Mandarin Pronunciation Debacles
My first semester of learning Chinese was probably the most difficult one. Each week, my fellow wannabe Mando-philes and I were presented with a new series of 10 vocabulary terms, which our teacher went through painstakingly quickly every time. For the first month, I felt like I had missed a class somewhere. In true Chinese style, Zhu Laoshi never intimated the little pronunciation secrets that were my total bugaboos. It wasn’t the tones that were getting me, it was those pesky x’s and sh’s. I couldn’t understand why xian started with x but shen started with sh.
A background in linguistics and basic phonetics helped me to uncover the truth myself, and as the years finally took me to live in China, a local friend was able to help me unpack what was really going on between x and sh, q and ch.
First, there is a very important distinction to make.
x and q are always followed by high, frontal flat vowels like i and ue.
sh and ch are always followed by low, back rounded vowels like a, o and e.
This means that you can have:
xian or sheng but never shian
qiang or chang but never chiang
This might seem arbitrary. It did to me until I learned that there is actually a pronunciation difference between these - they are distinct sounds. And despite what most phrase books want you to believe (which is that x sounds like sh and q sounds like ch), the pronunciation difference between these sounds actually dictates why they are followed by different vowels.
Let’s play a game.
Open your mouth very slightly. Smile. Say the “sh” sound by blowing out the sides of your teeth rather than the front of your mouth. Keep your tongue lying flat. Don’t let it move! That’s the pinyin x. Now say xiàn with that same smile and blowing the air out the sides of your teeth. Keep smiling! You’ve got it.
So what’s the sh? Open your mouth again, this time wider. Purse your lips as if you’re about to plant a big smooch on your Aunt Mildred. Let your tongue curl up a little bit. Blow the air out the front of your lips and say the “sh” sound. That’s the pinyin sh. Now say shèng with those kissy lips still pursed. Keep ‘em puckered. You’ve got it.
This works the same way for q and ch. q is said with a smile, ch with a kiss. Try it now:
It’s fairly simple, but it takes a lot of practice to get it right. Don’t be afraid to feel silly. You’ve got to do things with your mouth that don’t feel natural and are not similar to how you use your mouth when speaking English. Don’t be afraid to really test this out. Shout at your wall! qian qian qian! cheng cheng cheng! Flat lips for qian, round lips for cheng.
Once you get your mouth retrained for Mandarin mode, this becomes much easier and feels much more innate. Until then, practice makes perfect!
Megan Eaves is the author of ‘This Is China: A Guidebook for Teachers, Backpackers and Other Lunatics.’ She has a degree in Intercultural Communication and has been studying and teaching Mandarin Chinese for the past 7 years. www.meganeaveswriting.com
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