Everyone has that one friend, the one with the terrible Mandarin accent. They speak in a flat monotone, with no emotion and no respect to timing. It’s as if they were bored and reading pinyin as if it was English.
Most of the time, secondary speakers of Mandarin just don’t understand how bad they actually sound to a native speaker. I think that this is due to several reasons, and can be helped. Here are a few of the things that I think cause a bad Mandarin accent.
1) No one has ever mentioned that your accent is terrible.
Accents are often viewed as something that just can’t be helped, something that we are born with. This perception is completely untrue. If this were true, there would be no need for speech pathologists or diction coaches. An accent is something that you can tweak and intentionally craft. When most people speak a language they are not thinking actively about how to manipulate how they are sounding, they first imprint a sound and then focus on the output of the memorized sound. Accent training requires that we be more active in our output. The view that it is something that can’t be helped does make a bit of sense because it is very hard to change the way we sound, however it is not impossible. So we should try our hardest to improve our accent.
2) You imprinted yourself with sound patterns that you self-developed without hearing them from a native.
The problem with learning from a book and not speaking to, or listening to natives, is that you will not be able to get a feel for where words begin and where they end. Cadence and timing are just as important to sounding like a native as tones. If you’ve learned the wrong cadence and timing, it’s very hard to change that without having to think about each word. If you are not including listening to native speakers and speaking with them in your learning routine and making it just as important as learning new vocabulary, you should listen to more Mandarin.
3) There is a “culture block”.
Some people just can’t bring themselves to make an effort to sound like a native. They may try to imitate it with about 65% effort. This lack of effort is because they fear that if they try their hardest to have an authentic accent, they will either fail, someone will think that they are mocking or they are “not being American”. This is just my opinion but after speaking with people like this and asking why they don’t seem to try to have an authentic accent at all, they usually answer that they don’t want to be rude. I have also seen that after being immersed in the language their accent does improve over time. So I believe this is mostly a mental problem.
These are all reasons that Singing is a great way to improve your accent.
Singing helps you develop a natural timing and cadence, it gives you a feel for tones, and it`s a powerful memorization tool.
Don’t believe me? Let’s do an exercise: how many songs can you currently sing from memory in English? How many times has a song come on the radio and you were able to effortlessly sing along with it even though you had put no concentrated effort into learning it?
Human Beings have been using songs since songs were invented to pass down oral traditions of history and language. Also, most early stage language acquisition occurs through song with native speakers.
On top of that, it’s really fun, and singing along is an objective way to measure progress and set goals. Too often we get sidetracked with learning because we are unable to see any real progress and we get discouraged. Singing along with a song is something that you can rapidly see progression in, so it acts as a great motivator. Plus it`s really fun to perform in front of your native friends.
Below, I have included a list of Karaoke Songs that helped me when I was first learning. Please try to follow along with the pinyin and sing out loud, because not only is it fun, but you’ll notice in a few weeks that you won’t feel as tongue tied when learning new vocabulary:
曲婉婷 – 我的歌声里
那些年 – 胡夏
心跳 – 王力宏
愛我別走 – 張震嶽