Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Two reasons why pronunciation matters more than you think

communicationI’m known for being a bit obsessed with pronunciation and for me it is the most fascinating part of learning a new language.

Naturally, I realise that this isn’t the case for most students and therefore it is understandable that people sometimes ask me why I think pronunciation matters so much.

I could argue the case from a personal point of view and simply say that I like pronunciation and find it both interesting to study in theory and to improve in practice, but instead of doing that, I’m going to look at two arguments why pronunciation actually matters more than you might think, regardless if you like it or not.

Pronunciation does influence communication

First and foremost, there’s no such thing as having really bad pronunciation in Chinese and still being able to communicate perfectly. Bad pronunciation does influence communicative ability, albeit not always in an obvious manner.

In short, the more complex and less predictable your utterances become, the more important your pronunciation becomes. If the listener needs to guess what sound you’re trying to produce, it’s going to be harder to understand the ideas you’re trying to convey. This is the core message in The importance of tones is inversely proportional to the predictability of what you say. Of course, it’s true not only for tones, but all areas of pronunciation.

Why bother? If can make myself understood, that’s enough!

This is a very common attitude I’ve heard from many students, but I think it’s wrong. You can’t just say “communication is enough” and then regard pronunciation as something only for those truly interested.

All mistakes in a language affect communication in some way. If you make one mistake in every sentence, you can probably get away with it, but since it’s very unlikely that your grammar, word choice and so on are all perfect, it makes sense to try to minimise the number of errors, including in pronunciation.

For communication to work properly, we need to make sure that the sounds we produce in Chinese are correctly categorised by native speakers, but we don’t need to sound exactly like native speakers to be clearly understood.

To use a slightly more technical language, we could say that our speech needs to be good enough to lead to phonemically accurate judgements by native speakers, but we don’t need perfect phonetic accuracy.

What does this mean in practice? It means that it’s fine if your pronunciation of Chinese initials, finals and tones is a bit off (which will leave you with a noticeable accent), but it’s not okay if they’re off by enough to make it hard for native speakers to correctly process the sounds. If you want to say “jia” but it comes out somewhere between “jia” and “zha”, you have a problem and you need to fix it.

The number of mistakes matters, as well as the mistakes themselves

Naturally, given context, the listener might still be able to understand what you’re saying, but what I’m trying to get at here is that if you burden the listener with enough problems like this, they will have a harder time understand what you’re saying. You can of course be understood with a heavy accent in a language, but usually only after the listener has become used to the way you speak or if they’re familiar with your kind of accent from previous experience.

Pronunciation is a representation of you and your Chinese ability in general

Apart from the fact that we don’t want to put to heavy a burden on the listener, the second and perhaps equally important reason that pronunciation matters is that it partly determines how other people regard you and your Chinese ability. To be judged like this is grossly unfair, but it’s still true and something we probably want to consider as second language learners. Let me explain this further.

The reason speaking (of which pronunciation is an important part) is so important is that most other language skills are mediated through speech, at least in everyday life and in real-life interaction.

You might consider Tang poems as light reading for breakfast, but if you can’t talk about that, people aren’t going to be very impressed. I can say that I have studied Chinese for so and so long, learnt so and so many thousand characters and that I have read several hundred books in Chinese, but it’s still hard to believe if I speak Chinese like someone who has studied for six months. To prove the passive skills, you almost need a standardised test, which is rather abstract and might be meaningless to outsiders.

Pronunciation is not like the other skills. It strikes the listener directly in the face (the ears, to be more precise). How good your pronunciation is in general can be judged very quickly and an opinion is formed automatically by anyone who hears you.

I guess this is similar to writing (and handwriting) at least back in the days before computers were used. It’s simply hard to believe that someone who writes like a five-year-old is an expert in another area of Chinese. It might of course be true, it’s just harder to believe it compared to if that person wrote perfectly.

Judging a book by its covers

We all know that we shouldn’t, but we still do, unconsciously, all the time. I think people in general tend to underestimate people who have bad pronunciation and overestimate people who have good pronunciation (according to the argument above).

For instance, take a few moments to think about immigrants in your have met in your own country who speak a broken version of your native language. Even though we don’t want to, it’s very easy to think that foreigners with good pronunciation are “better” than those that have poor pronunciation, including in areas which aren’t related to speaking or even to languages at all.

Bonus: Winning the language struggle

After publishing this article, Scott Burgan pointed out to me on Facebook that there is another advantage of having good pronunciation, namely that it helps you win the language struggle. A single sentence pronounced well and at a natural pace will convince most people that they can converse with you only in Chinese instead of insisting on English.

This is much harder (next to impossible sometimes) with good grammar, vocabulary, reading/listening and so on. Of course, this might also lead to the infamous binary judgement of foreigners’ language proficiency: “Either you know nothing your you are near-native”, so if your pronunciation is better than your overall ability, be prepared to ask people to repeat themselves and/or slow down!

Pronunciation matters more than you think

So, pronunciation does matter and that it matters regardless if you care or not. You might know that your Chinese is awesome, but if pronunciation is the weakest of your skills, it’s bound to have a big impact on how you are perceived by others. Since this can be very important both in a private, social situation and in a  professional or business situation, focusing more on pronunciation is usually a good idea.

Of course, you will eventually reach a point where it doesn’t pay off to invest more time in pronunciation, but that’s something different (I wrote more about that in this article fossilisation). It might be hard to fool native speakers into believing that you’re Chinese, but that’s no excuse for making basic mistakes with tones, initials or finals. Simply put, people stop caring about pronunciation too early rather than too late.

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  1. Julien Leyre says:

    Great post, as always!

    I wanted to add something – actually, a personal observation I’d like to test. I’ve observed a correlation in myself and some of my students between pronunciation and listening ability. Basically, through some sort of odd muscular mapping influencing parts of the cortex or ear tuning or whatever, when I make some sort of ‘aha’ progress in pronunciation, whether it’s rhythm, consonant clusters or vocalic distinction, I also start understanding better, basically by better hearing what people say. I’m unsure if there’s research on that, and whether it’s an oddity of my brain or a general trait, but I’d love to hear if anyone else (or you Olle) have observed this.

    Also, I’ve just published a post today on my blog about three areas of Chinese pronunciation where I’ve noted significant progress after changing some ‘odd’ element – softening consonants, using my diaphragm, and making my vowels more nasal. I would also love to test these! The post is here: http://julienleyre.wordpress.com/2014/02/20/three-core-tips-on-pronouncing-chinese-2/ – I’m basically trying to address the core problem of ‘how to sound more Chinese’.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Interesting! Are you referring to some other language than Chinese? There aren’t that many consonant clusters in Chinese… Anyway, I think the normal thing is for perception to improve production rather than the other way around, but I suppose the opposite is possible. For instance, once you realise how something is pronounced, it might be a trigger that suddenly allows you to notice something you didn’t notice before. This happens with vocabulary all the time. You hear a word for the first time (you think), learn it and suddenly hear it everywhere! This is of course not because other people suddenly start using the word, they did that all along, you just didn’t pay attention. I’ve had this experience more times than I can count and I think it’s a general phenomenon of noticing.

      1. Julien Leyre says:

        I’ve had this happen to me both in Chinese and other languages. Indeed, this works like vocabulary recognition – at a sort of ‘meta-level’.

  2. Scott Burgan says:

    Thanks for the recognition Olle, 😉

    I can’t remember where but I have definitely heard of what Julien Leyre is saying about being able to pronounce a sound (and distinguish between close sounds) and then this enhancing listening comprehension in academic ESL literature somewhere. Although I can’t remember where though, so not really much help I’m afraid!

    1. george says:

      If you can’t say it properly, you likely can’t hear it properly as well. Returning to review of pronunciation for some period on an annual basis is a very good thing.

      As you progess, you will enjoy confidence in sounding more and more like a native speaker.

  3. Tyson says:

    Indeed true, I have often had a very positive response from a simple well pronounced 你好,leading to an overestimation of my overall level.

  4. george says:

    I found a lot of new learners of Chinese in Taiwan like to talk fast when in doubt about their pronunciation and hope that the listen will pick up the meaning from the context.

    This is a rather negligent habit of loading the other person with more than their fair share of the communication burden.

    On the other hand, you do run into fast talkers that you just can’t sort out. Often they presume your level is higher than it is. It is very remarkable how just asking them to slow down often results in them using less presumptive idiom and the whole conversation becomes coherent.

    This is a very natural part of negotiation of communication. It really doesn’t matter which language it is, just asking people to slow down tends to shift to a simpler vocabulary and more verification of understanding.

    Be sure to ask for such if you are having trouble keeping up.

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