drilling of tones and basic Pinyin.

I have written a lot about how to learn pronunciation already (you can see all articles here), including last week’s article consisting of 24 great resources to help you learn Mandarin pronunciation, but in this article, I want to talk about theory. Yes, phonetics. Yes, the fancy symbols you see in the picture above.

The importance of theory

I first discovered the importance of theory when learning English at university. I first started learning English in school at the age of 10 or so, but all with non-native speakers as teachers. Naturally, my English was descent when I started studying English at university ten years later, but I learnt a lot about pronunciation in our phonetics course that I simply hadn’t noticed before.

And no, I’m not talking about descriptive knowledge of English pronunciation here, you will obviously learn that by studying theory, I’m talking about real, concrete things I had missed and were pronouncing incorrectly. This blog isn’t about learning English, but if you really want to know, vowel reduction was one of the major eye-openers. I also stayed too close to the written form of lots of words, such as “salmon” and “column”.

The same thing happened when I started learning Chinese pronunciation, although I wasn’t surprised by it this time. I keep studying Chinese phonetics and still come across things than help me pay attention to crucial aspects of pronunciation. This is indeed the main benefit.

Studying theory helps you notice key aspects of the spoken language around you

This means that studying theory isn’t always immediately useful. It’s not as if you read something about how a certain sound in Chinese is actually pronounced, you shout “Eureka!” and your pronunciation improves. It does happen, but not very often.

More often, the insight helps you direct your attention so that when you hear native speakers speak, you notice something that’s different between what they say and what you say. Gradually with practice, this transforms into better pronunciation.

I think a bit of theory is valuable for all adult learners.  The exception might be if you are extremely good at hearing foreign speech sounds and mimicking them, in which case you should do that instead. Actually, even if you aren’t so good at mimicking, you should still spend most of your pronunciation practice on mimicking and getting feedback in different ways. Theory is a valuable asset, but it’s useless (but interesting) on its own.

Some examples of how theory has improved my pronunciation

Here are some examples of things I have learnt by reading about them rather than listening to native speakers. I had lots of time and opportunity to pick these things up just by listening, but I didn’t for some reason. Instead, I only figured them out by reading about them. You might find these obvious, but again you might not. Or, you might find them obvious, but have other blind spots you’re not aware of. These are just examples:

  1. That the third tone is usually a low tone This is a problem many foreigners have and I think the reason is that few teachers accurately explain how the third tone should be pronounced, or if they do, they fail to focus on that beyond the first few weeks or so. The third tone is just a low tone in front of all tones except another third tone. It has an optional rise when in isolation or at the end of sentences. This is rarely used!
  2. That “j/q/x” aren’t produced with the tip of the tongue and thus aren’t really in between “z/c/s” and “zh/ch/sh” – These sounds are instead produced with the tongue tip down. I knew there was something wrong with my pronunciation of these sounds, but didn’t figure it out until I actually read about it. I’ve done several pseudo-scientific experiments with this and even though the sounds produced are similar, there is a distinct difference. I have corrected the pronunciation of enough fellow Mandarin students to know that I’m not alone in having misunderstood these sounds.
  3. That no initials in Mandarin other than “l”, “m”, “n” and “r” are voiced. It’s very common to hear people pronounce for example “z” and “zh” with voicing, which I did too until I found out that that’s actually not right. This sometimes happens with b, d and g as well, although these can be voiced in the middle of words. Read more in my article about Pinyin.

Now, you might argue that I could have corrected all these problems simply by having a good enough teacher that would spot these problems and help me correct them. And you’d be right. But as I said, the problem is that most people don’t have access to one-on-one tutors that are competent enough to correct details with pronunciation.

Resources for learning Mandarin pronunciation theory

If you want to read more about Chinese pronunciation, you can start here (these are simply copied from last week’s article, which focused on resources in general):

  • Zein on Mandarin Chinese Phonetics This is a basic introduction and is suitable for most beginners. I don’t really like talking too much about equivalent sounds in English, but he does a fair job most of the time.
  • Chinese Pronunciation on Sinosplice This is a short but good introduction to some of the sounds that are unique to Mandarin (at least from the perspective of a native English speaker). It’s not very exhaustive, but still a good introduction.
  • Standard Chinese Phonology on Wikipedia This article is quite good and is the next step if you want to go beyond just describing how sounds are pronounced. There are also lots of useful references here.
  • Pinyin Traps and Pitfalls My article about various common problems students have with Pinyin. These problems mostly exist because people read Pinyin as if it were a phonetic alphabet instead of a transcription system.
  • The Phonology of Standard Chinese (San Duan-mu) This book is a great resource for anyone who thinks they know a bit about phonetics and phonology and want a more thorough discussion. Do not read this book without having read at least one book about phonology and one about Chinese phonetics. The link goes to my review.

Conclusion

Simply mimicking one’s way to perfect pronunciation might be fine for kids and some extremely talented adults, but it’s usually not enough. Therefore, I prefer adding theory to the mix. Proportions? Perhaps 95% practice (mimicking and speaking) and 5% theory, unless you happen to be interested in pronunciation in and of itself.

24 great resources for improving your Mandarin pronunciation

Image credit: Julia Freeman-Woolpert
Image credit: Julia Freeman-Woolpert

This month’s challenge on Hacking Chinese is about pronunciation. As promised last week, this post will contain my favourite resources for learning and teaching pronunciation. All of them are already listed on Hacking Chinese Resources, but I still think that highlighting the most useful resources for this month’s challenge will be useful. There are still 10 days left in the challenge, by the way, so it’s not too late to join if you haven’t already!

The best resources for learning Mandarin pronunciation

I usually limit my best-resource articles to ten, but since pronunciation is my favourite topic, I’m not going to stop there. I’m not going to give you everything I have (you wouldn’t want that), but I am going to give you more than you need. Probably a lot more. To make the recommendations more navigable, I have sorted them into four categories; feel free to skip those you don’t think you need.

  1. Basic sound references
  2. Pronunciation explained
  3. Advice on learning pronunciation
  4. Useful software and applications

If you have any other resources you think ought to be on this list or on Hacking Chinese Resources, please leave a comment or contact me.

1. Basic sound references

When you start learning Chinese, it’s essential that you have proper models to mimic. It’s also important that you look up how to pronounce syllables you’re not familiar with. There are several freely available resources that include all syllables read with all tones. I have included more than one here because as I have explained, listening to more than one voice is helpful.

  • Yabla Pinyin Chart With Audio – A web-based Pinyin chart with audio for all syllables with all tones. Also includes possible combinations that actually don’t exist as real words, which might be good for practice.
  • Pinyin audio and video on YouTube – This clip introduces all the initials and finals in Pinyin (using the first tone). It adds value to the rest of the resources here because the camera is pointed to the speaker’s mouth, showing clearly how the lips move.
  • Lost Theory Mandarin Phonetics – Another web-based resource with recorded audio for all syllables with all tones. You can also get the “spelling” of the syllable read to you, ie. Initial, final and then the whole syllable.
  • New Concept Mandarin introduction to Pinyin – Yet another web-based Pinyin chart with a different voice. It’s slightly more annoying to navigate, but only contains real syllables, which might be good as a reality check.
  • ChinesePod Introduction to Pinyin – This app is available for free for both Android and iOS and contains the full Pinyin chart with audio. It also explains the sounds, although not always accurately (there is no “nasal U” in Mandarin).
  • Sinosplice Tone Pair Drills – As the name implied, this is tone pair drilling with audio. You should really know how to pronounce all combinations and here you have them with audio references.
  • AllSet Learning Pinyin – This resource is only available for iPhone and iPad, but it’s free to download. It contains audio for all syllables in Mandarin (including tones) as well as some other useful features.
  • Pinyin Chart in IPA – In case you know the International Phonetica Alphabet (IPA) this chart provides you with a transcription of all syllables in Mandarin. It also highlight some potential issues with spelling in Pinyin.

2. Pronunciation explained

  • Zein on Mandarin Chinese Phonetics – This is a basic introduction and is suitable for most beginners. I don’t really like talking too much about equivalent sounds in English, but he does a fair job most of the time.
  • Chinese Pronunciation on Sinosplice – This is a short but good introduction to some of the sounds that are unique to Mandarin (at least from the perspective of a native English speaker). It’s not very exhaustive, but still a good introduction.
  • Standard Chinese Phonology on Wikipedia – This article is quite good and is the next step if you want to go beyond just describing how sounds are pronounced. There are also lots of useful references here.
  • Pinyin Traps and Pitfalls – My article about various common problems students have with Pinyin. These problems mostly exist because people read Pinyin as if it were a phonetic alphabet instead of a transcription system.
  • The Phonology of Standard Chinese (San Duan-mu) – This book is a great resource for anyone who thinks they know a little bit about phonetics and phonology and want a more thorough discussion. Do not read this book without having read at least one book about phonology and one about Chinese phonetics. The link goes to my review.

3. Advice on learning pronunciation

  • Tones are more important than you think – This is an article about the importance of tones. I don’t think anyone who reads this guide thinks tones aren’t important, but it might be good to have some arguments to convince your friends.
  • Learning the third tone in Chinese – I have spent a fair amount of time researching the third tone in Mandarin. In this article, I share some of the results and discuss what they mean for you as a learner.
  • A smart method to discover problems with tones – I have referred to this article already, but I want to mention it again. It introduces a really neat way of testing pronunciation without having a teacher. Everybody should try this at least once.
  • Recording yourself to improve speaking ability – This is a closer look at how you can use recording as a tool to improve pronunciation. Most of what I cover here has appeared in different parts of this guide.
  • John Pasden’s tips on Chines pronunciation – I have referred to specific parts of this site earlier, but this is the main page for everything about pronunciation. John has many good things to say about pronunciation, listen to him!
  • Extending Mnemonics to Tones and Pronunciation – This is isn’t specifically about how to learn to pronounce Chinese, but instead about how to remember the sounds (this is surprisingly often the problem; you have to remember how a word is pronounced if you want to be able to pronounce it correctly).
  • Improving Foreign Language Pronunciation – This is an interview done with me over at Language is Culture. I talk with David Mansaray about learning to pronounce Chinese (and other languages). It isn’t directly useful as a guide for how to change pronunciation, but might be interesting to some readers. The audio interview is about 70 minutes long.

4. Useful software and applications

  • Audacity – This program is excellent for mimicking purposes, but also for careful listening in general. It’s easy to use and available for free on most platforms. It’s a powerful audio editing and playback software that allows you to view and edit audio, as well as slow down,
    speed up, mute channels and much more. The link goes to my article about using Audacity and I introduce more tricks there.
  • Praat – This is one of the most widely used programs when it comes to scientific analysis of pronunciation. The program is not made for students specifically, but you can get pretty far just by using the material available on the website. Praat is free and works on most platforms. One of the most important features for students is to be able to see pitch contours and compare these to those of native speakers.
  • Pleco – This is my favourite Chinese dictionary (available for both Android and iOS), but that’s not why I mention it here. If you feel like spending some money, you can buy one or two voices that read most words in the dictionary. This is not synthesised sound, they actually
    record each word! Mimic your way to better pronunciation, don’t improvise or guess the right pronunciation.
  • WaiChinese – This app allows you to listen and record your own pronunciation, and to compare it with target audio. More importantly, it allows you to submit your recordings for corrections by a native teacher! This requires manual work and so costs money, but it’s a neat way to get quick feedback on your pronunciation.

Good luck!
Having the right resources is just part of successful language learning. Just as you won’t get strong simply be reading how to do push-ups, you won’t get good at pronouncing Chinese unless you practice. Without that, no theory in the world will help you. With the right theory, though, your practice becomes not only more effective, but usually also more enjoyable. Good luck!

Pronunciation challenge, February 10th to 28th

waichinesePronunciation is one of my favourite topics in second language acquisition. I have a lot to say about learning and teaching pronunciation, some of which I have already shared here on Hacking Chinese. Because pronunciation is so important, it should naturally also be the focus of a language challenge and that’s what’s on the menu for the rest of February.

As usual, the goal is to spend as much high-quality time as possible improving your pronunciation. I will introduce some basic ways of practising in this article, but I will also post more about pronunciation during the challenge.

This challenge is arranged in cooperation with WaiChinese, where you can practise your pronunciation and receive quick feedback, both automatic and manual. Before I go into more details, though, let’s look at how you join the challenge:

  1. Sign-up (using your e-mail, Facebook or Twitter)
  2. View current and upcoming challenges on the front page
  3. Join the pronunciation challenge
  4. Set a reasonable goal (see below)
  5. Report your progress on your computer or mobile device
  6. Check the graph to see if you’re on track to reaching your goal
  7. Check the leader board to see how you compare to others

If you want to know more about Hacking Chinese Challenges, I suggest you check out the introductory article I published when the section was launched.

WaiChinese

Pronunciation is one of the most feedback-heavy areas of language learning. It’s very hard (impossible) to learn proper pronunciation as an adult without receiving feedback. Yes, you can get far by mimicking, listening to your own recordings and paying attention, but receiving feedback is essential. The problem is that most students don’t have native speakers around to ask all the time, and even if they did, it’s not always practical or desirable from a social point of view.

This is one reason I arrange this challenge in cooperation with WaiChinese. In essence, WaiChinese is a platform for Android, iOs or the web that enables you to practice pronunciation easily wherever you are. You can listen, mimic and record, but the main feature of interest is that you can submit your recordings for manual assessment. If you want to try this out, we have arranged it so that people who sign up as part of this challenge can submit 25 recordings for free.

To start using WaiChinese, please sign up here and follow the instructions.

Additional prizes

Just like the last challenge, Hanzi WallChart has offered posters to two serious participants. In addition to that, all who sign up on WaiChinese will also be able to download the digital versions of the posters for free (value $25). We can see who signed up and will send out more information to the e-mail address you used when signing up!

How to practice pronunciation

This is a topic more suitable for a book-length text, but the point here isn’t to tell you everything about pronunciation, it’s to give you a few useful tips so you can get started.

  1. Use WaiChinese (see above)
  2. Mimic the recorded voice of a native speaker as closely as you can
  3. Play a round of minimal pair bingo
  4. Record an everyday conversation and analyse it
  5. Read up on the theory (if you think you need to)

As I said, I will post an article later with much more detailed information and an overview of what I have written about pronunciation before, but the five activities above should keep you occupied in the meantime.

My challenge

I care a lot about pronunciation and even though I haven’t focused on improving explicitly, I still speak a lot of Chinese and often pay attention to what I’m saying. That’s not always enough, though, so I will take this opportunity to focus more explicitly on pronunciation. Here’s what I’m going to do:

  1. Explore WaiChinese and the lessons they offer
  2. Record my conversational Chinese and analyse it
  3. Identify a few problems I need to work on

I strongly suspect that any problems I might find will be relatively small, but still hard to correct. Thus, I don’t really think I will be able to do much about the issues during the challenge, but simply being aware of the problem is by far the most important step.

Your challenge

How do you plan to improve your pronunciation? What materials or tools will you use? Do you have any suggestions for your fellow challengers?

Focus on initials and finals, not Pinyin spelling

initials
Picture from the scoring protocol in my pronunciation course.

I have taught a brief introduction course in Chinese at my university now for five years running and every time, I try to give the students as much guidance as I can within the allotted time. Since the course contains everything from basic character writing and vocabulary to pronunciation and conversation practice, I really need to think about what I should say and what I shouldn’t. One of the things I receive the most questions about and that has sailed up my priority list is pronunciation and Pinyin. My usual reply nowadays is that the students should focus on the initials and finals, not the Pinyn spelling.

Before I explain this in more detail, let’s just go through some basic definitions here in case you’re new to learning Chinese. Pinyin is the most commonly used transcription system used for learning Chinese, so it’s a way of writing Chinese syllables with the Latin alphabet (Pinyin means “spell sound”). When it comes to initials and finals, a Chines syllable can traditionally be divided into initial, final and tone. Some syllables don’t have initials (or they have a so called zero initial), such as “wu” and “ying”. All syllables have finals. Most syllables have both. I’m not including tones at all in this discussion.

Finding the right level of detail for pronunciation

Mandarin consists of around 1000 common syllables (including tone), which is a very small number compared to English. In theory, you could learn those syllables one by one and make sure your pronunciation is correct for each one. This is impractical, however. If you remove the tones, there are still some 400 syllables that you need to learn, which isn’t impossible, but still a lot.

The next step would be to break the syllables into initials and finals. There are only slightly more than 20 and slightly less than 40 initials and finals respectively, so that makes a total of 60, which is definitely doable. It’s even doable in a week-long crash course! Some students go further than this and try to understand what sound each letter in Pinyin actually represents. This is not a good idea, you shouldn’t spend your first week of learning Chinese trying to map letters to various sounds in Pinyin, there is a better way.

One of the most well-read articles on this website is my discussion of some of the more common problems students encounter when learning Pinyin (see A guide to Pinyin traps and pitfalls). These are mostly cases where one letter is used to represent several different sounds. Students who focus on Pinyn too much will want to know how “i” is pronounced in all cases and what rules are involved, how “e” is really pronounced and so on. I can of course give the answers to these questions, they are not hard, but it takes a lot of time and I think there is a better way that leads to less confusion and better pronunciation.

Focus on initials and finals instead of Pinyin spelling

The solution to the above problem is to ignore the details of the spelling of each letter and look at the initials and finals as whole, unbreakable units. The spelling will of course be used as a reminder of the pronunciation, but you should study the pronunciation of each initial and final individually. If you know them well, you will be able to produce all the basic sounds in Mandarin. As I said above, there are only around 60 of them, so this is definitely doable.

Here are two benefits with this approach:

  • You don’t get confused by some non-obvious spelling rules as much
  • It brings the focus on actual pronunciation and not artificial spelling

If you do this, you’re likely to learn the spelling rules fairly quickly anyway, I just think it’s a better idea to learn initials and finals first and then gradually figure out the rule, rather than to view pronunciation as a kind of complicated equation where the pronunciation of each letter is conditioned by its surroundings. If it takes you ten second to calculate how something should be pronounced, you’re not doing it right.

This approach will solve some problems completely, such as the multiple ways of pronouncing “e”, which is different in the finals “-ie”, “-ei”, “-e” and “-eng”. You should learn these as different finals! Don’t worry that they are all spelt with “e”, they aren’t pronounced the same way. If you don’t focus all that much on the spelling, this will be easier.

Some traps and pitfalls will remain

Even with the above approach, Pinyin will cause some problems. This is because the spellings of some distinct finals are identical. For instance, “-ün” and “-un” are normally spelt the same way, as are “-üan” and “-uan” and some others. This includes the notorious “-i”, which is pronounced differently after “zh/ch/sh/r”, “z/c/s” and “j/q/x” etc. If you’re not sure which finals hide behind these, check the original Pinyin traps and pitfalls article. These irregularities are very hard to overcome and it’s simply something you have to learn.

What about alternative transcription systems?

One alternative to the above approach and one I’m sure many readers have been thinking about all though this article is to use another transcription system that doesn’t use the Latin alphabet, such as Zhuyin Fuhao (also known as Bopomofo). This system uses unique symbols for initials and finals (and medials, but that goes beyond the scope of this article). Still, Zhuyin has it’s own peculiarities (such as not writing anything after “zh/ch/sh/r” and “z/c/s”) and it’s also highly impractical for most people who use textbooks that exclusively relies on Pinyin and courses/teachers that use it.

That being said, I think it’s useful to learn more than one transcription system, but if you have already learnt basic pronunciation, I think you would benefit more from learning all initials and finals in IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) instead of either Zhuyin or Pinyin. Unlike the others, this is a real phonetic alphabet that represents sounds in writing much more accurately than any of the other systems mentioned here. I will likely be back with another article about this later, stay tuned!

How knowing your best performance in Chinese can help you improve

Image credit: Bartek Ambrozik
Image credit: Bartek Ambrozik

Have you ever finished an exam and felt that you could have done better? Have you ever felt annoyed at your teacher for correcting your pronunciation and adding a long explanation about what you did wrong, even though you know exactly what you should have done, you just slipped? Have you ever had someone correct your typos as if they were real errors that need fixing?

Feedback always needs to be considered in the light of how close to your best performance you were when listening/speaking/reading/writing Chinese. A test sloppily done tells us that you are sloppy, not how good your Chinese is. Your best performance in Chinese is the highest level you can achieve with the knowledge and ability you have at any given time. It might not be immediately obvious why this is important so please let me explain.

Your best performance and why it matters

Your best performance is of paramount importance because it should be a cornerstone of your study plan. If you don’t know your best performance, you don’t know your current position and thus can’t plot a path from that to your goal. You might still be able to move forward, but it will be like groping around in the dark.

Provided that you have measured your best performance for a certain skill, there are two possible outcomes:

  • Your best performance is good enough (defined by your goals for learning Chinese): Congratulations! You’ve come far, but you might not be there yet. You need to be able to do this on a regular basis without too much practice. In other words, if you take your average performance and raise it to the level of your best performance, you will have accomplished your goal. To do this, you need quantitative practice, because you already know what you need to know. More of the same will solve your problem.
     
  • Your best performance isn’t good enough: This means that you have a qualitative problem, so more of the same won’t necessarily work, regardless how much you practice. For instance, if you pronounce the first tone in a two-syllable word like Měiguó with a rising tone, you will get it wrong no matter how much energy you spend. There is a fundamental error in the way you pronounce the third tone (it should be a low tone here) and you need qualitative training.

Best performance in different areas

Best performance can be broken down into as many parts as you feel necessary. Here are a few layers with ever increasing detail:

  1. Your overall Chinese ability
  2. Your speaking ability
  3. Your pronunciation
  4. Your tones
  5. Your third tones
  6. Your low third tones

I would say that the first two levels are too general to be practically useful. How do you test your overall ability? I think this is impossible to do properly. The second level is doable, but still hard, we need to get more specific than that. For the third level onward, we can actually do something useful. How specific depends on where you’re having problems. If your tones are fine, you obviously don’t need to check how your low third tones are.

Again, if your best performance in any area is good enough, you just need more practice to make sure that your average performance comes ever closer to your best performance. You might need people to remind you of your mistakes, but in essence, you already know what you need to know. If your best performance isn’t good enough, you need qualitative training, preferably with a teacher.

How to find your best performance

Looking at the above list of layers, it should be obvious that you can cut and slice your Chinese ability in any number of ways. Therefore, it’s hard to be too specific here, so I’m simply going to give some general guidelines for how to define your current best performance in a few common areas.

Best performance for pronunciation

Assuming you’re going to read a short text, you need to:

  1. Be completely familiar with the topic
  2. Understand all words, all structures and all meanings
  3. Know the text by heart
  4. Record yourself and try to spot mistakes
  5. Record again, correct the mistakes
  6. Take a break
  7. Repeat until you think you really can’t do any better
  8. This is your best performance

Best performance for composition

Assuming you’re writing a short text, you need to:

  1. Plan and structure your article before starting
  2. Research thoroughly, know your topic
  3. Write a draft and read it to spot mistakes
  4. Rewrite any problematic sentences
  5. Read again, correct mistakes
  6. Take a break
  7. Repeat until you think you really can’t do any better
  8. This is your best performance

What to do when you have your best performance

The next step is to answer the question above: is your best performance good enough? The best way of doing that is to ask someone who is trained to assess language ability. Beginner and intermediate learners can probably get away with asking any native speaker, but in that case you will probably only learn what you’re doing wrong, not how to fix it, but this is still helpful.

Best performance for listening and reading

You can do something similar for listening and reading. The principle is very simple: Repeat until you think that you have understood as much as you’re likely to understand at your current level. If you listen to a short text twenty times and still can’t understand one of the sentences, the likelihood is that your best performance isn’t good enough for the audio you have selected. If you re-read a passage several times without getting it, you’re reading skill isn’t up to par. This should be fairly obvious, but has some very useful applications.

For instance, if you understand 60% of an audio episode the first time you listen and 95% after listening twenty times, you can be relatively sure that your problem isn’t that you are unable to understand the audio, it’s just that it’s too fast, your word recall takes too long or there might be layers of accent and/or dialect confusing you. With such a result, more practice is what you need. If you after twenty times still only understand 75%, you’re out of your league and should focus on easier material.

Hacking Chinese Pronunciation course now open for registration

scorecard-smallAfter a successful first test run of my pronunciation course, it’s now time for a second round. I’ve learnt a and improved the course accordingly.

Today,I’m opening the course again! Since I’m doing most of the work manually on my own, the number of slots will be limited. Last time, the slots were sold out the first day, so if you want to sign up, don’t wait too long!

The course is now closed and will open again next y

What is the purpose of the course?

I have studied, taught and researched Chinese pronunciation for some time, partly because I think that pronunciation is the weakest part of Chinese education in general, but mostly because I really enjoy it.

One of the most serious problems is that intermediate and advanced students typically don’t even know that they have pronunciation problems. If they do, they usually don’t know exactly what they are and how to fix them.

Filling that gap is the goal of this course. I will find, analyse and explain problems with your pronunciation, as well as provide you with the tools you need to improve your pronunciation in general. The analysis is done on the syllable, word and sentence level, plus a free speech sample where you talk about a topic of your choice without a script.

Note that this course doesn’t teach you pronunciation from scratch, it assumes you have been taught basic pronunciation and want to improve beyond that.

What do you get?

This is what you get:

  1. A listening check including initials, finals and tones
  2. A detailed analysis of your pronunciation (see below)
  3. A thorough benchmark of your pronunciation
  4. Audio feedback on your priority errors, recorded by me
  5. Detailed explanations of your priority errors (text, audio and graphics)
  6. An in-depth 35-page guide on how to improve pronunciation
  7. Early preview of my tone training course developed for my research

Here’s what the first two pages of the scoring protocol looks like (there are five pages in total). You can click the images for larger versions if you are curious. This is your benchmark and overview, there will also be detailed explanations of the priority errors listed on the first page.

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How do you register?

If you think this sounds great and you want to try it out, all you need to do is to buy the course below. The price is $80, based on the fact that each student takes several hours of my time. This is not an automated assessment, I’m giving you direct, personal feedback!

Add to Cart View Cart
Payments are done through PayPal (which also accepts debit/credit cards). Once you have purchased the course, you will be able to download the course material, a guide on how to improve pronunciation as well as further instructions

Everything will be explained in more detail later, but this is a brief overview:

  1. Read the instructions (really)
  2. Complete the audio check
  3. Record the audio
  4. Send the audio to me for analysis
  5. Read the pronunciation guide while you wait
  6. Receive your personal feedback
  7. Go through and understand your feedback
  8. Start improving your pronunciation
  9. Try out my tone training course (contact me directly for this)

Naturally, taking this course doesn’t guarantee that your pronunciation will become perfect, but I have done my very best to provide the tools and the information you need to improve. You will of course still need to spend a lot of time on your own; improving pronunciation is certainly doable, but it’s not easy!

Sign up by purchasing the course here:

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What do people think of the course?

This version is a new and heavily upgraded version of the previous one. These testimonials below refer to the old version, but since I have only added to the course and the additions are partly based on what these people suggested, I’m confident they would be even more satisfied if they took the course again (which they are of course welcome to do).

I have been studying Mandarin on and off for more than 20 years, but this is the first time I’ve accessed such an in-depth, methodical critique of my pronunciation.   Olle’s course is incredibly helpful at isolating errors and suggesting areas to work on.  I just wish something like this had been available when I first started studying, as I fear my pronunciation errors might be too ingrained by now.  I don’t know of anything else like this available on the web, and the fact that it can be done by email using a simple recording device such as a smart phone makes it very accessible.

– Anne B.

Good pronunciation is essential to be understood, especially in Chinese, but often we don´t even know what we are doing wrong. To be aware of your own mistakes is the first step to correct them. This course has given me very accurate information, with examples, of what I pronounce incorrectly. This way is much easier to work to correct the problems. So I can focus on the real issues. It also gives you information on what you do well, which is always very encouraging to keep improving. I have found some mistakes I was not aware of and which are not difficult to correct.

– Ana Herranz Z.

Although many Chinese universities offer pronunciation courses, the level of them varies. Basically you can have a very good and helpful course or then a kind of course that doesn’t really help at all. In your case, I would feel confident to tell my friends you are taking the thing seriously and as a westerner you might be able to help westerners even better than Chinese teachers in some cases. Your course is also a very quick way to identify the most serious problems which gives the learner a good opportunity to start working on them right away.

– Janna L.

Still in development

Even though I have spent a lot of effort developing the contents of this course, it’s still an ongoing project. For instance, the included guide on how to change pronunciation hasn’t been read by many and isn’t perfect in any way. However, instead of being stuck on the tinkering stage for months, I prefer to get things out there and try them out with you. I hope that you’re willing to offer me feedback so I can improve the course!

Learning how to ask for and receive directions in Chinese

directionsLearning to ask for and receive directions is a very useful skill that is usually associated with beginner language learning. It shouldn’t be, it’s much harder than that!

I remember when I started learning Chinese and we had one chapter the first semester about navigating a small town drawn in our textbook, complete with a post office, a bank, a school and a library. I remember that the listening exercises were really hard, but that didn’t matter much, because we soon moved on to other chapters.

Language isn’t just knowledge of words and phrases

In a way, I think asking for directions is a bit like counting in Chinese, i.e. it’s something you think you’re good at, except that you aren’t. This is because a language isn’t just knowledge, it’s not enough to be able to recall the words in Chinese, you need to be able to do so immediately without thinking. This can only be the result of practising.

The problem is that most people don’t practise much, unless they have a terrible sense of direction and get lost all the time in Chinese cities. When I first arrived in Taiwan after one year of studying in Sweden, I was really bad at both asking for and receiving directions! I don’t think I’m the only one who has been in this situation.

How to practise

Since asking for and receiving directions is important for all learners (including tourists), I’m going to offer some ways of practising this skill which go beyond your textbook:

  1.  Put away your smart phone – This is really important and applies to more than just asking directions. If you don’t use your brain to figure out how to do things in Chinese, you will never learn the language. Don’t use your GPS and interactive maps to find the way to your destination. This is a wasted learning opportunity! Turn off your phone and ask people around you. Using a smart phone is cheating and the only one who will suffer is you. Yes, it will take longer, but you will also learn more.
     
  2. Pretend you’re lost – Pick a place you know well, then walk a few blocks in one direction and ask someone how to get to the place you just left (or give them a landmark nearby). Listen to their replies carefully. Then ask another stranger the same question. Since you presumably remember the way you just walked, you already know how to get there, your mission now is to learn how to do that in Chinese. Ask as many people you want! Then walk in another direction and repeat the process.
     
  3. Practise with WordSwingAs a preparation for the above or as a substitute if you don’t want to or can’t do it for real, you can check out this activity over at WordSwing. It’s developed by Kevin and me, and is easy to use: you will hear directions in Chinese and you’re supposed to match the instructions to a figure describing how to walk. You need to answer several such questions to get to your final destination. You can also get the sentences written out, look up vocabulary, slow the speech down and much more. Try it out! Also, if you have suggestion for how to improve, just let me know.
     
  4. Navigating street view – If you want to simulate the feeling of walking through a Chinese city without actually being there, you can use the street view on a map service like Google (only Taiwan?), I Show China, City8 or Baidu. Naturally, you still need someone to ask or give directions, such as a language exchange partner or tutor. I’ve tried this myself and it works well. Once you’ve followed directions given to you, try to write your own and see if your friend ends up where you intended him or her to be!

Conclusion

In summary, don’t think you know how to ask directions in Chinese just because you have covered that chapter in your textbook. There is no substitute for large amounts of practice, and if you don’t get lost often, you can create these situations in the manners described above. If you have any other good ideas for improving, leave a comment!