Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

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 Mandarin. 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 learn Mandarin  in many places in southern China, why should you learn to distinguish z, zh; c, ch, and  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? What about switches that are even more strange coming from an English-speaking background, such as f/h?

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, 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 particular 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’re not a native speaker, 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 sound 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 is to learn more than one way of speaking Chinese. This is indeed what I have done, too. I have a Taiwan-touch to my Mandarin, but I can increase or decrease it depending on whom I’m talking to and in what situation. 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.


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!

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  1. Scott says:

    The problem with this though is that it is’t that easy to spend all your time training for one accent and then believing that you can switch between the local or standard depending on the situation.

    I find that some aspects of standard pronunciation (mainland) won’t be understand by locals in Taiwan. I’ve had had people not be able to understand what I’m saying before because I said it the standard way. Admittedly it has usually been one word in isolation rather than a sentence.

    Is it really that easy to switch between accents depending on your situation? I’ve never met a Taiwanese person who could convincingly switch between different English accents.

    Have you ever been misunderstood for speaking too standard?

    1. Graham says:

      Switching between accents wholesale is probably not easy, but(as an example because it’s where I have context) dropping your retroflex when talking to people in Taiwan? Definitely doable, as I find myself slipping into it when I’m out in Taipei, but practicing a strong retroflex during my courses.

      1. Olle Linge says:

        I agree! It’s very hard to change dialect completely, but I find it relatively easy to vary the degree to which I adhere to certain more obvious differences, such as the retroflex sounds. I also find it quite easy to switch 這兒, 那兒 and so on. To clarify, I didn’t mean that it’s easy to learn two completely different dialects, I meant that it’s definitely possible to vary the degree of formality and correctness when you speak. And to answer Scott’s question, I have never been misunderstood because of this, but I’ve heard other people who have. However, I wonder if it’s only a matter of retroflex sounds. As I said in the article, if your tones, stress and vocabulary usage is perfect, I doubt many would fail to understand you, regardless of how you speak.

  2. Elmomk says:

    Is standard chinese the same in mainland as in taiwan?
    I noticed certain words will have different tones. (Or is that just a misinterpretation of me?)
    E.g. 研究 In Taiwan I hear people pronounce it as yan2jiu4
    But people from mainland seem to say it as yan2jiu1
    (I wonder because I bought the PAVC series and that’s how they teach yan2jiu4 and some other words that are different as well. Can’t say them of the top of my mind.

    [For some words it’s just a matter of speech like 衣服 :
    taiwan yi1fu2
    Mainland yi1fu5
    This difference is reasonable as it is just a way of making it easier to say. ]

    Any insights?


    1. Danny says:

      I don’t know about 研究 in particular, but what I noticed is that PAVC, although it is made in Taiwan and for use in Taiwan, it strangely uses mainland standards you won’t hear in Taiwan and where people will tell you (half)jokingly “you’re sounding like a mainlander”.

      I wonder why that is?

      1. elmomk says:

        Well the audio files are recorded by mainlanders and well there are a couple of idiomatic 這兒,哪兒,…等等 that is used in PAVC quite often. Taiwanese tend to use this 兒 quite sporadic. (Partially because the Taiwanese dialect doesn’t use this sound.)

        I know these differences exist in spoken language. I wonder if these differences also occur when learning 中文系 as a Chinese in Taiwan?

      2. Chechien Wang says:

        Yes, you are right about that, 研究 is pronounced 就 in Taiwan standard Mandarin.
        A number of characters are pronounced differently in Taiwan Mandarin and PRC Mandarin (“Beijing standard”). There are also quite a few words that are different, and some grammar is different as well (use of 有 to mark past tense, different use and position of 了 etc), but you will learn those along the way.

        I am not sure what PAVC is, but my teacher friends tell me that the Chinese as a second language departments at big Taiwanese unis try to get people to study in Taiwan even if they later want to use their Mandarin in the PRC and therefore aim to teach PRC standard, although the teachers are all Taiwanese and students will have a hard time understanding and being understood while in Taiwan.

        I personally feel that is quite daft, but hey. If you ask the teachers, I am sure they are more than happy to tell you about the Taiwanese way of saying things.

  3. nommoc says:

    Ah the issue of pronunciation.

    Olle makes a good point, although Chinese pronunciation varies greatly among native speakers (just watch some popular reality T.V. shows and you will find this out, i.e. 非诚勿扰,非你莫属,中国好声音,等), learners should NOT take this as queue to be lax in learning proper pronunciation, or be creative in coming up with their own new and strange variations.


    As Olle well stated, there are four aspects to foreigners speaking Chinese which typically result in a dead give away it is a foreigner speaking and not a native:

    1) pronunciation
    2) tones
    3) vocabulary
    4) grammar

    Thus, while pronunciation varies locally through China, the tones, vocabulary, grammar of natives are consistently far more accurate than a foreigner.

    Before you get in a bunch and argue tones are not important or natives don’t always use the right tones… please hold your horses and read up on the topic. There has already been plenty of research and data to prove the absolute mandatory nature of learning proper tones.

    Not to mention what Olle stated is so true, the variations of pronunciation, tones, etc. amongst natives is actually very “standardized”, that is the locals in that area pretty much all, universally use such variations, therefore, there is no issue with everyday communication.

    The issue foreigners face is they typically bring variations in all categories… pronunciation, tones, vocab, grammar, etc. Thus… it is a real challenge at times to get understood by locals.

    But have no fear, identifying the problem is half the battle.

    Once you realize pronunciation is absolutely worth working on, you can take steps to improve it. Olle has previously mentioned self-recording as one of them, likewise asking a native to give you real, honest, critical feedback and correction is another.

    Another point to bring out is, pronunciation improvement must be ongoing, don’t ever think you are “done” with it. As there has been good research on the fact that initially learners issue with pronunciation is actually related to “hearing”. That is, during varying stages of the learning process, a learner “thinks” they are hearing the target pronunciation accurately, and thus try to imitate what they are hearing… the issue is, in actuality the listening skills of the learner also need time to develop and accurately identify the new sounds.

    Bottom line, the longer you listen to native speakers, the more accurately you hear and identify their pronunciation, thus equipping you to make further adjustments to your own pronunciation.

    Lastly, as to what “dialect” or “pronunciation” to learn, yes… aiming for a relatively “standard” pronunciation is worth it.

    Although, let it be known, mainland “standard Chinese” and Taiwan “standard Chinese” is noticeably different.

    No need to worry, as both are widely used and accepted. Based on where you primarily study, you will naturally develop one or the other.

    Sure you can “try” to adapt it a bit to the area you are travelling in or based on who you are talking too… but note, natives typically don’t do this.

    Just talk to, or listen to a native of mainland and Taiwan, neither will be changing their pronunciation, tones, vocab or grammar for the other… they both are able to understand the other with relative ease and take no real offence with being identified as being a native of either mainland or Taiwan.

    Don’t forget too… Chinese pronunciation which strays from the “standard” is also recognized as a “dialect” of Chinese, not simply as Chinese. Natives will likewise classify the many varying “dialects” as different languages, not simply Chinese.

  4. Jie Fu says:

    With as many homonyms as there are in Chinese, it behooves everyone to distinguish between retroflex and palatals (regardless of whether a particular native speaker does or doesn’t) for no other reason than it helps the learner keep them straight mentally.

    Same goes for tones, (regional variations excepted). Though I have grown fond of the sound of the mainlander dong(1)xi(5) rather than Taiwan’s dong(1)xi(1)– going toneless on the second syllable whenever workable.

    Taiwan and mainlander differences aside, frequent travelers will learn how to growl with the northerners and hiss with the southerners.

  5. nommoc says:

    Interesting in how it relates to this topic, only recently found this blog post by Hugh Grigg, though originally posted a while back…


  6. Herbert Mushangwe says:

    Very Interesting discussion. As a Chinese language student and researcher I wouldn’t wonder why one might not be understood by some native speakers of Chinese because “proper” standard Chinese is something that is is spoken by less that 10% of Chinese people. I was in Sichuan one other time and a certain old lady speaking Sichuan dialect had to call her daughter to translate their dialect to standard Chinese for her to understand what i was saying. I think sometimes foreigners speak better standard Chinese especially if they studied Chinese in the north, thus if a native Chinese cannot understand you, you have to remember that standard Chinese is also quite difficult for some native speakers of Chinese. As for Taiwan Chinese, obviously their tones are different from those in the mainland, they use old traditional characters, which means their pronunciation is rooted in Traditional Chinese not Mandarin. Remember Mandarin is a kind of dialect because it is developed out of Beijing people’s pronunciation (not the whole of China.

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  8. Elaine says:

    I’m currently learning Chinese in a tiny town in the US, so almost all my speaking is through audio and video with my tutors in both Taiwan and on the mainland. While i’ve Been learning it off and on for several years now; it’s only been the past few months that I began to discern, what I NOW hear as VERY stark differences. I guess it’s just a matter of time and experience that our foreign ears takes to hear these differences. I brought it up to my primary tutor in Beijing and as a professional translator; he thought it was funny before congratulating me on STARTING my “real learning of standardized Chinese”. My only problem is that although I can HEAR the difference, I can’t quite put it into words..except maybe Mainland sounds more “mouthy” overall, whereas Taiwan sounds more “throat” based or “open”..I hate to use this term because I don’t want it to come out wrong, but my tutors in Taiwan sound more like students on the mainland, it’s less effortless. I’m just NOT going to describe it that way to them..?
    Does any of that make sense? I only detect very slight differences with the retro flex sounds-at least with my tutors. Those are more noticeable to me in some programs from Taiwan-mainly reality-type or talent shows.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      There are lots of systematic differences between the two standards, but even bigger differences between the way normal people talk. Not being able to put these differences into words is pretty normal unless you’re a trained phonetician. For example, can you put into words the difference between dialects of English? Most native speakers of English can’t do that, at least not using standardised terms.

      There are plenty of both academic and lay descriptions of these differences, but starting on Wikipedia is a good idea: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiwanese_Mandarin#Pronunciation. Check what it says under “In acrolectal Taiwanese Mandarin:”. Also check the entries regarding different preferred variants and different official pronunciations.

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