Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Why learning Chinese pronunciation by using English words is a really bad idea

Learning is often a matter of taking something new and connecting it to something you already know; a process of using the familiar to make sense of the unfamiliar. Sometimes this doesn’t work, though, and what you already know risks blocking you from truly perceiving the new.

Learning the sounds of a foreign language is such an example. When we try to learn to pronounce Chinese as adults, existing sound categories in our brains can block the perception of subtle differences that are not important in our native language.

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Using words in English to learn Chinese pronunciation

As I have discussed in Learning to hear the sounds and tones in Mandarin, there are scientifically sound methods for establishing new categories of sounds when learning a new language.

Using words in your native language to approximate pronunciation in your target language is not one of them, however, yet it is surprisingly common.

I have worked with phonetics for so long that I hardly remember what it’s like to not think in terms of the International Phonetic Alphabet, but I do get reminded of the perils of ad hoc approximations all the time because of student questions and discussions.

Why you shouldn’t use English words to approximate Chinese pronunciation

The fact is that few sounds in Chinese have exact counterparts in English, so saying that “x in Mandarin is like y in English” is almost always wrong, unless you add some caveat.

Sure, if your goal is to teach tourists how to say basic phrases, go ahead, but I think we should set the bar higher than that.

Common ways of using English words to show Chinese pronunciation

Below, I have collected a few examples of actual explanations of how certain sounds in Mandarin are pronounced, many of them from websites that purport to teach Mandarin pronunciation! All these are wrong to a certain extent, by the way, but I will get to that later.

  • Pinyin j- is pronounced like j in “jinx”
  • Pinyin q- is pronounced like ch in “cheat”
  • Pinyin -ong is pronounce like ong in “long”
  • Pinyin -iu is pronounced like “ee-oo”
  • Pinyin c- is pronounced like ts in “cats”
  • Pinyin e- s pronounced like e in “err”
  • The difference between Pinyin and -u is like that between “feud” and “food”

I’m not going to go through in detail exactly why each of these are wrong, but I have written about most of them in A guide to Pinyin traps and pitfalls: Learn Mandarin pronunciation:

A guide to Pinyin traps and pitfalls: Learn Mandarin pronunciation

Writing down pronunciation is hard

There many problems with this approach of writing about pronunciation.

First, writing down pronunciation is notoriously difficult. The main problem is that there are many more sounds than there are letters in the alphabet, and that’s true even if we only look at English. This is why the International Phonetic Alphabet exists.

For example, p in English is used to denote two different sounds. The first, p as in “pot” is aspirated (it has a puff of air), but the p in “spot” is unaspirated (it does not have a puff of air). If you haven’t thought much about this, try saying these two words and you will notice that they are different. Here’s an article that discusses this phenomenon in English and actually mentions Chinese too.

This difference is not significant in English, so saying “spot” with an aspirated “p” doesn’t give rise to a new word; it just sounds odd.

Yet in Mandarin, this difference is significant and two different letters are used for these sounds: p for the aspirated version and b for the unaspirated one. None of them are voiced! The same is true for p/bd/t and so on.

Please note that what I’ve described above are the basic sounds, which can change in context. Voicing is quite complicated in both languages; I simply want to show that you can’t really trust ordinary letters when it comes to pronunciation.

This gets even worse when we’re talking about vowels that exist in a space rather than on a linear spectrum. While it’s relatively easy to nail down consonants, native-like pronunciation of vowels is considerably harder. This is even problematic in IPA, where a large number of symbols are used, and then extra diacritics are added to specify these further.

Your “ee-oo” is not my “ee-oo”

Another issue is that there’s considerable variation in how native speakers of English pronounce words. How do I know what’s intended when someone says that -iu is pronounced like “ee-oo”? Who’s “ee-oo”?

Or if -e in de (的) is said to be pronounced like a as in “a sound”, who’s “a” are we talking about? I pronounce these two sounds more or less the same, so for me this is a pretty good approximation, but other people who read such a description don’t know how I pronounce these words! Many native speakers pronounce “a” with a more open vowel.

Don’t learn sounds by reading about them, listen instead

Pronunciation should be learnt primarily through listening, then mimicking. Since it can be hard to perceive new sounds for adults, some explanations and descriptions of the sounds can help you pay attention to the right part, but this explanation needs to be correct and meaningful, and not in writing only. I wrote more about this in How learning some basic theory can improve your pronunciation.

How learning some basic theory can improve your pronunciation

The only possible exception to this is if you’re a trained phonetician, in which case listening to people speaking and studying how these sounds are normally transcribed can be enough. This can indeed be a powerful aid, as seeing the actual sounds written down can be helpful in directing attention when listening.

Using English words is worse than useless; it might stop you from hearing the actual sounds

The problem of using English words to describe Mandarin pronunciation can be more than just misleading. If you get it into your head that j in Pinyin is pronounced like j in “jeep”, you will have effectively steered your attention away from the actual sound.

If you couple this with lots of reading in Pinyin, you will solidify the idea that these two sounds are the same (they aren’t; Pinyin j is not voiced and it’s not pronounced with the same tongue position either).

While this is something I will have to revisit in a future article, there’s also evidence to suggest that orthography, i.e. how we write words, influences how we perceive and pronounce them. The very fact that you see and think of the letter j might make it less likely that you  hear the actual sound!

Naturally, this is only part of what makes it hard to learn new sounds. I’m not suggesting that learning Chinese pronunciation would be easy if everybody stopped using English words, but there’s no reason to make it harder than it already is.

Learning English pronunciation with Chinese characters

To really hammer home how bad it is to try to learn Chinese pronunciation with English words, let’s look at the opposite case: learning English pronunciation with Chinese characters. There are many books and travel dictionaries that use this approach.

Here are some examples. See if you can guess what they mean!

  • gǔdémāoníng
    古德猫宁
  • sānkèyóu
    三克油
  • sǐzhuàng
    死壮
  • gāisǐ
    该死
  • zhuàisǐ
    拽死
  • yēsǐ
    噎死
  • ǎnbùnéngsǐ
    俺不能死
  • nàitè
    奈特
  • hànzi
    汉子
  • bān nànà
    班呐呐
  • nèimǔ
    内母

Was it clear to you what they all meant? Were they easy to understand? Do you think this is a good way of teaching English pronunciation?

In case you couldn’t guess them, I’ve posted the “correct” answers as a comment to this article!

Like I said, this might be good enough for a tourist, and better than nothing, but I’d argue that it’s worse than useless for someone who plans to really learn the language.

I have a book that teaches French this way, and tested it out by letting someone read the Chinese characters and leting me guess what French words and phrases were intended. It sometimes worked with some context and a bit of guesswork, but it was pretty hard. It was never easy, but hilarious all the way through.

Conclusion

The conclusion is that learning pronunciation by using approximations in English is a really bad idea. Asking a question like “how is Pinyin q pronounced?” in writing is going to give you a dozen answers that all say different things. One or two of these might even be correct, but how do you know which two?

I’m not saying you have to use scientific descriptions of sounds to be able to talk about them, I use everyday language to talk about pronunciation all the time, such as “puff of air” instead of “aspiration”, but the problem is that when you start using English words in writing, no one can be sure exactly which sounds are meant.

So, what should you do instead? Listen more than you read; mimic as much as you can. Learn some basic theory and study accurate descriptions of the sounds, even if they are not as straightforward as saying that it’s the same as a certain word in English. Always pair this with listening.

If you don’t know where to start, I listed many useful resources in my article 24 great resources for improving your Mandarin pronunciation.

24 great resources for improving your Mandarin pronunciation



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9 comments

  1. Olle Linge says:

    The English vocabulary written with Chinese characters is as follows:

    Good morning
    gǔdémāoníng
    古德猫宁

    Thank you
    sānkèyóu
    三克油

    Strong
    sǐzhuàng
    死壮

    Guess
    gāisǐ
    该死

    Dress
    zhuàisǐ
    拽死

    Yes
    yēsǐ
    噎死

    Ambulance
    ǎnbùnéngsǐ
    俺不能死

    Night
    nàitè
    奈特

    Hands
    hànzi
    汉子

    Banana
    bān nànà
    班呐呐

    Name
    nèimǔ
    内母

    Observant readers will have noticed that these also generally mean something in Chinese, which makes it even more amusing!

  2. Harland says:

    You should do one on people trying to teach Chinese, in English, by reference to *other* foreign languages. Oh God this cheeses me off. They’ll just throw something out there like everyone is supposed to understand it: “Oh, just pronounce that like the sound in French” as if everyone speaks French. Here’s a recent example of people doing this without any idea that others might not speak French: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/60485-tips-for-pronouncing-r/?tab=comments#comment-473360

    1. Ada says:

      It is not as unwarranted as you make it to be. Many Brits learn French at school and many people learning Chinese use English resources (even if they aren’t English natives themselves) and these references to other languages might help them more than English equivalent. In the example you provided somebody mentions Russian ‘ж’ as good equivalent to Chinese ‘sh’. I think the main issue is many teachers don’t know the difference between sounds (they don’t hear it) and find technical detail boring, so they don’t learn and tell their students what they think is true.

      1. Harland says:

        So Brits are the only people who learn Chinese? There are only 60 million of them in the world. This is less than the population of most Chinese provinces. How many are in China learning Chinese?

        It’s just blastingly poor pedagogy, which the teaching of Chinese is shot through with. It’s shockingly poorly done in most cases. It’s the “well I speak French, I didn’t even bother to think that other people might not” attitude. It’s Pauline Kael Syndrome.

    2. Olle Linge says:

      This is pretty obvious, I think. As a teacher, you need to find whatever method works for your students. If some of them have learnt French (or Swedish for that matter), it’s easy to say that Pinyin ü is close to the sound in these other languages. But only a gravely incompetent teacher would use this as the only way of teaching the sound, unless all students speak those languages.

      When I started learning Chinese, I had a teacher who spoke dozens of languages and he dropped references all over the place. This grammar patterns is like this is German, this sound is like this in French, and so on. However, he also paired this with a survey of the students so he knew who knew what language.

      By the way, that whole thread contains a ton of good arguments for why we shouldn’t say things like “it’s like X in language Y”, because like I said in the article here, it’s seldom correct. You can’t even trust educated teacher to be right here.

  3. Paul says:

    I’ve been sitting here for ten minutes saying ‘pot’ and ‘spot’ and I can’t hear a difference with the ‘p’!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Let’s switch to “pin” and “spin”, because those have closer counterparts in Mandarin. The stop in “pin” has aspiration, a puff of air after it, and a later voice onset time, meaning that it takes longer from the release of the air to the start of the voicing. This would be close to “p” in Mandarin, e.g. 拼 (pīn). The stop in “spin” does not have that small puff of air and has an earlier voice onset time, which is closer to “b” in Mandarin, e.g. 宾 (bīn). Here’s an article for you if you want to read more: Buy a pie for the spy.

  4. Cliff says:

    Olle, great post. You have to admit it is FUNNY though. What you said was correct: “teach tourists how to say basic phrases, go ahead.” The first time I saw this was in Boston with some of my Chinese friends and then my mother in law had a couple lists like this. It took me a while to figure out what the characters were saying…. then when I said it out loud…. it shocked me how cool and creative….but also how horrible the pronunciation is. Now my wife and I use it as jokes. Hey that might be a fun thing… I can write a note to her saying: 古德猫宁 Gǔ dé māo níng She would die laughing!!!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      噎死,为日 烦你!

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