Standard pronunciation in Chinese and why you want it

So far in my Chinese academic life, I’ve taken several courses in phonology and phonetics, some of them related to teaching pronunciation. One problem that pops up all the time is the question of standardised pronunciation. If you only use textbooks written for foreigners learning Chinese, it’s usually simple: There’s one correct way of speaking Chinese. Some will mention the existence of regional accents, but that’s only part of what I want to talk about today. If you’re having problems understanding regional accents in Chinese, I suggest you read this article.

Image credit: pixabay.com/en/users/Nemo/
Image credit: pixabay.com/en/users/Nemo/

What standardised Chinese pronunciation is

This question can in theory be very complicated, especially if you happen to pursue your studies in Taiwan. In China, though, it’s quite easy because there is a national standard which is widely spread through state media.

This standard is clearly defined and there are rigorous exams that teachers, news anchors and so on have to go through. Thus, these people have something close to what we at least for the purpose of this article will call standardised pronunciation.

Before we continue, please note that the Beijing dialect is not the same as standardised pronunciation, although it’s pretty close. In Taiwan, the standard is slightly different, but not so different that it matters much in this article.

Why you want to learn standardised pronunciation

One question which is inevitably asked by students who learn Chinese outside the minority of China where Mandarin is actually the preferred language for communication among locals is why they should learn a standard if people around them don’t follow that standard. For instance, if you for some reason learn Mandarin  in Hong Kong, why should you learn to distinguish j, z, zh; q, c, ch or x, s and sh when many locals don’t? Should you keep l/n and l/r separate even though people around you sometimes don’t?

I’m going to be boring here and side with a majority of Chinese teachers and answer with an emphatic “yes, you should”. When asked about this, some teachers just say “because it’s correct” and say that mixing these sounds is incorrect and bad for you. Children might buy arguments like that, but adults shouldn’t. There are reasons why acquiring a standardised pronunciation is a good idea, though, regardless of where you live.

  • The purpose of language is communication and thus, dropping distinctions between different sounds is a bad idea, because it means that people you speak with have fewer clues as to what you’re trying to say. Natives can do it because they don’t make mistakes with tones, grammar and vocabulary. You do, so you’d better  keep your z/zh, c/ch and s/sh distinct. You don’t need to overdo it, of course, but avoid merging them completely.
  • Standardised pronunciation is (more) universal and learning it means that you will be able to communicate with people who speak other dialects and come from different parts of China (or other parts of the world entirely). If you learn regionally accented Mandarin, this will be harder. Obviously, if you speak well enough, you’ll probably be fine, but remember what I said above regarding the fact that you probably don’t speak that well.
  • Chinese people are used to native speakers with a dialect, but not to your own way of speaking. As mentioned above, if you manage to sound exactly like someone from place X, you would be fine, but you’re more likely to end up with your own version of the dialect, a mix of your native language, general strangeness because you’rea foreigner, added to the target dialect. People are not used to hearing this and will find it difficult to understand before they adjust. Help them understand you by keeping things as standard as possible.
  • If you ever want to use Chinese officially someday, a standardised pronunciation is often required. I know that most people don’t learn Chinese to become teachers, but if you ever find yourself in a situation where you want to use the Mandarin you have fought so hard to learn, it’s most likely that a standardised pronunciation will be beneficial. This is important for any profession where speaking is part of your job. If you learn to speak properly, you might also find it easier to acquire said job.
  • Standardised Chinese sounds more educated than regional variants. This is regrettable and mostly misguided, but like in all languages, speakers of some dialects think other dialects sounds less educated than others. Of course, this can go the other direction, too, i.e. that people might think you’re supercilious because you keep insisting on speaking like someone from the capital. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Dual-wielding Chinese dialects

Of course, the natural thing to do and what I think many advanced learners do (who study outside Beijing) is to learn more than one way of speaking Chinese. This is indeed what I have done, too. I have an obvious Taiwan-touch to my Mandarin, but I can increase or decrease it depending on whom I’m talking to. Thus, the way I speak with people I practice gymnastics with isn’t necessarily the way I would speak with a professor from Beijing.

Learning regionally accented Mandarin can also be great fun and it’s also hard to avoid, depending on where you live. In some cases, such as if you only learn Chinese from your local friends, you don’t have much choice. Go with whatever you have at your disposal. If you have a choice, however, I don’t think you should make an effort to learn a regional accent before you have mastered the basics.

Conclusion

In other words, it’s perfectly fine to learn standardised pronunciation first and then drop all the retroflex sounds (zh, ch, sh, r) if you feel like it, but I would be very, very careful with doing it the other way around. This is related to the old concept of learning by exaggeration; laying a good foundation is important for pronunciation and if you feel like being more relaxed later, that isn’t a problem!

5 insights from the first year of a master’s program in Taiwan

I have now completed my first year in 華語文教學研究所 (Graduate Institute for Teaching Chinese as a Second Language), a program which is primarily aimed at native speakers, but that also accepts international students. The institute is part of National Taiwan Normal University and is located in Taipei, Taiwan. This is an important milestone for me personally, but since Hacking Chinese is about learning Chinese rather than about myself, I refer curious readers to the article on my personal website.

NTNU4Obviously, studying in this kind of program for an entire year is bound to have taught me enough things to write several books about it. This is indeed the case, but rather than trying to do that, I will instead share with you some of the things about learning Chinese that I have realised or understood in more detail during this year.

Hopefully, this will be useful for people who plan to take academic courses in Chinese, but it should also be interesting for learners in general. Here we go!

1. Academic courses are good for instrumental learning

First and foremost, taking academic courses in Chinese in a program you care about more than superficially is a great way to learn. Sure, language schools might look similar, but I still think the situation is entirely different. The official goal with this program isn’t to teach you Chinese, it’s to teach you how to teach Chinese to others. In other words, they assume that you already know Chinese quite well and won’t make an effort to teach you the language itself.

This means that you’re more or less on  your own and you need to use your Chinese to really communicate that you have understood what’s going on in the classroom. This is done through oral presentations, written exams, papers and essays of various kinds. The huge difference between language school assignments is that most teachers don’t really care about your language as such as long as you’re making yourself clear and can show what you have learnt. This is real communicative learning, not the fake stuff ambitious teachers (including myself) try to create in classrooms.

2. Beyond communication, the responsibility is entirely our own

The flip side of this is that if you do care about being correct or expressing yourself eloquently, you’re more or less entirely on your own. Teachers will seldom take the time to correct your grammar, word usage or pronunciation and if you want to improve, you need to do this on your own. This is mostly because the program isn’t about teaching you Chinese at all really and is mostly designed for native speakers. Sure, there are resources you can use (such as a course to improve pronunciation), but it’s up to you if you use theme or not.

The best way to keep on improving is to ally yourself with native speakers who can help you. The goal here is to be able to focus on form (as opposed to function) even if you don’t have to. For instance, even if you know that you would probably pass with an essay containing several language errors and no-one would say much about it, if you ask a classmate, friend or hired teacher to check your writing and presentations, you can improve your Chinese at the same time. Obviously, if you spend a huge amount of time just staying alive in the program, it might be hard to focus on improving your Chinese at once, but this is still the best thing to do if you can manage.

Naturally, just staying alive in the program will improve your Chinese in many ways, primarily listening and reading ability, I’m just saying that if you want to keep developing your Chinese beyond the ability to communicate accurately, you will need to spend time on your own.

3. Having Chinese-speaking classmates is awesome

Speaking of classmates, I must say that having twenty or so native speakers around day after day is quite awesome, especially since most of them are interested in languages in general and teaching Chinese in particular. The possible benefits of exchange here are vast. You know much more than they about learning Chinese (you’ve done it as an adult, they haven’t), while their language level is probably miles above your own.

If you study in other academic programs, I’m sure you still have things to offer your Chinese classmates. Just having them around means that most social communication will be in Chinese and that you have lots of people to ask for help. Having native-speaking classmates around further adds to the sense of realness, i.e. that now you’re actually using Chinese as a tool rather than studying as a goal in its own right. Instrumental learning again.

4. Chinese grammar is a wild and fascinating beast

I went into this program thinking that I had a pretty good grasp of Chinese grammar. I was wrong. When I say grammar, I don’t mean that I thought that I knew all the sentence patterns there is to know or anything like that, I’m talking about deep structure grammar that underlies how Chinese works at a fundamental level. Before entering this program, I had mostly read practical grammar books aimed at advanced students or teachers. Diving below the surface turned out to be a very interesting experience indeed.

The tricky thing with grammar is that when you point to a specific sentence structure or word usage, most native speakers (including many teachers) will just say “that’s the way it is, learn it” or “A here is the same as B”. This is very seldom the case. Of course, language is arbitrary to large extent, but sometimes there are amazingly simple rules that govern seemingly very complex surface patterns.. If it’s “just the way it is”, how come this other pattern is so similar? If two expressions (A and B) meant exactly the same thing, why are there two expressions and not one? I will write more about grammar later!

5. True interest conquers all

The main thing to consider if you plan to pursue an academic degree in Chinese (taught in Chinese, not necessarily about the Chinese language) is to choose a subject you’re really interested in. If you don’t, it will be extremely hard. Apart from coping with learning the actual content of your courses, you’ll need to struggle with doing all this is Chinese. Of course, some subjects are less language-heavy than teaching, but apart from your courses, you will also have to manage your life in an academic setting, dealing with bureaucracy, understanding your curriculum, communicating with teachers, staff and classmates. And so on. This is hard enough, you need to be motivated to get through.

Even though I’m quite interested in most of my courses, it’s obvious that I’ve done a better job in the courses that deal with my favourite subjects. The grades don’t always match, but from a personal assessment, I have performed in a manner directly proportional to how much I like the subjects. Naturally, this is again part of the greater truth that having fun isn’t something to joke about; it’s truly essential.

Conclusion

All in all, I’m very satisfied with my first year. I think pursuing an academic degree taught entirely in Chinese is a really good way of learning the language. It’s even better if you have the time and the discipline to keep focusing on your own learning on the side, but even if you don’t, the complete immersion environment with a very high minimum-effort level is bound to make wonders for your Chinese proficiency.

RTI, my favourite radio station

As soon as my Chinese level was good enough to understand normal, spoken Chinese, I started listening to native radio stations. At that time, I was living in Taiwan (and have now returned, but that’s a different story) and just used normal, analogue radio, but later I also tried a number of online radio stations. Today, I almost exclusively use one, RTI, or Radio Taiwan International. In this article, I will introduce you to RTI and how to use it to improve your Chinese.

Note that what I write here is relevant for people who don’t have any specific interest in Taiwan as well. Apart from learning Chinese, you can also broaden your horizons. In addition, this article is not only about listening to this particular radio station, but listening to radio in general,  something I highly recommend (see the list below).

First, though, I should tell you why I like RTI:

  • A broad variety of radio programs (gardening, pop culture, politics, singing lessons, drama, news, story reading, finance, travelling, food, history, talk shows)
  • Authentic content (most programs are natural and non-scripted, so language use is natural and relaxed)
  • News with transcripts (daily publication of more news that you can listen to, all with subtitles)
  • Freely available online (both as a stream and as mp3-files for individual programs)
  • Extensive archives (with old episodes of most programs, making it easy to listen to a series of programs in one go)
  • Heavy focus on speaking (there is some music, but not much, which is excellent for listening practice)

Note that this is a Taiwanese radio station, so the speaking is Taiwanese accented Mandarin. However, this radio station is suitable for any learner, simply because you should diversify the Chinese you listen to regardless of where you’re currently learning. You don’t need to speak like this, but you need to understand it. The website exists in two versions:

Chinese radio for background and passive listening

I have had this radio station on autostart every morning for close to two years. This way, I have to actively do something to not listen to Chinese. Sure, I can turn off the sound if I really want to, but a normal morning still contains Chinese. After getting to know the hosts who have programs roughly at this time, it’s a pleasant way of waking up.

Here’s a direct link to the RTI live stream:

If you want some suggestions for what to do when listening passively or why it’s good to have Chinese in the background, please check my article series about improving listening ability.

RTI for active listening

One really good thing with RTI is that it provides large amounts of read news reports with transcripts. Here’s where you can find the transcripts:

Recommended programs

Here’s a short list of programs I like and that I think other people might find interesting as well. If you want to see a list of all programs (with downloadable versions of older episodes), click here. I should mention that I listen to these programs live most of the time. It’s much more convenient to just have the radio on in the background all the time rather than actively having to download the audio. Still, always having a bunch of programs on your phone or mp3-player is essential (keep reading about this here: Make sure listening isn’t a practical problem).

  • 為人民服務-楊憲宏時間 (Politics) – This program is based solely on discussions between the host and one visitor. The programs are fairly long and they have time to explore topics thoroughly. Topics vary a lot, but are mostly political in some way.
  • 十分好文摘 (Literature) – This is one of the best programs on RTI. It contains one story each episode, and as the name implies, it takes roughly ten minutes to finish. The stories are often interesting and would be excellent as the basis of an advanced or upper-intermediate textbook focusing on listening ability.
  • RTI劇場 (Drama) – As the name implies, this program features drama in Chinese. I find that the acting is sometimes quite different from what I’m used to in the west and so is the language. Good practice anyway and sometimes interesting stories. 
  • 音樂M.I.T (Music) – Music in Taiwan is a good program if you want to keep track of what’s going on in the world of Taiwanese music. Daily broadcasts with new music (and lots of talking about the music, of course).
  • 空中體育課 (Health) – This program is about health and sports, usually through interviews with scientists, authors and other people who have something to say about the subject. It’s not about current sport events and doesn’t report sport news, but rather focuses on health and physical activity in general.
  • 影音 (Video) – This is not a radio program, but rather a section of the websites that contain videos. I haven’t used this very much since I’m mostly after audio only, but I still wanted to include it here.

A few final words

For all the above-mentioned reasons, I think RTI is a very good source of learning for anyone from intermediate level and above. There’s plenty of audio on many different topics. There are lots of news broadcasts with transcripts. I personally find the diversity to be RTI’s strength, along with the availability and ease of access.

What radio stations do you listen to?

I want to broaden my horizons as well. What do you listen to? I’m particularly interested Mainland radio stations with more talking and less music, preferably about interesting topics (i.e. not only pop culture or talk shows). Please leave a comment below!

Learning simplified and traditional Chinese

In case you’ve just started learning Chinese, traditional Chinese refers to the characters used before the simplification reforms during the second half of the 20th century in Mainland China. This means that traditional characters are still being used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and in many overseas Chinese communities. Simplified characters are then, as the name implies, simplifications of the traditional characters. The simplification process is a complicated one and there are many different types of simplifications (most characters are older or existing variant forms of the traditional character or systematic changes certain parts, whereas a few are really entirely new characters). We’ll look closer at this later.

Which character set should I learn as a beginner?

This question is either very easy or impossible to answer. For most people, simplified Chinese is the obvious choice, because most Chinese speaking people in the world use it. People living in Taiwan or Hong Kong naturally learn traditional Chinese to a larger extent. So, I’d say that the question is answered automatically by where you live or where you plan to live. I suppose you really have to choose if you don’t live in a Chinese speaking environment and don’t plan to live in such an environment any time soon. Still, I’d say that the default character set for most people should be simplified Chinese, even though I can come up with a few reasons why learning traditional Chinese first might more beneficial in some situations. This, however, is not within the scope of this week’s article.

The difference between simplified and traditional are much smaller than most people think

To a beginner, the characters look very, very different. You might have seen a few examples online (such as the picture above) and now you feel terrified, thinking that if you learn to read simplified, you will never be able to communicate in writing with people in Taiwan or Hong Kong, or that your Chinese will be useless on the Mainland if you’ve learnt Chinese in Taiwan. Just look at the following examples, with traditional forms first and then their simplified counterparts:

  • 聽 - 听
  • 豐 - 丰
  • 議 - 议

However, these examples are mostly used by people to illustrate that the differences can be large. Those are extreme cases and they are very, very far from being typical. Let’s have a look at the following characters and see if you think they are easier (again, the traditional on the left and the simplified on the right):

  • 的 - 的
  • 一 - 一
  • 是 - 是
  • 不 - 不
  • 了 - 了
  • 人 - 人
  • 我 - 我
  • 在 - 在
  • 有 - 有
  • 他 - 他

These are the ten most common characters in Chinese. As you can see, they are identical in the simplified and traditional character sets. This is true for most characters! Even for characters that aren’t identical, the differences usually are very small and systematic:

  • 銳 - 锐
  • 銘 -  铭
  • 釘 - 钉
  • 鎮 - 镇
  • 釣 - 钓

Doesn’t look so scary, right? As we can clearly see, the only thing that has changed in these characters is the radical: 釒-> 钅. It takes about five seconds to learn the above characters, provided you know either the simplified or the traditional version first. And these aren’t the only ones, most simplifications are really this easy.

A closer look at the simplification process

A huge majority of simplified characters are based on systematic simplification of radicals and/or character parts. The above examples using 釒/钅 are typical, so I didn’t include them just to make you feel good. This means that just by learning a few hundred patterns (such as 釒-> 钅) , you can understand most of what’s written using the character set you’re not familiar with. These patterns are usually (but not always) very easy and can be learnt simply by looking at them once. Understanding that 訁becomes 讠 or that 糹becomes 纟really isn’t that hard, even if it takes some time getting used to the new forms.

That being said, there are some characters that have been morphed beyond recognition or that make use of ancient variants that look very different indeed. This means that there are around five hundred “tricky cases” that you need to learn. However, learning 500 characters isn’t very hard on an advanced level and can be done in a matter of weeks. I learnt traditional before learning simplified and it took me less than a month to be able to read books in simplified Chinese. Sure, reading quickly and comfortably takes more time than that, but I can understand simplified Chinese without too much trouble. Writing is harder, but wouldn’t be too hard with some practise.

A suggested plan of action

So, you know one set and want to learn the other? Great! First you should consider when to do this. I would say that you should wait as long as is practically possible. If you do it early, confusion will ensue. If you know several thousand characters already, however, learning the other set will be easy.

Here’s a suggested plan of action:

  1. Go through and learn the systematic changes
  2. Note and learn any exceptions (use my deck in Anki (search for “tricky simplifications”), based on Renzhe’s original, or download a text version here)
  3. Use some kind of SRS to learn those tricky cases
  4. Read a book or two

It really is that simple. Possibly, you could do without step three and skip directly to reading, but I at feast feel a bit safer after making sure that I have learnt the tricky cases. I still might not be able to write them by hand, but I do recognise them which is enough for most situations. There are some really tricky cases and some merges of characters that are difficult to handle, but these make up a very small part of what you have to learn, so I really don’t think they are a big problem.

I’d like to end this article by saying this: Most people who have not learnt both character sets have felt daunted by the challenge, but every single learner I’ve talked to who have actually learnt the other set as well have said that they thought it was easy.

I suppose that what I want to say is: don’t worry: it isn’t as bad as it looks.

Resources

List of all radicals (see the “simplified character” column)
Ambiguities in Chinese character simplification
List of character parts that can also be used alone
List of simplifications that can’t be used in compositions
Wikipedia’s article (contains links to all other simplifications)