Pinyin: the next big step to learn Mandarin Chinese

If you’ve decided to learn Chinese but you haven’t started yet, check out my first post in this series, How I learned Mandarin Chinese.

In my previous post, I stressed not trying to get things down perfectly yet. But, if you’ve followed through with my suggestions and have been studying for a week or two, it’s probably time to up your game.

Good pronunciation in Chinese is required

Because Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language and contains some unique sounds, good pronunciation is essential for being understood in conversation.

I didn’t realize this until I had already been learning for two weeks or so and I tried to talk to my kung fu teacher. I knew immediately something was wrong when I saw the confused look on his face. After he deciphered what I was trying to say, he graciously corrected my pronunciation on a few words and introduced me to the four tones. He then proceeded to give me a series of examples I didn’t quite understand and confused me even more.

When I walked away from the conversation though, I had learned that Mandarin was a tonal language and that I had very little distinction for said tones. Also, I knew that there were several sounds I couldn’t figure out how to pronounce properly and others I couldn’t distinguish.

The pinyin chart

After countless searches on Google about learning tones and pronunciation, I found that I needed to learn pinyin. It just so happened that ChinesePod posted a nice pinyin chart (and, from what I can see they’ve since posted pinyin lessons as well). This was such a significant step in my studies that I would eventually be inspired to make an iPhone app to learn pinyin called Pin Pin. I’ve also now released an online pinyin chart that doesn’t require flash to use.

The pinyin chart encompasses every valid sound in Chinese (with a couple regional exceptions) and usually provides all of said sounds in all four tones. I was so excited to find this that I went through every sound in the chart until I felt confident that I could remember and distinguish all of the various sounds. If I remember correctly this looked like me sitting in my room for about 5 hours straight listening and repeating sound-after-sound until I just about lost my voice.

While this worked for me, I recommend a more balanced approach of some daily practice. After all, despite my enthusiasm, I had to return to the chart several times over to properly remember everything.

The other benefit to learning pinyin is that most modern textbooks are romanized using pinyin. Also, it is one of the fastest and definitely the most popular way to input chinese characters into your computer or phone.

The key to speaking like a native

Listen, record, repeat. This is what I found to be the most significant factor in attaining the speaking level I have now. It’s a painful and strangely embarrassing thing to listen to one’s own voice. But, it pays off well. Really well even. So much so that natives are often impressed with my pronunciation and some have even mistaken me as being Taiwanese (despite my obviously not Taiwanese face).

The process went as follows: I would listen to a sound from the pinyin chart, record myself trying my best to imitate the speaker, then listen to myself and adjust. How did I adjust my pronunciation? After listening to my recording, I asked the question , “what is the difference between my pronunciation and the native’s?”. Holding that question in mind, I listened over and over again until I came to one important realization:

As an American English speaker, I had a tendency to put the emphasis on the beginning of each word/sound. My pronunciation would also get sloppier near the end of each word/sound. This is hugely significant because, in a lot of ways, the most important part of a sound in Mandarin Chinese is the “final”, which is where the tone is pronounced. Realizing this, I shifted my focus both in my listening and speaking to the end of each sound and the difference was dramatic. It was my biggest shift I made from sounding horrible to sounding like a native.

What you should do now

1. Learn Pinyin with Pin Pin or an online pinyin chart.

2. Make sure you are comfortable with all four tones. You don’t have to perfect them, but get to a point where you can replicate and distinguish them.

3. Keep studying any lessons you already started and review what you already know. When you’re not sure about a tone or sound, look it up in the pinyin chart.

4. Once you’re comfortable with pinyin, it’s time to expand your vocabulary and learn some Chinese characters.

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