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6 Steps to Improving Your Chinese Pronunciation Skills

Pronunciation is probably one of the hardest parts of Chinese to master and many students struggle with it even long after leaving the beginner stage of learning. Don’t be frustrated, though! Here are 6 steps to help you make some breakthroughs in your learning.

1. Tone sandhi you should know

After you’ve learned the basic Mandarin tones, you’ll begin to notice that tones frequently change. This change isn’t random; Mandarin tones change in certain situations according to specific rules, which are called tone sandhi. Basically there are three rules:

Rule 1
3rd tone+ 3rd tone—–>2nd+ 3rd tone. Example: The word nǐhǎo (你好, hello) —–> ní hǎo. Note: The word is still written with two third tones. If these two words are pronounced separately, they are both pronounced using the third tone. If a 3rd is followed by 1st/2nd/ 4th/neutral tone, the 3rd tone changes to a half 3rd tone. A half 3rd tone is one that falls, but does not rise.

Rule 2
The word不(bù)+ 4th tone—–>不(bú)+ 4th tone. Example: bù shì(不是,is not)—–> búshì

Rule 3 The word一(yī,one)is 1st tone when used as part of a number.

Example:

yī 一(one), èr 二(two), sān 三(three)…
一(yī) + 1st/2nd/3rd tone —–> 一(yì)+ 1st/2nd/3rd tone.

Example:

Yī tiān (一天,one day) —–> yì tiān
一(yī)+ 4th tone —–> 一(yí)+ 4th tone. Example: Yī cì一次(one time, once)—–> yí cì

2. Practicing Chinese tones in pairs

Disyllabic words are great because while most of the tone changes (sandhi) rules are applicable, an individual word remains short enough for you to focus on it, as you should. So you may want to quickly graduate to thinking about the tones in pairs.

Choose a word that you’re familiar with hearing; for example, you could choose 很好(hěnhǎo, very good), which is pronounced with a second tone and then a third tone (as previously discussed). Take note of this tone’s rhythm combination, and then repeat it several times. You can then gain this familiarity with other words that have the same rhythm combination. In this manner, you will easily increase the accuracy of your pronunciation of Chinese words. After gaining a firm understanding of every possible combination, sentence pronunciation will become that much easier.

3. Have a Silent Period

If you are in an immersion environment or are otherwise regularly using Chinese during a typical week, then you should consider taking a break from that environment completely—including listening to Chinese being spoken—for at least one week.

This stage of the language acquisition process is called “The Silent Period” The period is just to take all pressure off the language production department of the brain. It appears that once your mind is given a break from the limitations we put on it regarding how it should be learning, this freedom is used to your advantage. After the silent period is over, you may be surprised to find that your brain has consolidated some of your language-learning knowledge during this time. Actually this theory has proved efficient at the beginning of learning a new language by the researchers of language acquisition.

4. Learn and become aware

After learning the various rules of Chinese, you must become aware of the errors that you make in your speech. Keep an organized list of your corrections that have come from being monitored by other speakers, preferably native Chinese speakers. If you don’t have a Chinese speaker to monitor you, simple listen and repeat with the Elemental Chinese pronunciation and speaking lessons, and take note of how your pronunciation differs from the recording. Once you become aware of the errors you make, you are then ready to correct them.

5. Repetitive Review and Practice

On a regular basis, you should review your list of errors to find any patterns and then discover what you need to fix in order to address those patterns. The next step is to routinely practice the corrected pronunciation. Multiple practice sessions will be needed; it may be helpful for you to practice out loud at home. As you make each sound, pay attention to how it sounds and how similar or dissimilar it is to native speakers. While making each sound, ask yourself questions such as, “Where is my tongue right now?” and “How is my mouth moving?” It is important to notice the physical aspects of pronunciation so that you will be aware of what works and what is ineffective.

6. Train your Ears as often as you can

You will find it helpful to listen to a variety of audio in Chinese; podcasts, movies, TV shows, and the radio are good options for this. Additionally, you can listen to the range of native speakers’ accents and voices to learn how the Chinese language is consistent from one person to another. Think of it as training your ears to the music of Chinese, just like a musician!

Mandarin is a tonal language, it really is special, try listening to a Chinese speaker who has very nice, melodic Mandarin pronunciation, and this appreciation will help your Mandarin pronunciation. If not sooner, then later.

Rita Zhang

Rita is a professional Mandarin teacher, has been teaching more than 8 years. She enjoys digging more about Chinese grammar and culture work and helping more learners. Now she is working at the one-on-one online Chinese school TouchChinese.

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