Chinese Mandarin is often considered one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn. Not just because the writing system is so different, but because your mouth and voice make very different sounds when speaking the language, too.
For example, pronouncing the two letters ‘zi’ together would sound very different depending on if you’re writing them in English or in Pinyin (the Latin alphabet written system for Mandarin). And because Mandarin is also a tonal language, learners have both of these things to keep in mind when speaking.
Luckily there are lots of different ways to help improve your Chinese pronunciation, especially with the help of modern technology. Here are five fun and effective ones.
1. Watch Chinese dramas and films
The best way to learn how to pronounce any language is to listen as much as you can. And with an addictive TV show or gripping film, you won’t even realise you’re doing any work. You can find lots of popular TV series from mainland China to stream on viki.com for free (or at a small fee if you want to pay to remove the adverts). My current favourite is 如懿传 ‘Rúyì Zhuàn’, also known by its English title ‘Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace’. It’s inspired by the life of a real Empress of the Qing dynasty, who’s said to have had all records of her destroyed after she cut her hair – a grave insult against the Emperor at the time.
Just be careful about picking up particular phrases from historical dramas – native speakers might give you funny looks if you unwittingly start speaking like Qing dynasty royalty.
2. Don’t sing it – rap it instead
As you already know, the four tones in Mandarin are just as important to get right as the spelling. It’s the difference between telling someone ‘我想问你一下’ (wǒ xiǎng wèn nǐ yīxià – I want to ask you), ‘我想吻你一下’ (wǒ xiǎng wěn nǐ yīxià – I want to kiss you) and ‘我想闻你一下’ (wǒ xiǎng wén nǐ yīxià – I want to smell you). This is why learning songs in Mandarin isn’t helpful for practising them – because the tones are sacrificed for the melody.
Unless, that is, the song you’re learning is a rap song.
Learning rap songs – or 说唱 ‘shuōchàng’ (literally ‘talk sing’ in Chinese) – is a great way to practice crystal-clear pronunciation with the help of a good beat. And to impress your friends at your next KTV session, too. Check out popular rap artists like Kafe.Hu and VAVA for inspiration.
Some consonants and letter combinations like ch, q, zh, sh and x can also be harder for Western ears to detect, because while they sound similar in English they’re very different when speaking Chinese. So make sure you pay closer attention to these letter combinations while ‘spitting bars’ to learn how to clearly differentiate between them.
3. Record yourself speaking
Few people like listening to their own voices played back to them, but it’s a really effective way to hear and correct the way you pronounce words. Try either speaking or reading short phrases out loud while recording yourself on your phone, playing back and repeating.
4. Use language learning apps with voice recognition
Some of the apps we mentioned in our blog post The Best Free Apps For Learning Mandarin include ones with speaking exercises. Hello Chinese, Duolingo, ChineseSkill and LingoDeer all incorporate exercises into their courses, which get you to speak words and phrases into your phone and compare against native pronunciation.
5. Get professional lessons
When in doubt, ask a pro. Even better – get lessons in the language’s country of origin to soak up the sounds and culture around you. And, of course, practice speaking with native Mandarin speakers. Remember, Lingoinn organises homestay visits in China, where you can stay in the home of a professional Mandarin teacher in the city of your choice. See how you can customise your programme here.