Why start with pronunciation?
I’ll tell you a story. When I first began studying Chinese, I knew I wanted to ‘be the best around’, to make sure that ‘nothing’ was going to ‘ever bring me down’. Because of this, I started to think about the language learning process, because I knew I didn’t just want to halfway learn the language, I wanted to be great at it. So I sat down one day and thought about how I had learned my native language, English.
As a child I loved stories. So any medium I could consume that delivered quality stories I was all about. I liked to watch television, play video games, listen to people tell stories, and read books. So I realized that the majority of my ‘studying’ the English language came from reading books and reading subtitles on the television (closed captioning). My listening was mostly listening to people tell stories and watching television, so that part was easy.
After I realized how I had ‘acquired’ the language, I started to think about how I learned to speak and produce in English. As a child, I would attempt to use the words I had learned throughout the day, ask a lot of questions, and try to mimic to an adult what I had heard. I would practice, practice, and practice my production as if it was a game, never caring if I pronounced something right or wrong and just mimicking what I was hearing. At the end of all of this my English was ‘perfect’, and although I never liked to write (which is why I never became proficient), my speaking and communication skills were top notch.
When I began Chinese I utilized this same approach. And you can replicate my results. The following are principles for continuing to master Chinese pronunciation:
- Find a youtube video correctly illustrating Chinese pronunciation made by a native speaker. Follow this every day without fail. Go through all of the sounds and try to mimic their mouth movements.
- Look for recordings of individual words that pronounce them with the correct pronunciation (native). Once you have worked on basic pronunciation enough keep your pronunciation standard as you learn associated vocabulary.
- Start to expand your pronunciation exercises to multiple character words.
From every foreign learner of Chinese who I have interviewed (myself included), tones seems to be a huge issue for most people. However, there is hope. Right now I am going to impart some wisdom on everyone that is not intuitive or easily digestible by most beginners of the Chinese language. Tones are not hard. I’ll say it again with more clarity: Learning tones is not as challenging as everyone makes it out to be.
But the approach by many people to learn tones is not focused or appropriate. In order to learn to hear the tones, it is important to listen to natives read the tones and know which ones they are supposed to be. What does that look like? Learn the pinyin table (just the main one, find one with sounds to learn the sounds) and watch a youtube video describing how the tones sound when used with different syllables from the pinyin table (refer aforementioned table). Listen, watch, listen, watch, listen watch, then try to reproduce. At the beginning, only try to reproduce when you are ‘interacting’ with the video. And if need be, record yourself and only stop once the recording matches the sounds you hear from the videos. Now this might seem frustrating at times. But consistently practicing this skill will lead to excellent pronunciation which will serve as a solid foundation for you to begin your Chinese journey.