Five ways to improve your Chinese pronunciation

Beginner students of Chinese are often worried that their pronunciation is not good, and that it is their pronunciation that causes many mis-communication problems. They are afraid that Chinese people don’t understand their Chinese because they can’t get all the tones right, or even worse, that Chinese people misinterpret what they have said for something else.

On one hand, this concern has its ground. For beginner students who just start learning Chinese, they must try to discern some sounds which do not exist in their own languages. They often find these sounds strange and difficult, and can not distinguish them. What seems to make the matter worse is the four tones. When speaking Chinese, many beginner students often feel uncertain whether or not they have produced correct tones, because they can’t hear the difference.

But on the other hand, the importance of Chinese pronunciation and four tones is often unnecessarily exaggerated. When there is a mis-communication happened between students of Chinese and Chinese people, it is rarely because the students can not say the sounds or tones right. The mis-communication is the result of multiple factors, such as, the speed of speech, regional accents, preferences of certain words, the familiarity of sentence patterns, or even the voice of a male or female can make a huge difference. 

Therefore, we recognise that Chinese pronunciation is not to be neglected, and at the same time, we do not want beginner students to be stressed out about their “imperfect” pronunciation. 

For students who just start learning Chinese, an achievable goal is to speak Chinese clearly and intelligibly without spending too much time or effort in boring and lengthy pronunciation drills. To achieve this goal, five effective ways are outlined here, which help students make incremental progress.

#1 Use short and well targeted drills in Chinese classes

Many Chinese teachers like to give immediate feedback to students whenever they have a pronunciation issue. This makes beginner students very vulnerable and subjects them to constant corrections and unnecessary pressure. This is the problem of over-correction.

Over-correction of pronunciations disrupts the flow of learning, and puts too much emphasis on pronunciation and too little time for everything else, and it only exacerbate the problem. It drains students’ energy and leaves them feel defeated, “I will never get that ‘x’ sound right”. Also, it makes a Chinese class boring as hell.

The solution is to engineer a series of short and well targeted pronunciation drills. Students spend five to ten minutes at a time working on their pronunciations. The rest of the class time will be devoted to other class activities.

#2 Turn a pronunciation drill into a game

When we limit ourselves to a few minutes on Chinese pronunciations at a time, Chinese teachers can spice these few minutes up with some fun and competitive games. Students work in pairs or in a small group, focusing on a few difficult words while competing with one another. 

Here is an example of how to make pronunciation drills into listening contest. Small and miniature games like this usually target a specific form or pattern.

#3 Provide students with adequate listening input

During a Chinese class, teachers are often the primary input of Chinese sounds when they speak with students. However, very often a teacher’s input is not enough. We need more resources which are at an appropriate level for students to listen. Adequate listening input allows students to improve their Chinese pronunciation without them knowing they are doing so. 

These resources should come in a variety of forms, and ask students to perform different tasks, such as solving a problem, answering a question, and etc. While students are focusing on completing the tasks, their brains actively pick up and absorb tons of authentic Chinese pronunciation input, without them realising they are doing it.

#4 Encourage students to speak more

Improving Chinese pronunciation is also closely related to speaking Chinese. Students need to hear themselves talking, and to adjust their pronunciation or correct their pronunciation accordingly. The more students speak Chinese, the better their pronunciation is. 

To achieve this goal, speaking activities must be sufficient during Chinese classes. When students are interested in the topic which is within their Chinese ability to express, they are encouraged to speak as much as they can. This is an important process for students to fine tune their pronunciation, and to speak clearly.

#5 Invite students to learn Chinese songs

Learning Chinese songs can achieve many goals, and improving pronunciation is definitely one of them. Beautiful music and lyrics delight us, give us energy, and bring us to a different emotional world. Many popular singers are the best Chinese teachers students can have.

If students love to sing, that will be great. However, if they don’t want to sing, it is not really a drawback either. We all know some people who rather listen to songs than sing along. Sing or not sing, they all benefit from the pronunciation input and get to understand a little bit more about Chinese culture.


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