Tag: pronunciation


02

Apr 2015

The Chinese Pronunciation Wiki

For years, I’ve had a few sections on Sinosplice for pronunciation:

Pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese: Setting the Record Straight
The Process of Learning Tones
Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills

(Notably absent: tone change rules)

I’ve also blogged about pronunciation many times, but I didn’t feel like a blog is the best way to organize all this information, and these days I’m putting most of my time into growing AllSet Learning rather than reorganizing Sinosplice.

The Chinese Grammar Wiki has turned out to be a hugely successful experiment, and in about three years has become the internet’s favorite reference for Chinese grammar issues online. Our work is by no means finished there; the Chinese Grammar Wiki continues to grow.

Chinese Pronunciation Wiki Screen Shot

But it’s now time to bring a bunch of scattered information together in the same way we did for grammar, but this time for pronunciation. We’ve started the Chinese Pronunciation Wiki, and it’s still in its early days, but the foundation is strong.

One of the key concepts behind the site which I believe is missing in many current courses and resources with regards to pronunciation is a clear idea of what to focus on, when. Remember: mastery of Chinese pronunciation is a long-term endeavor. Take it step by step.

We’re doing a soft launch of the site this week, and will do a more public launch next week. I’d love to get some early feedback.

A few notes on what we’ve got so far:

– We aim to keep beginner explanations simple, without resorting to linguistic jargon. Full linguistic description for those who want it is part of the longer-term plan.
– Many pages still need to be fleshed out, but for now, the pinyin chart, pinyin quick start guide, tone change rules, and erhua pages are already quite useful
– I’m interested to hear what higher-level learners and native speakers think about our page on Chinese accents (which can be quite a hurdle for learners)
– Images/illustrations are coming
– I have tons of ideas for higher-level pronunciation topics, but we have to cover the basics first

Thank you for your support of the Chinese Pronunciation Wiki, everybody! There will be more news and an official announcement next week.


15

Jan 2015

Practicing Chinese Tone Changes

Wow, looks like I started off the year with a two-week blogging break! I’m not finished blogging, by any means, but I’ve been busy finishing off AllSet Learning’s new products, dealing with a sick household, and preparing for a new baby (due next week!).


Pronunciation Pack: A2 Tone Changes

The AllSet Learning Store now has 8 downloadable products, and the latest 3 products are entirely related to tone changes. Tone change rules (referred to in linguistics as “tone sandhi,” or 变调规则 in Chinese pedagogy) are an important concept for learners to master, but you’re never ready for it right after you just learned pinyin and the four tones. Tone change rules need to be addressed sometime in the “elementary” period, and when exactly the learner is ready is going to vary a bit from person to person. You know a learner is ready when she starts truly acquiring individual tones and noticing on her own that what Chinese people say doesn’t always match the tones on the pinyin.

Unfortunately, textbooks tend to force learners to memorize these rules too early, before learners really have a strong concept of the tones in the first place. To give a specific example: New Practical Chinese Reader 1, Lesson 1 covers the sounds of pinyin (pp. 5-6), followed immediately by the four tones (p. 6), followed immediately by “third tone sandhi” (p. 7). Yikes!

Mastering Chinese tones is a long-term endeavor, which starts with learning what the four tones sound like and how to produce them. This foundation is essential before moving on to tone changes. Even after learning all the rules as an elementary learner, it’s going to take quite some time to be able to consistently apply those tone change rules in whole sentences, so most intermediate learners will benefit from more challenging tone change exercises.

Pronunciation Pack: B1 Tone Changes for Third Tones

With all this in mind, AllSet Learning has created the exercises that learners need at various stages. Our new products are:

A2 Tone Changes
B1 Tone Changes
B1 Tone Changes for Third Tones

Feel free to ask questions about the products. Our versioning system makes it easy to update the products and add features.

I’ll be addressing some of the complexities of tone changes in future posts.


15

Oct 2014

Chinese Teachers: Use Your Chinese Names!

Chinese teachers, please have your students call you by a Chinese name. You’re not helping them by calling yourself some easier-to-pronounce English name. I would have thought that this was obvious, but after all these years in the business, I can now see that it is not obvious to many otherwise well-meaning teachers. So I’ll spell it out here. (Please forward this to your Chinese teacher who doesn’t ask you to use a Chinese name in your interactions.)

So why should students of Chinese call their Chinese teachers of Chinese by a Chinese name? I’m glad you asked…

Using your actual Chinese name shows respect for the culture

My dad is one of those people that enjoys befriending recent immigrants in the United States. He likes to find out where they’re from, why they came to the U.S., etc. One of the things he always asks “Bob from Iran” or “Alice from China” or whoever is, “what’s your real name?” He does this not only out of curiosity, but also to show a genuine respect for their culture and interest in their identity. Most of the time immigrants are thankful for this gesture (even if he can’t always accurately reproduce the sounds that make up their names).

As a teacher, you get to decide how your students address you. But in Chinese culture, it’s a non-question; teachers are simply called “[Surname] Laoshi” by their students. As a teacher of Chinese, why would you not use this opportunity to start teaching your students about Chinese culture in an easy, practical way? Get the cultural respect going from lesson one. Students will be totally on board.

Using Chinese names is good practice

One of the main arguments for NOT using real Chinese names is that “my Chinese surname is too hard for foreigners.” OK, maybe your surname is hard for most foreigners, but your students have decided to learn Chinese. They probably already know it’s not easy. Even if your surname is particularly difficult to pronounce, it’s probably only one syllable. And it’s one syllable your students are going to be able to repeat over and over every lesson, and they’re eventually going to start getting it right.

So don’t baby them. Let them struggle a little bit. It doesn’t matter if your surname is “Xu” or “Zhu” or “Jiang” or “Zhang” or “Yu.” They’ll get it eventually.

Chinese Teachers: Please Use Chinese Names!

It’s a vote of confidence

So it’s a pretty safe bet that your students will not be pronouncing “Xu” correctly on day 1, and that’s OK. But when you tell them, “You don’t need to try to say ‘Xu.’ Just call me Vivian,” you’re casting a vote of no-confidence in their ability to learn correct pronunciation. That’s a terrible thing for a teacher to do.

Not only are you saying, “you can’t learn this,” but you’re also saying, “you can’t learn this, and I won’t even be able to teach you.” So it’s also a vote of no-confidence in yourself as a teacher!

Cast a vote of confidence in your students by telling them, “my name is a little tricky to pronounce, but don’t worry; you’ll get it eventually. Just keep trying.”

Have confidence in them from the first lesson, and they will keep trying. They need you to believe that they can learn to correctly pronounce your name.

Chinese names are hard to remember

This is totally true. Chinese names are hard for foreigners to remember. But you know what doesn’t help? Enabling learners to never even try to remember, and always copping out by using English names. That’s just lazy.

Chinese names are hard to remember in the beginning. But learners get better at it by learning more real Chinese names, and the process starts with you, the Chinese teacher. With each new Chinese person the learner meets, he learns a real Chinese name, and one by one, the names start to seem less insane. They become manageable.

Start your students down this road.

But what about Hong Kong?

One thing I’ve heard over the years is, “but in Hong Kong, Chinese people often use English names. It’s also a Chinese thing.” OK, yes, that’s true. But as a learner, I really don’t need help learning names like “Jacky” and “Coco.” What I need is more practice with the less familiar names… the ones starting with “Zhang” and “Wang” and “Hu.”

So Hong Kong-style English names are easy freebies that we sometimes get, but they’re certainly not the norm for everyone in mainland China, and they’re not an excuse to avoid Chinese names altogether.

Don’t be absurd

Lastly, let me leave you a counter-example. Imagine a blond-haired blue-eyed foreigner living in China and working as an English teacher. We’ll call him “Carl.” He teaches English, but he also knows Chinese, and uses it a little bit with beginners.

But here’s the thing: Carl has chosen “Zhang” () as his Chinese surname, and in his English classes he has all of his students call him Zhang Laoshi (张老师). It’s because “Carl” is hard to pronounce, and he just finds it easier.

Is that not absurd? Would the Chinese students not find this odd? Does it help the students to call Carl “Zhang Laoshi” in English class?

Chinese teachers, please have your students call you by a Chinese name. They’ll thank you later.

中文翻译:中文老师:请用你的中文名!


See also:

Sinosplice Guide to Chinese Pronunciation
AllSet Learning Pronunciation Packs


26

Aug 2014

Pronunciation Practice: the next Evolution

I’m really exited to announce that AllSet Learning now has its own Online Store. After releasing several new products on Apple and Amazon’s platforms in recent years, I’ve discovered that those channels can sometimes be more than a little “challenging.” But those platforms don’t support all of AllSet Learning’s ambitions. Some of the things I want to do won’t be realized even in the next few years, but others can be broken down into simpler units that people can use right now to improve their Chinese. AllSet Learning clients have been benefiting from some of these for years already. And those are what we’re putting in the new store first.

AllSet Learning Online Store

The title of this post is “Pronunciation Practice: the next Evolution” referring to Sinosplice’s own Tone Pair Drills. We actually used those with AllSet Learning clients in the very beginning, and they worked pretty well, but we wanted to keep improving on the concept. Over the years we tried some things that didn’t work so well, and others that worked great. Each client had different needs, so a modular approach made the most sense. We’ve organized the best of these different drills into “packs,” added professional-quality audio, and it’s with that material that we proudly launch our new store.

If the idea of pronunciation practice is boring to you, I can sympathize. As a student, I totally blew off my “mandatory” language lab sessions, and still got A’s in my Chinese classes. But I had to pay later when I arrived in China and people actually couldn’t even understand me. That was the real wakeup call: pronunciation matters. Besides the occasional reminder, AllSet Learning clients do a regular pronunciation practice over an extended period of time to achieve dramatic progress.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: pronunciation practice in Mandarin Chinese should be a regular part of any formal study, starting from day 1 and extending well into the intermediate level. Two weeks on pinyin at the start of a beginner course is far from sufficient, and it’s rare than an intermediate learner wouldn’t benefit from tone pair practice or other focused pronunciation exercises. So clearly, this is an aspect of Chinese study materials that could could stand a little expansion.

Thank you, Sinosplice readers, for the support you’ve given AllSet’s endeavors in the past. As a thank you for your readership, I’d like to offer this 20% discount voucher to Sinosplice readers (valid for 3 days):

> IREADSINOSPLICE

Thanks for visiting the AllSet Learning Store and checking it out!


25

Apr 2011

Readings in Ancient Chinese Poetry

Recently a comment on Sinosplice brought to my attention the fact there are many different videos of poems read in ancient Chinese (古代汉语) [more information on Wikipedia’s classical Chinese entry].

In case you’re not familiar with the concept, every language is slowly changing over time. So not only would the vocabulary and grammar of a language be different if you were able to go back in time and observe, but so would the actual pronunciation. The farther back you go, the bigger the change. As you can imagine, it’s difficult work piecing together the ancient pronunciation of a language when there are no audio records.

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of these videos (I don’t know much about ancient Chinese poetry), but they’re certainly interesting. Try showing them to a Chinese friend and see what kind of response you get. (It’s my impression that while the Chinese are well schooled in ancient poetry, they are often pretty clueless how different the ancient pronunciation of that poetry actually was. It’s not just a tone here or there!)

《關雎》上古漢語朗讀

李白 靜夜思 中古漢語朗讀

The second one is by a Chinese guy who goes by the name of biopolyhedron. He’s got a bunch of videos on both YouTube and on Youku. If you’re interested in this stuff, definitely check out his videos!


X is the Unknown

09

Mar 2011

X is the Unknown

Do you remember “solving for x” in math class? When you first started algebra (or was it pre-algebra?), you had to learn a whole new set of methods which, when applied, could magically reveal the values of the unknown variables.

So when you saw this:

> 2x = 8

> 4x + y = 17

> z(3x – 2y) = 30

…before long you could handily solve for x. And once you had x, you could solve for y. Then z was a piece of cake too.

The Algebra Connection

Chinese pronunciation is similar. We native speakers of English of English have to learn to produce some new sounds in order to become fluent speakers of Chinese. Although the pinyin “r” sound is formidable, what I’m talking about today are the sounds linguists call “alveolo-palatals“: the three Mandarin consonant sounds pinyin represents as “x,” “q,” and “j.”

So how are the sounds of Mandarin like algebra? Well, just as the in the above algebra example one would first solve for x, then solve for y, and finally solve for z, learning those “alveolo-palatals” involves a similar chain effect. Once you’ve solved for “x” (I’m talking the pinyin x here), “q” and “j” both become relatively simple. “X” is definitely the one you want to start with, though, for many reasons. X is the unknown. First solve for “x,” and “q” and “j” are within your grasp.

Why X?

There are a number of reasons to start with “x.” First of all, it’s a prominent feature of the Chinese word almost everyone learns right after “nihao” (你好). Yes, the word is “xiexie” (谢谢), the Chinese word for “thank you.”

Second, the “x” consonant contains the basic feature you need to build on to learn “q” and then “j.” Just as solving for x in the algebra equations above allows you to solve for y with a simple operation, the same is true for pinyin “x” and then “q.” Allow me to explain.

The True Nature of X, Q, and J

If you’ve studied phonetics at all, you learn IPA (the international phonetic alphabet). The main idea behind IPA is that as nearly as possible, every unique sound is represented by a unique symbol. So one good way to know if a sound in a foreign language is really equivalent to a sound in English is to check their respective IPA notations.

In English, for example, the “sh” sound isn’t actually an “s” sound plus an “h” sound. We just write it as “sh.” In reality, it’s a sound different from all the other sounds in the English language. It gets its own IPA symbol: ʃ. Makes sense, right? Now, a lot of new learners to Chinese think that pinyin “x” is the same as English’s “sh.” If that were true, the IPA symbols for the two sounds would be the same. But they’re not.

IPA for x, q, j

If there is any doubt that the pinyin “x,” “q,” and “j” sounds are foreign for speakers of English, you can look up the IPA for the sounds of Mandarin Chinese. Don’t freak out, now. The alien symbols representing pinyin’s “x,” “j,” and “q,” are, respectively, ɕ, tɕʰ, and tɕ.

Now take a look at those three consonant sounds again: ɕ, tɕʰ, tɕ. The common element is ɕ. That’s the “x” sound. This sound does not exist in English; “x” is the unknown. But the addition of the other sounds, which are not foreign to English speakers, will result in the “q” and “j” sounds.

So, once again, master that “x” sound, and you can unlock the other two. It’s practically “buy one get two free,” but you definitely have to pay for the “x,” and you may need to struggle a bit. [More info on producing this sound here.]

It’s worth it, though. Before long you’ll leave “syeh-syeh” behind and utter “xièxie” perfectly. Just solve for “x” first.


Related:

– The Sinosplice guide to the Pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese
Wikipedia on Pinyin
AllSet Learning, John’s own learning consultancy which serves learners in Shanghai


22

Nov 2010

Two Wishes for Chinese Language Instruction

A while back Albert of Laowai Chinese visited Shanghai. We met up for lunch and had a good chat about our experiences in China learning Chinese. He asked me an interesting question: what did I think was the biggest problem with the field of Chinese language instruction?

I told him that in general, I felt that there was way too much teaching adult foreign learners as if they were Chinese children, and I felt that more (non-Chinese) learner perspectives were needed to improve the situation. (This is one of ChinesePod‘s major strengths.)

He was looking for more specific answers, though. When pressed, I gave him these two areas:

  1. Tones should be taught systematically, long-term. Way too many programs cover the tones in the first few weeks, followed by a few tone change rules, and then basically leave the students to sort the rest out. It’s not enough, and it’s irresponsible. Most students are going to need a good 1-2 years to really get a handle on the tones, so why aren’t educational institutions doing more to guide students through those frustrating times?

    As I’ve said before, tones were the single most difficult part of learning Chinese for me, and I know it’s true for many other students as well. More needs to be done. We make this a major focus at AllSet Learning, but most schools really drop the ball on this one.

  2. Mandarin Chinese needs a public, large-scale corpus of spoken Mandarin. There are corpora for Mandarin, but the ones that are public are not spoken Mandarin, and the corpora of spoken Mandarin are kept private and jealously guarded.

    Why does Mandarin need a public, large-scale corpus of spoken Chinese? Because without it, we’re all just taking stabs in the dark as to what “high-frequency” spoken vocabulary is. Yes it is possible to objectively determine what language is high-frequency, but this requires (1) collecting lots of naturally-occurring speech samples in audio form, (2) transcribing it all. Then a proper corpus can be assembled, from which accurate, objective word counts and word frequencies can be derived.

    Once that’s done, we could finally have more of a clue as to what the “high-frequency” spoken vocabulary really is. This method isn’t perfect, but it’s a big step forward from relying on native speaker intuition. And no, the new data obtained are not going to match the HSK word list you’ve got, or the Jun Da list either.

    It would also be great to see a proper large-scale corpus of spoken Mandarin, balanced for regional variation. That would turn up all sorts of interesting facts, like proportion of 哪儿 to 哪里 across all regions represented, and virtually any other speech variation you can think of. (Personally, I suspect that a lot of the Beijing-hua taught in many textbooks could be reconsidered on the grounds that it simply doesn’t represent the Mandarin spoken across mainland China.)

What do you think are the biggest problems with Chinese language instruction today?


18

Nov 2010

Tone Purgatory and Accent Exorcism

Legendary animator Chuck Jones is said to have offered budding young artists this piece of advice, in one form or another:

We all have at least 10,000 bad drawings inside of us. The sooner we get them out and onto paper, the sooner we’ll get to the good ones buried deep within.

Chuck apparently didn’t make up this quote; although the exact number varies, the advice is frequently heard in interviews with any Chouinard or CalArts graduate. This little gem has been going around for a while.

I like this idea. It’s not that you’re lacking a skill, it’s that you just need to purge all those crappy drawings inside. It’s a whole lot easier to just get rid of junk than to build something entirely new from scratch, isn’t it? You can almost imagine a “crappy drawing” count somewhere going down over time, as those amateur doodles run out and a real artist bursts forth.

This is an idea that learners of Chinese could use. It’s not that you need to “learn tones,” it’s that you have 10,000 bad tones inside you that need to get out before you can hope to be fluent. It’s a veritable exorcism of that “crazy-tones laowai accent.”

Accent Exorcism

And until you expel those bad tones, they torture you a bit. It’s not enough to lock yourself up in a room and recite your textbook. Oh no, you have to get out there and talk to real people and screw up, and get those blank stares and giggles. And that does burn a little.

Until you get all those bad tones out, you’re in a sort of tone purgatory. In case you’re not familiar, purgatory is a state in which in imperfect soul is cleansed before it can continue on to heaven. Over the ages, it has frequently been depicted as purifying flames.

Every bad tone is an accent impurity, but all you can do is exorcise them slowly, one by one, by practicing your Chinese. Getting tones wrong is frustrating, and can feel like torture at times, but heaven awaits… (Heaven is, by the way, “talking to Chinese people.” Hmmm, slight exaggeration?)

Tone Purgatory

So you may be in tone purgatory, but so what? You can conduct the accent exorcism on your own. You know what to expect. All you have to do is get out there and start talking.


08

Nov 2010

Those Census-Confounding Chinese Tones

Recently Micah retweeted a short Chinese comedy routine [original] that was clever enough to be shared a bit more. The setup is that a census-taker asks a resident how many are in his household. Confusion ensues:

> “请问您家里是几口人?” [May I ask how many are in your household?]

> “是一口人。” [It’s one person.]

> “十一口?” [Eleven?]

> “不是十一口,而是一口人。” [Not eleven, but 1 person.]

> “二十一口?” [21?]

> “不是二十一口,其实一口人。” [Not 21. Actually, one person.]

> “七十一口?不会吧?” [71? For real?]

> “不是七十一口,就是一口人!” [Not 71. It’s just one person!]

> “九十一口?” [91?]

> “对,就是一口人。” [Right, just one person.]

OK, maybe I should have warned those of you that don’t read Chinese: the translation makes no sense in English, because the confusion is all based on tone-related misunderstandings:

– 是一 (shì yī) misunderstood as 十一 (shíyī)
– 而是一 (ér shì yī) misunderstood as 二十一 (èrshíyī)
– 其实一 (qíshí yī) misunderstood as 七十一 (qīshíyī)
– 就是一 (jiù shì yī) misunderstood as 九十一 (jiǔshíyī)

Although most of the misunderstandings above shouldn’t happen if both speakers are using standard Mandarin, I’ve witnessed quite a few cases where dialect influences tones, which, in turn, can lead to miscommunications. Personally, I find it a little comforting to know that even native speakers experience tone-related confusion, even if it’s not all that common (or comical!).


29

Jul 2010

Randy and the Half-Life of Irregular Verbs

Last night I met up with Randy Alexander of Sinoglot, Yuwen, and Echoes of Manchu for dinner and imported beers. We had a great chat, with topics ranging from English and Chinese linguistics, to sci-fi and (evil genius) Joel Martinsen, to the Sinoglot crew and how they tricked Randy into learning Manchu.

We started talking about some of our favorite linguistics articles, on Language Log or elsewhere, and I brought up the one about the half-life of irregular verbs in English. I wanted to send Randy a link, but I was dismayed to discover that the original article by Harvard University mathematician Erez Lieberman is now behind a pay wall. All you can find are articles linking to what was once a freely accessible article.

But I dug some more (we’re still quite a few years away from regularizing to “digged,” I’m guessing), and I eventually found what looks like a freely available copy of the original article, Quantifying the evolutionary dynamics of language, courtesy of our friends at NIH. Unfortunately, what’s still missing is the great chart the original paper included, which ordered irregular verbs by frequency and gave time estimates (in years) for the regularization of each. (There is an unordered list in text file format linked to in the article, though.)

What does this have to do with Chinese? I’d love to see similar studies for modern Mandarin. Sure, there are no conjugations for Chinese verbs, so it wouldn’t be about the regularization of irregular verbs. But it could be about variable pronunciations of certain words (like 角色, or 说服), or selection of characters (is it or ?). A good chunk of Chinese academia is still obsessed with standardization and what is “correct,” so you don’t see many objective studies, but that attitude won’t last forever. Chinese corpus linguistics is relatively young, but it’s making great strides, and I really look forward to seeing this kind of research in the future.

What research of this type would you like to see?


26

Apr 2010

New Online Chinese Resources Links

I figured it was about time I set up a page with links to the Chinese learning resources I personally find most valuable and regularly use. So it’s up: Online Chinese Resources.

A few notes:

– I work for ChinesePod and think it’s great, so yeah, I’m going to recommend it. This should not be a big surprise. I’m aware of quite a few podcast alternatives, and I’ve listened to a few, but I have very limited actual experience with them.

– The list is not exhaustive; there are plenty of monstrous ones out there, and the problem is that they’re all way too long. This one is pretty short, and based on my own experience, which is what makes it useful.

– I am open to suggestions, but I won’t add anything until I’ve had a chance to check it out and spend enough time with it to decide it’s a must-have resource.

I’ll be updating the list pretty regularly, but I intend to keep it brief.


14

Apr 2010

The Big Bang Theory: Sheldon’s Chinese

A few weeks ago, a series of clips from The Big Bang Theory, Season 1, Episode 17 became popular on various Chinese sites. In the episode, brainy theoretical physicist Sheldon says he has decided to learn Mandarin because:

> I believe the Szechuan Palace has been passing off orange chicken as tangerine chicken, and I intend to confront them.

Here’s the clip (on Tudou):

To someone who knows no Chinese, this episode works fine. However, native speakers of Mandarin will have trouble following a lot of what Sheldon is trying to say. Although most of the first scene would be easy to follow, a combination of inaccurate pronunciation and bizarre word choices in later scenes make the subtitles a necessity for even native speakers of Mandarin. (I forced my wife to watch this clip with the subtitles covered up, and she could only understand a few of the lines, even listening multiple times. You can also find more than one “what the heck is he saying??” conversations on the Chinese internet, like this one.) The Chinese clip adds Chinese subtitles, but some of them are inaccurate. The play-by-play is below.

(more…)


02

Feb 2010

The 3-2 Tone Swap Error

This post identifies a type of tonal production error which many students of Mandarin Chinese make, not only in the beginner and elementary stages, but often well into the intermediate stage. While neither years of personal observation nor the multiple appearances in the audio data for my master’s thesis experiment constitute definitive evidence, it’s my belief that the phenomenon is real, and examining it can yield useful results for both students and teachers of Mandarin Chinese. I’m dubbing the error the “3-2 Tone Swap.”

The Error

Note that the term “error” is used in the error analysis sense, meaning that it is committed systematically, and is not merely a random mistake (which even native speakers make from time to time).

The error occurs, in two-syllable words, when the tonal pattern is 3-2. Many students will pronounce the 3-2 tone pattern incorrectly as 2-3. Some typical examples:

– 美国 (Correct: Měiguó, 3-2 Tone Swap Error: Méiguǒ)
– 法国 (Correct: Fǎguó, 3-2 Tone Swap Error: Fáguǒ)
– 五十 (Correct: wǔshí, 3-2 Tone Swap Error: wúshǐ)
– 可怜 (Correct: kělián, 3-2 Tone Swap Error: kéliǎn)

Personal History

I remember quite clearly when I discovered myself committing the 3-2 Tone Swap error. I had learned the word 可怜 (kělián) in Hangzhou from a friend. But I noticed that although I had “learned” the word, every time I tried to use it, my friend would correct my pronunciation. “No, it’s ‘kělián,’ not ‘kéliǎn.'” This was extremely frustrating for me, because I thought I had learned the word, and I was pronouncing it wrong even when I knew that the tones were 3-2. At the time I dismissed it as just a “problem word” that I would get eventually.

Around this time I became super-vigilant about my tones. I realized that although I was communicating pretty well, I was still making a lot of tone mistakes. Part of this new awareness came when I realized that native speakers were correcting me all the time using recasts, but I had previously been oblivious to it.

A typical conversation went like this:

> Native Chinese speaker: 你是哪个国家的? [Which country are you from?]

> Me: 美国。 [The USA.]

> Native Chinese speaker: 哦,美国,是吗? [Oh, the USA, huh?]

> Me: 对。 [Right.]

After having this same exchange about a million times, I had started to assume that it was just a natural conversational pattern in Chinese to have your country repeated back to you for verification. Yeah, it seems a little strange and inefficient, but there are stranger features of the Chinese language.

What I eventually came to realize, however, was that when I gave my answer, 美国, I was routinely mispronouncing it as *”Méiguǒ” (3-2 Tone Swap error), and then the other person was both (1) confirming the information and (2) modeling it for me in his response, which included the correct form “Měiguó” (a classic recast).

When I finally realized this, it sort of blew my mind. I had thought my tones were already pretty good, but I had been pronouncing the name of my own country wrong all this time?? Learning Mandarin Chinese is, if nothing else, an exercise in humility. There was nothing to do but hunker down and try to reform my pronunciation. While I found it easier to focus on high-frequency words like 美国, it quickly became apparent to me that the 3-2 tone swap issue was rampant in my pronunciation.

Research

Although the 3-2 Tone Swap phenomenon cropped up in my own experiment on tonal pairs for my masters thesis, it was not the focus of my own research. If anyone knows of specific research done on this phenomenon, I would love to hear about it.

The data in my own experiment showed some interesting patterns. While errors in 3-2 tonal pairs were clearly more common than in the other two tonal pairs I examined (1-1 and 2-4), there were some inconsistencies. Namely:

1. Errors were notably less frequent for numbers (e.g. 50, “wǔshí”)
2. Errors were less frequent for one’s own country (e.g. “Měiguó”, “Fǎguó”)

While all subjects illustrated the first trend, the second was particularly well demonstarted by an intermediate-level French subject, who routinely pronounced “Fǎguó” [France] correctly, despite the existence of a 3-2 tonal pair, but then also routinely pronounced “Měiguó” [The United States] incorrectly as *”Méiguǒ” (the 3-2 Tone Swap).

What this suggests is that although some tonal pairs seem to take longer to master, the mastery is not categorical. In other words, you don’t suddenly “get” the pronunciation pattern and then just switch over to correct 3-2 pronunciation for all words where it occurs. Acquisition of the 3-2 tonal pair appears to be occur more on a word-by-word basis, making it largely a matter of practice, practice, practice (which also explains the better performance with numbers). This mirrors my own experiences.

Questions

Tonal mastery is a long process for most students, with the 3-2 tone pair appearing to be one of the last patterns to acquire. Why?

I suspect that there is a relationship between the 3-2 Tone Swap error and the 3-3 tone sandhi (in which 3-3 tonal pairs are systematically converted to 2-3). The learners that exhibit the 3-2 Tone Swap error typically do very well with their 3-3 sandhi. Could learners be internalizing but then overextending the 3-3 tone sandhi rule to include not only 3-3 pairs, but also 3-2 pairs? It’s certainly possible.

Again, if anyone knows of any research into the above phenomena, I would appreciate links or more information!


04

Jan 2010

Chinese for English Pronunciation (Shanghai World Expo Edition)

This certainly isn’t the first time that Chinese characters have been used as a guide for pronunciation of English words, but it’s the most recent example I’ve seen, related to Shanghai’s World Expo. Here’s the “世博双语指南” (World Expo Bilingual Guide):

Shanghai World Expo English

And here’s a text transcription of the content:

> 欢迎光临
welcome to our store! (维尔抗姆突奥窝思道)

> 早上好!下午好!晚上好!
Good morning! (古的猫宁)
Good afternoon! (古的阿夫特怒)
Good evening! (古的衣服宁)

> 有什么需要帮助您的吗?
Can I help you? (坎埃海尔扑油?)

> 对不起,我只能讲简单的英语。
I’m sorry, I can only speak a little English.
(俺么搔瑞,埃坎翁累思鼻科额累偷英格历史)

> 请您稍等!
Just a moment, please. (杰丝特哞闷特,普立斯!)

> 我叫我同事来帮助您!
I’ll find our colleague for help.
(埃伟哦凡的阿窝考立个否海尔扑!)

> 再见!
Bye Bye! (白白!)

And just in case all those “nonsense characters” were too much for you, here are some randomly selected pinyin transliterations. See if you can figure out the English original:

– Āi wěio fánde āwō kǎolìgè fǒu hǎiěrpū!
– Gǔde āfūtènù
– Wéiěrkàngmǔ tū àowō sīdào
– Ǎnme sāoruì, āi kǎn wēnglèi sībíkē é lèitōu Yīnggèlìshǐ.
– Kǎn āi hǎiěrpū yóu?

Fun stuff.


08

Sep 2009

Fuzzy Pinyin

This is a screenshot from the Google Pinyin installer:

FuzzyPinyin

If you’re learning Mandarin for real, sooner or later you’re going to need to experience the rich variety in pronunciation that Greater China has to offer. This simple “fuzzy pinyin” options screen gives you an idea of what’s out there. (Speakers that can’t differentiate between z/zh, r/l, f/h, etc. typically can’t properly type the pinyin for the words that contain those sounds in standard Mandarin, so fuzzy pinyin input saves them a lot of frustration.)


22

Jun 2009

How to Pronounce nciku

The online Chinese dictionary everyone is using these days is nciku. Newbies and veterans alike all seem to dig it. The quality of the dictionary entries is a refreshing change from the deluge of unimpressive CEDICT clones. One common difficulty among nciku users of all levels, however, is that they can’t figure out how the hell to pronounce the name! Is it N-C-I-K-U, each letter pronounced like its name, or maybe N-C-I-koo, or something like In-see-koo? Just how do you really pronounce nciku, anyway??

By clicking on 简体 (or 繁體) in the footer to switch to the Chinese version of the site, you can see the nciku’s Chinese name: n词酷. So this should answer the original question: the “n” is pronounced like the name of the letter N, and the “ciku” part is pinyin cíkù.

nciku-name

But why?? What’s up with the name? Well, I have to say, it’s a pretty horrible name if your target market is foreigners. No one knows how to pronounce it when they see it. The name does make sense from a Chinese perspective, though.

First, the n. That’s the mathematical n, as in an unspecified number that could be really high. It might seem strange to bring mathematical variables into everyday conversation, but in modern Chinese it happens on a regular basis. In Mandarin when you do something n (n times), you did it so many times you don’t even know how many. Like we say “a million” in English, or, perhaps more appropriate in its ambiguity, “a zillion.” Rather than n, you can also say n, which also means a zillion times, but sounds quite similar to the beginning of the name n词酷.

词酷 is a concocted homophone for 词库, a somewhat technical word meaning “lexicon” or “word bank.” You can talk about a lexicon in terms of all the words of an entire language, or in terms of an individual’s own vocabulary.

So why for ? Well, is the popular transliteration for “cool,” and the character , appearing in such words as 数据库 (database), 语料库 (linguistic corpus), 车库 (garage), 仓库 (warehouse), quite frankly, isn’t very cool.

So there you have it: n词酷, a zillion word banks (but cool).


12

Jul 2008

Mini-Interview with The World

The World, an online public radio program from the BBC, did a brief audio interview with me last week, and it appeared in today’s edition. Here’s a direct link to the 4-minute piece [MP3 download].

To visitors from The World, the work I do on Chinese lessons is actually on a separate site called ChinesePod. Check it out; it’s the best way to learn practical spoken Chinese.

In the interview I talk about my struggles with the pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese, (basically very similar to what I’ve covered in my pronunciation section). There are other features of interest to the student of Chinese in the language section of Sinosplice.

Thanks a lot to Dan Washburn for pointing The World’s reporter my way.


Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese

25

Jun 2008

Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese

I’ve been asked many times: Which is harder to learn, Chinese or Japanese? Well, the latest time finally inspired me to make this graphic. I think it’s pretty self-explanatory, but some notes will follow anyway.

Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese

In case you couldn’t figure out from the graph, both are difficult, but in different ways. Both have insane writing systems and lots of cultural background to learn, so those basically cancel each other out. Any language requires lots of vocabulary memorization. Japanese has loads of loanwords from English, but really learning to use the loanwords like a native speaker instead of a crutch is not so easy to do, so I left that factor out as well. For me, the major points of comparison come down to just pronunciation and grammar.

Japanese pronunciation is quite easy at first. Some people have problems with the “tsu” sound, or difficulty pronouncing vowels in succession, as in “mae.” Honestly, though, Japanese pronunciation poses little challenge to the English speaker. The absolute beginner can memorize a few sentences, try to use them 20 minutes later, and be understood. The real difficulty with Japanese is in trying to sound like a native speaker. Getting pitch accent and sentence intonation to a native-like level is no easy task (and I have not done it yet!).

Chinese pronunciation, is, of course, maddeningly difficult from the get-go. It can be so hard to make yourself understood when your sentence is only three syllables long. Yes, I know. I’ve been there. If you keep at it, though, things get waaayyy easier. And in the later stages, accent isn’t as big a deal in Chinese. There are so many wildly different accents in China alone that once you get your tones under control and can string a coherent sentence together, Chinese people will often assume you’re a native speaker in telephone conversations.

Chinese grammar starts out fairly simple for English speakers. Some find it so simplistic that they say things like, “Chinese has no grammar.” This is not true, of course, and there are a few difficult points to master (like , which probably occupies a good chunk of the red area in the middle of the grammar graph), but overall, the grammar is not too rough. If you want true mastery of the language, however, you will also eventually have to study 古文 (ancient Chinese), and that’s quite a bit more work.

Japanese grammar starts out seeming like some bizarre alien code. However, through hard work and determination, the persistent can eventually crack it. Once you get over the grammar hump, and verb conjugations, causative-passive,  and , and keigo are no longer a big deal, you’re in a pretty comfortable place. But it sure is rough at first.

Just to be clear, this is all based on my personal experiences as a very acquisition-conscious language learner, not on scientific research. Please feel free to add your own experiences with these two languages in the comments.


25

Mar 2008

Ignored Contractions

contractions

No, not THAT kind of contractions…

One thing I’ve noticed about students of English in China is a tendency to ignore contractions. Chinese college students tend to be weak on spoken skills in general, and one of the symptoms is this failure to use contractions. We native speakers like to use contractions in informal speech, and as a student of English, failing to follow suit makes you stick out. When I taught English in Hangzhou, I used to focus on the use of contractions to get my students speaking more natural English.

Typically, the symptom goes something like this. Given this sentence:

> I’m a college student.

A typical Chinese college student will read this:

> I am a college student.

Given this sentence:

> He’s a very smart* boy.

A typical Chinese college student will read this:

> He is a very smart boy.

Obviously, these are not heinous mistakes, but it does make me wonder why for something so simple, the students don’t just read what’s written there.

Common sense tells me it’s just a habit. The teacher once told them, “I’m” means “I am” and “he’s” means “he is,” and it was just easier to convert it over, in pronunciation as well as in meaning. And the teacher didn’t care.

Still, a part of me wants to link it to characters somehow (you can’t contract 我是 or 他是**), or some “deeper” reason. I have to mentally smack that part of me… contractions are something of an ordeal for any learner of English; being Chinese has nothing to do with it.

If you’re teaching English, though, one easy way to help your students sound more native is to remind them to use contractions in their speech, or at the very least to get in the habit of pronouncing them correctly when reading them.

* Have any of the textbooks started to use the word “smart” instead of “clever?” They never did in my day, even when they claimed to be teaching “American English.”

** Although maybe some northern Chinese dialects kind of sound like they attempt this…


16

Dec 2007

Filthy Delicious

Here’s a picture of a place near work where I occasionally eat:

Filthy Delicious!

I have nicknamed it “Filthy Delicious.” The name says it all.

What’s interesting to me, though, is the name of the cuisine boldly painted in red on the wall: 麻辣汤. This is interesting because once upon a time I was under the impression that this was the correct name, but enough chastisement from Chinese friends converted me to the “real name”: 麻辣烫. And yet there it is, in red and white, on the wall in the picture (in traditional characters, which, as you can see, totally adds class).

Search results for the two terms:

  麻辣汤 () 麻辣烫 ()
Google 199,000 2,590,000
Baidu 127,000 4,940,000

The name 麻辣汤 makes sense, because the final character means “soup,” and the dish itself is a kind of soup. (As I’ve mentioned before, it’s sort of a spicy “poor man’s hot pot.”) The final character in the latter, “correct” one is , which means “burning hot.” This makes a kind of sense, except that the name becomes then a bunch of adjectives without any noun (like “soup”) to anchor it. That noun would usually come last in a Chinese dish name (as in 麻辣汤).

So what’s going on here? I haven’t had time to research it (ah, the advantages of blogging!), but I suspect it’s about tones. The name “málàtàng” likely comes from a dialect where 汤 (soup) is read “tàng” rather than standard Mandarin’s “tāng.” This kind of thing happens all the time in China’s rich linguistic tapestry, and the questions raised go something like the following:

1. Can the character 汤 have the reading “tàng” as well as “tāng”? This is not ideal, especially if there is no precedent in standard Mandarin. This would amount to a “corruption” of the character’s original reading.

2. Can we change the pronunciation of “málàtàng” to “málà tāng” for consistency? This seems ideal except that it would never work. It’s awfully hard to control how people talk, especially after they’ve settled on something.

3. Can we change the character used to represent “tàng”? If it comes from a dialect, it likely doesn’t have a standard written form anyway. If we can find something similar in meaning, a practical compromise is reached.

It seems to me that in my imaginary scenario path #3 above was selected, and character did the dirty work. I call it “dirty” because while it is no longer “a corruption of the character’s original reading,” it is instead a semantic corruption. originally means “burning hot” or “boiling hot,” but now you’re making it mean “soup,” or, if you choose to put it another way, you’re making it a non-semantic syllable in the three-character unit 麻辣烫. I don’t buy that, though, because the characters 麻辣 clearly keep the meaning of “numbingly spicy.”

If I have a point with all this, it’s that you can’t control the evolution of a language. Sure, a writing system need not necessarily do that, but when you encode individual characters with both semantic and phonetic information and then try to keep either from changing, you’re just kidding yourself. This is only a small example, but it’s a pretty widespread phenomenon now that the writing system is being used by the literate masses as a whole rather than a few elite (and the internet is certainly exacerbating the situation). Given enough time, so many characters will have their meanings muddled that the writing system will be reduced to the world’s most cumbersome “phonetic” system.

I’d be really curious to see what the written Chinese language looks like in 2000 years. It’s not going to look at all like it does now.



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