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Learning Chinese: Pinyin Pronunciation

written by: davidmakofsky • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 1/5/2012

A student's first encounter with Chinese can lead to the belief that Chinese is essentially like any other language. Once Chinese characters and tones are encountered then it is clear that Chinese is not like any Indo European language. Here we help you understand and learn pinyin.

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    The Growth of Chinese as a Second Language

    If you are learning Chinese, then you are not in an exclusive crowd. The head of the Chinese Language Council International estimates that 40 million people are studying Chinese this year, and the number is almost sure to increase. China’s recession does not appear to be as severe and long-lasting as the one being experienced in Western Europe and the United States.

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    Many Study Formats Are Now Available

    The language can be studied in many formats. At one time, it might have been necessary to hire a private tutor, and tutors are certainly a good idea for learning, but the fact is that now there are many modes of learning at your disposal. Whatever mode you choose the initial learning process is very much the same. There are good CD's for learning, as well as interactive web sites that employ a tutorial process. There are also different types of classes, and there are immersion intensive language study available all over mainland China and Taiwan.

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    Practicing Pinyin and Tones With Simple Sentences

    The first few lessons of every mode introduce the student to pinyin, a phonetic romanization of the Chinese language, and to Chinese pronunciation. This introduction includes tones, which will be explained later, but basically this involves the repetition of words as oral practice.

    First you encounter the personal pronouns and the basic sentence structure. Anyone with a cursory familiarity with Chinese knows this begins with "Ni hao" (hello, how are you, how are you doing?) and the response is "Ni hao" (and how are you?).

    This is usually followed by, for instance "Wo shi Dawei" (I am David) or "Wo shi Zhang Fang Fang", or "Wo shi Li Laoshi" (I am teacher Li). Ordinarily the interrogative particle “ma" will be introduced, as well as the negation “bu".

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    Learning Basic Conversational Tools

    An interrogative particle, "ma" – what is this? "Ni hao" (literally “you OK" ) changes to "Ni hao ma?"

    (Are you really well? Are you really OK? )

    We have the same structure in English. A declarative sentence: “She is going to the store." is made into a question by adding, “isn’t she?" These are called particles, because they cannot be used independently of a sentence context. It makes no sense to say, “Isn't she" without a previous sentence – Isn't she what?

    Similarly, in Chinese we cannot use the word “ma" without a similar sentence context The negation, “bu" works much the same as negations in English. “Hao bu hao" has an exact English counterpart in “Are you well or not?" or “are things going well or not?" The basic structure of the Chinese sentence is much like English, with subject-verb-object as a simple sentence.

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    The Basics of Chinese Pronunciation

    At the next step, Chinese and English diverge. As I explained, Chinese pronunciation is taught with “pinyin," a Romanized phonetic version of sounds in the Chinese language. You must understand and learn pinyin to learn Chinese.

    In fact, we have already seen “pinyin" in our brief introduction to Chinese. “Wo," “ni," “hao," “laoshi," “bu" - all these are pinyin representations of Chinese characters and sounds. Pinyin is not simply a convenience for us Westerners. Schoolchildren who learn Chinese begin by learning pinyin, and this is because Chinese itself has no alphabetic representation of phonetic sounds.

    Instead of an alphabet and a phonetic system, Chinese has characters and tones. Generally speaking, a Chinese character is equal to a syllable, with a beginning consonant and a vowel that carries a tone. There are 21 of these consonants or consonant combinations.

    In our brief vocabulary, we covered (2nd tone), háo (2nd tone), (3rd tone), (3rd tone), lâo (3rd tone), shī (1st tone). In pinyin, the tonal markings are placed over the major vowel. These consonants carry the exact same sounds that they do in English.

    Some pinyin consonants do not. The word for “dish" in a restaurant is “cài"(4th tone, with a 2nd tone "cái" means “only") which is pronounced “tsai."

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    The Four Tones in Chinese

    The pinyin alphabet has four tonal marks, a macron first tone (-), an acute accent second tone (/), a Caron accented third tone (^), and a falling fourth tone (\), all placed over the major vowel.

    Let’s take a character we already know, “ma" the interrogative particle. The single character for “ma" is pronounced with an initial “m" and a rising but actually an un-toned “a." Those same phonetic sounds “m" and “ā" with a macron first tone is “" as in mama, mom.

    The same two sounds, “m" and “a" with an inflected third tone on the “â" is the word for “horse."

    In the pinyin, you actually see the tone in the word, but in the character system, you have to know the tone.

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    Chinese Tones: Sound and Meaning

    There are over 50,000 characters, each with their own tone.

    In the pinyin system, we see the tone, but in the character system, we see only the character. How do Chinese people learn and remember these? The syllables look different as characters, but different characters have similar consonant-vowel structures.

    Actually, in English we also use intonation to express meaning. If someone says to me "David, PLEASE see your mother" We usually understand that I don't want to see my mother. If that person says "David, please see your MOTHER," we would probably guess that I plan to see someone else. However, if the person says to me, " David, see your mother?" with a rising intonation, they are probably saying "David, you are 71 years old; your mother died years ago." In this example in English, the sentence meaning changes. In Chinese, the meanings for the words change.

    You might ask, every sound has intonation and if the intonation changes, the meaning changes? How does anyone communicate? It is true that at first, when I tried my Chinese, no one believed that I was speaking Chinese. Perhaps they thought I was speaking Martian. After a while, you hear the intonation of words, and you "know it," and people understand.

    Still, for the non-Chinese, if you encounter a new word, perhaps a place destination, then no one, no cab driver, no one at all will know where you want to go. You have never heard the word before, you are not sure of the intonation even if you see it in pinyin, and no one understands what you are saying. All over China, those who do not speak Chinese as a first language ask a friend or hotel concierge to write the name of their destination in Chinese characters. Another telltale sign is to see people hand their telephones over to cab drivers. The non-Chinese learns tonality by listening to intonation, because without it, no one will ever know what is being said.

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    Pronunciation and Meaning in Western European Languages

    A comparable example to Chinese tonality might be to understand how all those European children remember the gender of nouns. For example, how do the French know to call their Golden Age “La Belle Époque" (feminine) rather than to make it masculine? Researchers who study French language learning have reported that a lot of time is spent in schools associating adjectives (which carry gender) with nouns, and so the French children get a double lesson on gender. We, who learn FSL as adults, simply must memorize.

    We all use our “inner ear" for language. Researchers once reported that among those in New York City who spoke a European language, Germans tended to call the borough “Die Bronx" (feminine) while Spanish speakers called it “El Bronx" (masculine). When a Spanish-speaking visitor was asked why he used the masculine, he responded, it “sounds as though it should be ‘el’." The Bronx, of course, has no gender at all.

    So we language learners listen with words and phrases with our third ear, and we somehow assimilate intonation. At that point, people begin to understand us. Learning tones is a matter of remembering where tones would go, and inflecting words as you hear them.

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    Chairman Mao's Failed Campaign

    As a final note, in the 1950’s Mao Tse Tung, in an effort to simplify Chinese for Chinese people as well as for non-native speakers, tried to replace the Chinese tone-character system with pinyin. At least this would have provided a lifeline for the phonetic expression of the language. The Chinese people would not let this happen.

    Another revolutionary strongman, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk of the new Turkish Republic literally replaced the complex Ottoman script with a Romanized Turkish alphabet in a few months. Not to be stopped in his campaign Ataturk also declared that on and after a given day, no Turkish citizen could wear his traditional and time-honored fez. Every Turk that wore a hat had to wear a European hat. During the period when the first Turkish Republic held their first census, Ataturk decreed and the army enforced the regulation that every Turkish citizen had to stay home until the entire census was completed.

    Perhaps, as we struggle to memorize characters and tones we long for the triumph that Chairman Mao never achieved, a Chinese phonetic system to help us with characters and tones. Chinese language schools eliminate pinyin within a few weeks of beginning the language. The Chinese simply do not like pinyin. However, for non-Chinese speakers, to learn pinyin is essential to learning Chinese.


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