If I were to pick one activity that language learners across the world should do more in order to improve their speaking in general and their pronunciation in particular, it would be mimicking native speakers.
Mimicking is the single most powerful way of learning all sorts of things about how Mandarin (or any other language) is spoken, including basic pronunciation, tones, prosody (including intonation) and even vocabulary, grammar and fluency in general.
Mimicking native speakers as a way of learning Chinese
Yet none of the teachers I’ve had in the 20 and some years I’ve learnt foreign languages has suggested this activity or used it in the classroom. This is a pity, because it’s not only an effective way of learning, it’s also free and easy to do.
All you need is a suitable target model, a decent audio recording and editing program, along with some time and dedication. Professional feedback and help is of course good, but mimicking can be useful even without that.
The benefits of close mimicking
So, what do I mean when I say mimic native speakers? In essence, it means choosing a target audio clip and then doing everything you can to produce a perfect copy of it in your own voice.
This is useful for a number of reasons. It encourages you to study speech closely, transcribe speech, study vocabulary and grammar and so on. Moreover, It’s one of the best ways to study intonation. Finally, it’s cheap and requires relatively little feedback compared to other methods dealing with pronunciation.
Detailed instructions for how to learn Chinese by mimicking
There are of course many ways of mimicking, from spontaneously repeating after a native speaker to more rigorous ways of using mimicking to study. In this article, I will focus on the latter, but feel free to remove steps and make it simpler if you wish. Below, I have broken down the process for you:
- Find suitable target audio – Choose your audio based both on your current ability and what you want to learn. If you just started learning Chinese, you don’t want a recording of a group of native speakers talking very fast: if your goal is to improve your oral presentations in Mandarin, don’t mimic relaxed talk shows on TV. In general, try interviews, news broadcasts, presentations, film dialogue and so on. Only use learner-oriented audio if you’re a beginner and/or if it’s well produced (i.e. sounds natural). It’s also a good idea to check with your teacher if the person you have chosen to mimic is worth mimicking. This is very important if you plan to stick to the same person and really learn how that individual speaks. For now, though, the clip you use needs to be only a few minutes long.
- Understand, then transcribe the audio – Practising saying things you don’t understand makes little sense, so before we get to the mimicking itself, it’s important that you understand what’s being said. Then, write it down! If you already have a transcript, make sure it’s actually a word-for-word exact recording of what’s said and not just an approximation. I have written two related articles:The Grand Listening Cycle: Improve your Chinese listening ability and Transcribing Chinese audio as an active form of listening practice.
- Study any new words or grammar – Approach it as you would any text you want to know well (such as a chapter in your textbook you will later be tested on). Look up words, make sure you understand how the grammar works. Listen to it many times after you have done this to consolidate the gains. You should now have an audio clip you’re very familiar with.
- Break down the passage into smaller parts – Mimicking takes a lot of time and if you start with a ten-minute clip, it will feel hopeless and will also be unnecessarily unwieldy. I would say that each snippet should be between a few seconds up to a few sentences. Choose shorter pieces if this is your first try or if you’re a beginner; make them longer if you know what you’re doing. You don’t have to actually cut the audio and save it as separate files, but showing clearly in the transcript where each part starts and ends is a good idea. The easiest way to cut audio if you want to do that is to use Audacity. It’s a free program that allows you to record and edit audio with ease. It’s available for most platforms.
Then, for each snippet:
- Listen carefully – Start by listening attentively to the audio. Is your transcript right? How does the native speaker pronounce the words? In Audacity, you can hit shift + play, which loops the selected audio.
- Mimic the audio until you can say each part right – You don’t need to be able to string everything together yet, but make sure you can say each part just like the native speaker does.
- Say the words alongside the native speaker – Now try to say the entire snippet in one go, at the same time as the native speaker does.
- Practise until you can match tones, pace and intonation – This can take a lot of time, perhaps ten, twenty or even more repetitions. Even if you know the pronunciation of the individual words, stringing everything together at a brisk pace is not easy. Try to get as close to the target audio as possible. Ideally, your voice should blend with the target audio.
- Record your best attempt – When you think you’re getting good at shadowing the native speaker, instead of just hitting the “play” button again, hit “record” instead. If you use earphones, you will be able to record your voice while hearing the native speaker, while only recording your own voice. This is ideal.
- Compare this to the original – In Audacity, you can enable and disable tracks. Compare your recording with the original. Listen to them separately. If you have a tutor or other helpful native speaker, this is where you want feedback (albeit not necessarily immediately).
- Continue with the next snippet – If you’re satisfied with the result, move on to the next piece and work your way through the entire audio clip. Exactly how good you want it to be before you move on depends a little bit on what you’re aiming for. I prefer spending a lot of time on few, short clips, but I can understand why some students might want to cover more audio to a lesser depth.
This looks like a complicated process, but it really is very simple. As mentioned above, the goal is to produce your own version of something a native speaker has said. I show an example of this in a video I produced a few years ago. Unfortunately, there’s a very annoying buzz in the background, but you can still check it out here if you want. The mimicking bit starts at 4:42:
This week’s article is very practical. If you haven’t tried mimicking native speakers in this way yet, why don’t you put that at the top of your list of next actions for learning Chinese? Dedicate 20-30 minutes to this activity and see how far you can get!