Training Your Pronunciation - 5 Keys to Success

It’s fun to get your Mandarin pronunciation to sound more native-like. It feels good to gain control of the four Mandarin tones. It’s nice to learn and perfect your pinyin. And, above all, it is necessary to do these things, if you want to, in time, be speaking terrific Mandarin Chinese.

The good news is that your Mandarin pronunciation will improve a lot, very naturally over time with more and more exposure to the sounds (this means listening, listening, listening) as well as your own trial and error efforts at speaking.

The other side of the coin is that in order to enjoy that natural and effortless improvement with time and exposure, it is necessary to stimulate your Mandarin pronunciation with some conscious effort.

Here is a quick overview of the five components you need to ensure your Chinese pronunciation will smoothly be developing along with your other language skills, such as vocabulary, fluency, and so forth. We'll expand out these points below so all is crystal clear.

Think of these five as a regiment of vitamins that your Chinese learning mind needs.

Keeping in mind that you want to eat a balanced diet, examine the list below. If you suspect you may have some deficiency in some area, figure out how you can do some supplementing. With the necessary effort and attention, you will find yourself sailing along, and at your own pace, closing in on really good Mandarin Chinese pronunciation.

1. Pinyin Basics

Learn pinyin. Pinyin is simply the system that uses our alphabet to spell out Chinese words. But it must be learned because naturally, there are sounds in Chinese that don't exist in English. So, your first guess at how to pronounce the pinyin is likely to be off in several cases.

Also when I say ‘learn pinyin’, that also includes understanding the basic concept of the four tones.

Notice, here, I just mean getting the concept of the tones, which is actually quite easily understood. The practice and eventual mastery of the tones, however, is something else. And that problem is solved with these other yummy nutrients…

2. Guided Practice

Someone who can correct your Mandarin pronunciation errors is invaluable. And you want that feedback on an ongoing basis. Your pronunciation errors as a newbie learner are not the same as those when you’ve been learning for a year, two years, and so on.

Have a teacher, tutor, language exchange partner, Chinese friend, spouse or whomever, who will tell you what’s irritating them about your pronunciation, and who draw your attention to those errors right when they occur. (A teacher with a gentle and considerate manner is very agreeable, but as more than one husband of Chinese women I know seem to agree, a ruthless and strict attitude towards your pronunciation can also be very effective!)

It’s true, most Chinese are very polite, and are happy to tell you how good your Chinese is, no matter what level you are at. So, of course, you want to make sure your relationship with this person – your pronunciation guide - is beyond that point, and he or she is happy to give you frank and specific feedback about tones and other elements of your Mandarin pronunciation.

Do you have a sufficient amount of this ongoing feedback about your Mandarin pronunciation? If ‘yes’, terrific. If ‘no’, how can you get more of this essential vitamin?

3. Unmonitored Speaking Practice

Unless your pronunciation guide-teacher-person is also someone whom you use Chinese with daily to interact, such as a spouse, then you will simply need more practice opening your mouth and vocal chords and forming the sounds of the Chinese language. For this purpose, speaking out loud, putting thoughts into Chinese, or just mimicking a recorded speaker, using pre-recorded podcasts or other materials is sufficient.

Speaking opportunities that are genuine person-to-person communication are ideal. But depending on practical issues such as accessibility of speakers and situations, it is usually not realistic to rely on that mode. Just like an athlete must practice skills over and over, perfecting the motions, such as a tennis stroke, you need to work on the physical execution of good Mandarin pronunciation.

If you’re not getting this kind of practice in your diet now, don’t let the thought of it overwhelm you. Start with adding any amount of regular unmonitored practice to your diet. Set yourself up with a routine of 10 minutes per day of mimicking a recorded voice, say, five times a week. Do it at a fixed and convenient time in your day – in the car, on the train, walking, etc. See how empowering it feels to have a routine of this kind! The positive results will show up over time.

4. Level-Appropriate Listening

If you are getting the performance vitamins of #3 above in your diet through mimicking or repeating a recorded native speaker, then you probably are using some materials rich in vitamin #4 – and that is: listening material appropriate for your current Chinese level. This kind of listening will build an awareness for what standard Mandarin should sound like. Gradually, you will develop the exact same sensitivity native speakers have that cause them to cringe at foreigners speaking with sloppy Mandarin pronunciation. This sensitivity will naturally be in operation as you yourself speak, improving your own Chinese pronunciation significantly.

How can you determine what is level-appropriate listening material?

You have a natural sense for distinguishing what is level appropriate for you. Basically, you want to pay attention to your anxiety level as you listen. Listening to a foreign language, trying to make sense of it, is anxiety producing. Level appropriate material doesn’t feel too uncomfortable to listen to. The speed of the speaker, how frequently unfamiliar words are used are key factors that influence this. Your own personal tolerance is also a legitimate factor. Again, a great resource where you can find plenty of level appropriate listening is podcasts specific for Chinese learning.

You should be getting plenty of listening. In fact listening input should easily be 4 times or more that of your speaking practice. So for a balanced diet, if you took the advice above of ten minutes per day of repeating, then you should have at least 40 minutes of level-appropriate listening to balance it.

5. Interest and Enthusiasm

This is a bit of a ‘softer’ requirement than the others. However, I just can’t leave this one out and sleep easy feeling that I’ve given you a comprehensive list. Interest and enthusiasm for Mandarin, and in this case for the sound of Mandarin is really important to cultivate.

That’s right, I didn’t say important ‘to have’, but ‘to cultivate’. What I mean is that you can actually develop an interest and enthusiasm for Mandarin pronunciation even if you don’t have one right now. You can do this by listening to standard Mandarin with an appreciative ear, by studying about language, by having more positive contact and experience with Chinese culture in general.

I recommend paying attention to Chinese newscasters, marvel at the exaggerated elements of Beijing accents found in some films. Read articles about linguistic aspects of Chinese if you are theoretically inclined at all. And follow up on your interests consciously.

The positive feelings you associate with Chinese culture, the Mandarin language, and particularly of your experience of progress with Chinese will increase your interest and enthusiasm. This will carry you through towards long term success in learning Chinese.

Keep in mind, most learners who set out to learn Chinese fail. It’s a fact. They give up. I don’t know which of many excuses were offered for each failure, but I’ll tell you the real reason right now. The real reason was that their development was not healthy. Even if they were rich in some vitamins, they were lacking in others – a condition that was allowed to persist for long enough until their Chinese learning life perished.

Get the nutrients you need, not just to operate at a survival level with your learning, but to allow your Mandarin pronunciation, and every aspect of your Chinese learning experience to flourish as you rise to the top of your potential. Mandarin is cool. Being a foreign speaker of it is ten times cooler. Have fun with it, riding the highs and accepting the lows with a steadfast spirit.

And with that, I wish you 天天快乐, or ‘happy everyday’.