Pinyin, tones and intonations of Chinese

Many students want to improve their Mandarin Chinese pronunciations, to sound native-like. What is the best way to achieve that?

A common practice among students is analysing pinyin, what the syllables are, and which tone it is. Then they try to speak Chinese according to the pinyin transcripts. 

We’ll see that analysing pinyin does not lead to improved pronunciations for the following reasons:

  • Pinyin is not straightforward. 
  • Tones are not what they are. 
  • Intonations, what about intonations of Chinese?

Pinyin

Pinyin is not a no-brainer. 

Although pinyin is the first thing that a Chinese teacher (such as myself) teach beginner students, we need to understand that there are many rules and exceptions which are built in to pinyin. 

Pinyin is not a one syllable one sound system. 

For example: 

  • The “iu” sound, it is an abbreviation of “iou”. 
  • The “i” sound, it is pronounced differently in “qi”, “ci” and “chi”. 
  • The “an” sound, it often sounds like “en”. 

And many others.

Tones

Chinese learners put in loads of effort in learning tones.

Learning tones proves to be a headache in two ways. 

Firstly, students have troubles to describe tones. The 2nd tone and the 3rd tone seem to be alike. The 3rd tone sometimes is falling while other times rising. 

Secondly, in a given sentence that is not a standard greeting or a fixed expression, to remember tones character by character is nearly impossible. 

To tackle the problems of tones, many students, teachers and App engineers have come up with inventive ways. The following three are commonly practiced:

  • Using gestures (movements of head or hand or both) to indicate tones when speaking Chinese.
  • Using numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 to indicate tones, and to memorise these numbers when speaking Chinese.
  • Using colours to differentiate tones, and to visualise these colours when speaking Chinese.

These measures are not without setbacks. 

Designated gestures, numbers, and colours all create huge amount of extra work for the brain. Well, although cumbersome, they are not unmanageable. With dedications and perseverance, many students succeed with memorising the numbers or the colours of some words, even sentences. 

The real problem is that no matter what students do, they can not say tones correctly when tones are pronounced differently from what is shown in pinyin. 

For example, pinyin shows a 4th tone, but it really is a neutral tone. Or it is supposed to be a 3rd tone, but it is pronounced as a 2nd tone.

To give a more concrete example, such as the word 太阳. There are two correct tones for 太阳, “tai4 yang2” and “tai4 yang5”. How to pronounce 太阳 really depends on where and how you use it. 

All tones are subject to changes. And there are many complicated rules about tone changes. Consciously following these rules while speaking Chinese helps little. It’s like to ask me, a regular person, to fly an airplane filled with passengers according to the flying manual step by step.

About tones, I also have some empirical findings.

The first is that Tones appears to be fluid and dynamic.

The other is about the neutral tone.

Neutral tone is believed to be shorter and not to be stressed in speech. However, my empirical finding tells a different story.

When I was producing audio lessons and recordings for the Chinese Reading and Writing series, I used software Audacity to do editing.

Audacity gives visuals for sounds so that I can see the actual peaks and valleys in soundtracks

To my surprise, although the neutral tone is not stressed in speech, it sometimes shows up as a big block in the sound track, as if it is stressed.

Intonations

Because of tones, some students have raised concerns about Chinese intonations, which pinyin transcript does not give any information about. And when students devote their attention to tones, falling or rising, indeed, there is no room left for practicing intonations.

In English, and many other languages, intonations are an important tool to convey meanings. It is the same in Chinese. 

In China, there is an art form called 评书. It is just one person telling a story. One of my favourite story teller is Yuan Kuocheng (袁阔成). It’s amazing how he made the stories so compelling. I think good story tellers are in fact masters of intonations. 

I read a couple of research papers on intonations, which are interesting but offer little or no guidance on teaching and learning Chinese.

Have better pronunciations

In short, there are many rules about pinyin, tones and intonations, the three key elements of speaking Chinese. 

When the goal is to improve pronunciations, and to sound more native-like, analysing these rules is not efficient. It’s time consuming; it can be confusing; or there is no good guidance. 

The best and the most effective way is to bypass all these rules. It is to listen more to Chinese.

The more students listen to Chinese, the more aware they’ll become at noticing if a word or a sentence sounds right or not. “That sounds right” is a sign of internalising pinyin, tones and intonations. 

Listening more to Chinese is a very simple method to improve pronunciations.

The next question is, listen to what? 

Based on my experience, listening to level appropriate materials is the best. Otherwise, it’s just pure noise.

Listening to audio lessons is also a good starting point.


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April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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