Improving Foreign Language Pronunciation: Interview with Hacking Chinese on Language is Culture

A few weeks ago, David Mansaray over at Language is Culture asked me if I was interested in appearing in his new interview series focusing on different aspects of language learning. Since the content he had produced earlier looked really interesting and he seemed to be cool guy in general, I didn’t hesitate. After having discussed briefly, we settled on pronunciation as the topic of the interview. You can listen to the interview here:

Everything you Need to Know About Improving Foreign Language Pronunciation


Naturally, we didn’t talk about everything related to learning pronunciation (just like Hacking Chinese doesn’t actually tell you everything you need to know about learning Chinese), but we did cover a lot of interesting topics, such as:

  • How to train your ears to distinguish similar sounds in a foreign language
  • How to learn the pronunciation of words at the start of your language learning journey
  • The path to sounding like a native (and the reason why most people fail)
  • The best ways to get honest feedback on your pronunciation
  • How to manipulate the production of sound coming out of your mouth
  • How to constantly improve your pronunciation

The interview is about 70 minutes long and you can listen to it directly or download it from Language is Culture.

Some thoughts and reflections

I just listened through the interview myself and I’d like to share a few thoughts:

  • It’s great talking to other people who are also interested in pronunciation
  • It’s very hard to explain complicated topics in a limited amount of time for an imagined audience
  • I want to spend more time improving my own pronunciation, both in English and Chinese
  • I really do believe that the system is heavily stacked against people who don’t learn quickly
  • I have almost no photos of myself available (that was the only one I could find)
  • Pronunciation really is the most interesting part of learning a new language!

What did you think?

 If you listen to the interview, it would be great hearing what you think. Remember, I have (virtually) unlimited amount of space on this website to write more about any of the topics mentioned in the interview, so if you want me to expand on something, let me know! I also think I have a lot to learn when it comes to interviews and creating/contributing audio content in general, so feedback in that area would also be much appreciated!

You might be too lazy to learn Chinese, but you’re not too old

Children learn languages quickly and effortlessly, adults slowly and painfully. This is an idea I’ve seen or heard so many times that I feel it’s time to write something about it. The notion that children are better language learners across the board is simply wrong. Before we look at why this is relevant for us as Chinese learners, let’s discuss why adults are actually better language learners than children.

Children don’t learn their first language quickly and effortlessly

Image credit:
Image credit:

It takes many, many years for a child to learn his or her first language. Saying that it’s effortless is equally false, it’s just that we don’t remember how hard it was. I’ve studied Chinese for five years and I can promise you that my Chinese is far superior to the average five-year-old in most areas (I would probably lose when it comes to intonation).

That’s true even considering the fact that I’ve been doing many things that aren’t related to Chinese at all, such as writing articles for this website (in English), talking with friends and family (in Swedish) and so on. I have not experienced anything near the true immersion environment of a child. Learning a language is very hard, both for adults and children.

One reason that people believe that children learn faster is that much less is required of them. Adults who arrive in a new country are supposed to handle all aspects of a normal, adult life, which naturally demands a great deal in terms of language ability. We don’t demand the same kind of proficiency from children. We only increase the demands gradually as they grow up and learn the language. As adults learning a second language, we’re adults and children at the same time.

Children might also learn to perform very well in a limited set of situations and in certain contexts, which might lead others to (erroneously) think that their ability is as good in other areas as well. Adults are more likely to run into problems because they need to or want to express more complex ideas.

Adults are much smarter than kids

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but adults are much better at planning, analysing, executing, organising, deducing and so on. These are all skills that are very valuable when learning a second language.

Also, adults know a lot about the world that kids don’t. This means that we can often connect new words with things we already know, which is essential for any kind of learning. I can relate words and structures in Chinese to words and structures I know in other languages. This is of course only a crude form of scaffolding, but it definitely helps. If I see the word “progressive tax” in Chinese, I don’t need to learn what progressive tax is, I just need to learn how to say it in Chinese.

Hacking Chinese is of course a prime example of something that an adult language learner (myself) can do, but that a child cannot. I can observe and analyse my language learning and understand where I’m having problems and what to do about them. I can be systematic and plan my studying in an efficient manner. After five years of studying, my language level is apparently good enough to survive a master’s degree in teaching Chinese as a second language taught entirely in Chinese, mostly aimed at native speakers.

This obviously takes much, much longer for a child (the average age of my native speaking classmates is more like 25 rather than 5). Most people go through nine years of elementary school, six years of high school and then four years of university before they do that.

I don’t mean to say that my own language ability is as good as my classmates’, though, far from it. Very far indeed. But using a language successfully is about much more than just words, grammar and pronunciation. Language and thinking are closely linked, which is why the more mature mind of an adult reaches a mature language level much faster. We take lots of shortcuts that aren’t available to children.

What we should learn from children

Still, children do have certain advantages. For instance, they definitely reach a higher level in the long run, especially when it comes to pronunciation. As mentioned above, my ability to express myself in Chinese (both in speaking and writing) is of course superior to a five-year-old, but in the long run, Give the child another five years and I’m left far behind in terms of pronunciation and accent. The native speaker will also have a more natural sentence structure and a better grasp of everyday language.

The reasons for this are many and various. Some of these are biological (children really do learn words very quickly, for instance), but let’s focus on the things we can learn from. To start with, children have extremely strong incentives to learn. Humans are social beings that crave contact and affinity with other humans and this is mediated through language.

Thus, no child will think to itself “learning this language just isn’t worth it, let’s do something else”. Instead, they will try very hard to fit in socially, which includes the ability to communicate flawlessly. There is no way that a second language learner can have such strong incentives to learn Chinese, even though it might be possible to come close.

The lesson we can lean from this is that motivation is something we need to consider carefully. We need to find ways of studying that we find interesting, entertaining or important in some way.

Moreover, children are less socially conscious than adults, or, in other words, they have less face to save. A baby doesn’t care if it pronounces “lamp” incorrectly or gets the word order of a sentence wrong. Kids care more than babies, they are subject to peer pressure and so on, but they are still more willing to experiment than adults. This is something we should remember as second language learning adults. We have to accept that making mistakes is a natural part of learning. Indeed, making mistakes is learning. Adopting a more child-like attitude would do us good.

Children aren’t small adults

Way back in history, people tended to regard children as adults, but smaller. In the light of modern developmental psychology, this is of course nonsense. Children are simply different from adults. This means that arguments like “it works for children, therefore it should work for adults as well” are bunk.

This isn’t an argument against any particular method, but if anyone motivates their approach with this kind of statement, an alarm should go off in your critically thinking mind. That it works for children might mean that it doesn’t work for adults, for instance. Or it might mean nothing at all, because we’re comparing apples and oranges.

Adult learners, pronunciation and fossilisation

I think the most obvious example is pronunciation. Almost all children achieve very good pronunciation and a natural accent in languages they start learning early. Most adults who start learning a second language don’t achieve this. As I said earlier, children do learn pronunciation and accent to a higher level than adults do.

However, this is not only because they are children, but also because adults tend to have fixed ideas about certain things. Learning to speak a foreign language involves a shift in identity, a shift most people aren’t willing to make. The incentives are also different. People would find it very strange if someone pronounced words incorrectly in their first language and would exert social pressure on that person to change. This isn’t true for adult learners, especially not advanced ones. Communication is usually deemed to be enough. That is, I believe, the main reason adult learners don’t reach a native-like pronunciation.


Children learn languages neither quickly nor effortlessly. Adults have several advantages that allow us to learn more efficiently. It’s true that children achieve better pronunciation and accent, but I personally think this isn’t mainly because they are children, but because adults don’t care enough,  don’t receive enough feedback or don’t spend enough time.

So, no, you’re not too old. You might be too lazy, too close-minded or too busy, but you’re definitely not too old.

Understanding regionally accented Mandarin

Many people who don’t study Chinese think of the language as being as homogeneous as English (after all, American and British English are very similar). Why would dialects in Chinese be any different? Well, the first problem is the word dialect. If we’re comparing Mandarin and Cantonese, these are dialects in the sense that they belong to the same language family as is the case for German and Swedish, rather than in the sense that Cockney is a dialect of English. The word for dialect in Chinese is 方言, and the dialect typically influences the way people speak Mandarin. This is usually called regional accents, so we have people from Taiwan, Shanghai, Hong Kong and so on, all with their different ways of speaking Mandarin. This accented Mandarin should not be confused with Taiwanese, Shanghai dialect or Cantonese, though.

Chinese Dialects (source: wikipedia)

Very few people speak perfectly standard Mandarin, just as very few people in Britain speak perfect RP at home. Thus, when we speak with Chinese people, we have to be able to understand what people say to us, regardless of where they come from. At first, this looks like a daunting task, because even slight differences in sounds might make you unable to understand anything of what’s being said. Anyone who has arrived in a new place with a new accent will surely know what I’m talking about.

I remember a few confused situations, all taking place during my first year in Taiwan, but the examples I bring up here are mostly relevant for the southern part of Mainland China as well. Do you have any examples of your own? Please leave a comment!

Tea, happiness and familial bliss?

I was out walking late at night and wanted to have some green milk tea. None of the stands selling tea were open, so I headed over to a convenience store (ubiquitous in Taiwan). I placed the tea on the counter and handed over the money and was about to turn around and leave when the clerk suddenly asked:

yào jiā lè ma?

My brain couldn’t parse this. I shook my head in confusion. The guy looked at me compassionately and said it again, more slowly this time. He could probably see the vocabulary lists scrolling in my brain. Do you want to add happiness? Do you want a happy home? No, sorry, I don’t understand. Then, eureka! He was asking:

yào jiā rè ma? (要加热吗/要加熱嗎)

I.e. if I wanted him to heat the tea for me! He just pronounced /r/ as /l/. Beginner mistake, I should have figured this one out, but I didn’t.

There is no něng, or is there?

The next example left me even more perplexed. I was waiting for the bus with a friend and she asked me:

nǐ bú huì něng ma?

This particular friend usually speaks very good Chinese (or at least, I’ve heard other people say so), so I didn’t expect anything fishy. But still, I was pretty sure that there is no neng3 syllable in Mandarin, or if there is, I definitely didn’t know about it. She repeated the question several times, but it was only when she hugged herself as if freezing that I realised that she was asking me if I was feeling cold or not:

nǐ bú huì lěng ma? (你不会冷吗/你不會冷嗎)

This time, /l/ had turned into /n/. Check Albert’s blog for another prime example of l/n confusion.

How’s your humu?

The last example comes from a radio program. I’ve forgotten what it was about now, but there was a guy talking for about 20 minutes about his “hùmǔ”. I had no idea what a “hùmǔ” was, but I thought that I would find out if I just listened carefully enough. After a while, I figured out that it had to be family related. Then, suddenly I realised that he had been talking about his parents all the time, he just pronounced 父母 as “hùmǔ”, switch f/h.

Learning to understand regionally accented Mandarin

So, where do these examples leave us? It’s obvious that we have to make considerably adjustments to our mental maps of the Chinese language when we start to speak with people who aren’t teachers or news broadcasters. As usual, this is first and foremost a question of attitude. This is my opinion in a nutshell:

If you don’t understand what someone is saying to you, it’s your fault

This sounds simple enough, but I’ve heard so many people rage and rant about how people from such and such a place can’t pronounce certain sounds or speak Mandarin which is completely unintelligible. This might indeed be true, but that’s that’s not the problem. Will the phenomenon go away if enough foreigners complain online? No, of course it won’t. So deal with it. This is the way the world works and it’s up to you to handle it. Fuming about it won’t help.

Instead, start liking regionally accented Mandarin. Make a conscious effort to think “charming” and “interesting” instead of “weird” and “stupid”. A shift in attitude can do wonders. Sure, it might be more easily said than done, but it’s definitely possible. Perhaps you won’t end up loving how people from Chongqing, but it will help you understand.

Some practical advice

In short, there are a few things we can do:

  1. Diversify your listening practice
  2. Experience the accents and learn from that
    1.1  Travel around China to immerse yourself in certain accents
    1.2  Watch TV programs/shows with normal people in them
    1.3  Talk to new people/strangers
  3. Read about the characteristics of these accents
  4. Mimic dialects in order to understand them better

Of course, these aren’t mutually exclusive, so I would suggest talking with lots of people and looking up their various dialects.

It’s mostly about getting used to it

As is the case with listening ability in general, learning to understand regionally accented Mandarin is mostly about getting used to it. After you’ve heard people who switch sound A for sound B talk for a while, you’ll get used to it. Of course, there are many, many A and B, so you need lots of practise, but the principle remains the same. The important thing to understand, though, is that regionally accented Mandarin isn’t that hard to understand once you learn some systematic changes. It might sound like a different language, but provided that your listening ability is okay in general, once you break the code, comprehension will increase very quickly.

Over the years, I’ve gone from thinking that regionally accented Mandarin is dangerous, bad and incomprehensible to thinking that it’s quite charming, good and not that hard once I actually try to learn. I think this journey could have been completed much, much faster if the thoughts in this article would have been available to me when I first arrived in Taiwan.

Addendum: I’m mostly talking about pronunciation here, but it should be noted that there are also differences in vocabulary and grammar. However, a vast majority of the language remains the same, so in my opinion, pronunciation is a much bigger problem than vocabulary and/or grammar.