Three core tips on pronouncing Chinese

From years of experience teaching French and English phonetics, I know that often, one simple change in the way we make sounds can improve our pronunciation dramatically. But few teachers – and almost no untrained native speaker – can accurately describe what a non-native needs to change in order to pronounce better.

I studied Mandarin on my own mostly – and like most Westerners, I’ve struggled with phonetics: tones, vowel quality, rhythm, aspiration. I didn’t know quite how much until recently. Early during my stay in Nanjing, I had an opportunity to join a singing show on Chinese TV (in the end, it didn’t happen). Before my interview, I wanted to check that a live performance wouldn’t cover me with ridicule, and recorded myself singing Chinese on my iphone. ‘Thick laowai’ is about what I sounded like. But this unpleasant experience had one very positive outcome: I was able to pick out some of the problems with my pronunciation, and based on what I heard, improve it.

The three tips below are based on this experience, and represent three areas of pronunciation where I feel I made significant progress just by changing one element in the way I articulate Mandarin. They may be strictly personal, or work for you – try them out!

1) More vowel, softer consonants

I’m trained as a classical singer, and I have a particular fondness for Schuman’s lieder. I also grew up in Strasbourg, and German is he first foreign language I learnt: trained ears still recognise echoes of it in my English. I could hear more than faint traces in my rendering of Jay Chou. I could hear every consonant exploding, hacking the flow of sound, like a pounding march: it sounded nothing like Chinese. I remembered some of my French classes: I improved some of my students’ accent by instructing them to de-articulate their consonants. I needed a serious dose of that. I recorded myself again, making sure I avoided any strong impulsion from my lips or jaw in between vowels, only softly closing them in between vowels. The result was astounding: it radically changed the quality of my singing, and I thought: “this really sounds Chinese”.

3) Use your diaphragm

Softening my consonants was a real improvement, but now my pronunciation was two soft. I listened to Chinese tracks again, and they all had a rhythmic beat I lacked. I thought again of my classical practice: one of the things we were encouraged to do was se our diaphragm on stressed syllables to mark an impulsion. I thought, if the structure of the Chinese language is such that every syllable has its own independent meaning – and a tone – maybe they all need an impulsion from the diaphragm. I tried, while keeping my consonants as soft as I could, and it worked! More importantly, I tried the same technique to speak aloud, and for the first time, noticed a radical improvement to my tones.

Tones – like all linguistic elements – form a system. And ‘bad tone pronunciation’ must be systemic. In a tonal language, changes in pitch carry word-meaning, as in the often quoted: 妈,麻,马,骂. These characters/words are all pronounced ‘ma’, with tone 1,2,3 and 4 respectively, and mean mother, hemp, horse and curse. Western learners (or teachers) generally focus on the difference between tones, trying as best we can to use a first, second, third or fourth tone, as required. But more fundamental is the difference between marking and not marking tones; yet we never learn about this more fundamental difference. From this experience, and others later, I have come to believe that these changes in pitch require every syllable to start with an impulsion from the diaphragm. I tested the theory with a few Chinese friends who concurred, feeling that in Mandarin, the sound came from ‘down below the throat”. Therefore, to speak better Chinese, the first step to to give each syllable its own impulsion from the diaphragm.

Concretely, when you speak Chinese, at the start of every syllable, you should push forward with your diaphragm. To check that it’s happening, you can put a finger just below your solar plexus, the bit where your ribs come together at the front of your chest, and push it forward by contracting the vert top of your abs. If you do that simple move well, speaking Chinese will feel like a series of small jumps and hops, you will start sounding more like a native, and you will experience the four tones as a different type of dance step.

3) Use your nose

The balance of consonant and vowel improved, and the general beat of the language improved, but something was still off the mark – I still sounded like Bel Canto practice. One of my goals in coming to China was to learn the beauty of Chinese opera: to my untrained ear, the singers’ nasal shrill sounds were simply unpleasant. But my own non-nasal voice was certainly not right. I tried: I sang in a nasal voice – and sounded like a Beijing opera star.

How do you speak or sing in a nasal voice? The sound (and air) goes both through the mouth and nose. It’s particularly clear when pronouncing a Chinese ‘i’. Imagine that there is a vertical piece of cardboard in the middle of your mouth. Then, try to imagine that the sound is resonating inside a small sphere located somewhere between your back teeth and your nose. You can also place your hand in front of your nose – if air comes out as you speak, then you’re nasal.

No teacher ever taught me these three tricks, and I never saw them explained anywhere else. Maybe because they don’t actually work – maybe because nobody’s bothered to research and describe them – or maybe they are widely known, and I just didn’t know where to look. I encourage you to try them at least – and see whether they bring any improvement. Please share your own advice on pronunciation here.

3 thoughts on “Three core tips on pronouncing Chinese

  1. Good to see that I’m doing well, right from the beginning I knew that Chinese as much close to Portuguese than to those Germanic languages so nasalization and vowels aren’t a problem. And although in was told that, it was just a small passage in wikipedia article, this type of ting really should be more widespread.

    After some time pronouncing the tones I really fell my lugs becoming tired now I know why, my diaphragm should be working like never before. I tried saying some words without using the diaphragm and the tones sounded so weak and similar to each others, like a typical “laowei”. So I think you hit the bull’s eye with your explanation.

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