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bob2222

How To 'acquire' A Native Like Accent?

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bob2222

Hi folks,

I've recently been watching a show called 世界大不同 (Shijie Da Bu Tong), which is a pretty cool show (can check it out on youku) where there are a bunch of 外国人 in the studio and they sit around and answer some questions on a certain issue, proposed by the Chinese host, all the while everyone speaking in Chinese, of course. Not only is this a great show, its also got me thinking about a certain issue in learning Chinese....

You see, I was always of the opinion that in learning a foreign language things like accent, accurate pronunciation and generally sounding more native, were things that would sort themselves out after years and years of study and immersion. However, on this show, there are more than a good few 外国人 (who tell us they have been in China for around 10 years or so) who have almost perfect Chinese, 'close your eyes and you wouldn't be able to tell they aren't Chinese' type perfect. however there is one guy, an American, while his Chinese is also very good (in terms of his grammar, vocabulary, etc. he's as good as all the other foreigners on the show), his pronunciation is lagging way behind the others, and he's been in China for 14 years! So he's had as much and often more time spent in the country, immersed in the language at least to the degree that he seems to have mastered every other aspect of the language, yet he still is close to sounding native.

My only conclusion is this; acquiring this level of perfect pronunciation is not guaranteed from prolonged exposure alone but also requires some kind of focus, some kind of effort, basically hard work to get to that native like level.

Now my question to everyone is; what can we/should we do now to get the process moving, how do you concentrate on these type things? What methods do you have? Recording and listening to your own 发音? Parroting recordings of Chinese with an accent you'd like to acquire? How are these things working for you? Any thing else you'd like to share?

Thanks for taking a look!

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renzhe

My suggestions are:

- lots of listening to native speaker material and parroting. Even developing an ear for how it should sound (and being able to "play it back" in your mind) is a great aid.

- recording yourself regularly and comparing to a native speaker. Often you will have the right tones and pronunciation (won't mix them up), but nuances will be way off, timing will be off, and it will sound quite un-native. Hearing this recorded and working on it until it matches a native speaker is a great tool.

- having critical and unrelenting native speaker friends who will correct you over and over. Finding them might take a while, but it's worth gold.

Of course, accent acquisition is a complicated topic, and some people are more talented than others.

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jbradfor

I think a lot depends on natural ability. In particular, people that seem to have more innate musical ability seem to acquire a more-native accent faster. [i, for example, have no musical ability and a horrible accent.]

I've also been wondering about the availability of "accent schools" in China. I assume they exist for native speakers, for example for people wanting to get into broadcasting. Would they accept non-native speakers?

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roddy

Meh, I'm not a fan of the 'natural ability' explanation. Maybe for some lucky folk it's true, but the rest of us can still get there with a little bit of hard work. It's just putting your tongue in the right place at the right time.*

As for accent schools - look at the 普通话测试, that's the test for native speakers who want to be, among other things, broadcasters and elementary school teachers. Heifeng has taken it at least once, and the prep materials have a lot of useful exercises. I haven't taken it, but did a lot of very valuable work with a tutor whose day job was preparing accented Chinese folk for the test.

*reality may be marginally more complex

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renzhe

And when we're talking about the 普通话测试, this thread must be mentioned, and this one.

In the first one, there are many sample recordings, and some simpler texts. Just recording yourself reading one of those will give you a week of exercise. Once you get that one sounding well, move to the next one.

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Shi Tong
I think a lot depends on natural ability. In particular, people that seem to have more innate musical ability seem to acquire a more-native accent faster. [i, for example, have no musical ability and a horrible accent.]

Personally I think there's a LOT to be said for natural ability. I personally have a pretty good singing voice and I can do a lot of imitation which is close to correct accents.

I really haven't had to work on my pronunciation at all since I started learning Chinese because of this fact.

I'm even aware of myself putting on an accent when I speak Chinese, which is clearly different from my English accent.

However, this doesn't mean to say that it's perfect, and actually, I also agree that studying accents will help. However, I also think that some people really cannot shake accents.

I have an aunt who has been in France for 30 years or so, and speaks amazing fluent French. However, she STILL has people (her grandchildren) laughing at her accent- she forced herself back to school to learn the accent correctly. I find this pretty good evidence that for some people it's hard to drop an accent.

I also think natural ability with accents has a lot to say for some people not being able to study Chinese at all because the tones completely make no sense to some people, and regardless of how much they try to hear the difference, within a couple of minutes, they will be pronouncing something wrong again.

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Don_Horhe

Lol, I was in a good few episodes of that show and some of the people had really 'niubi' Chinese - most of them had lived in China for 5-10 or more years. There is a group of people who take part with their teacher - 丁广泉, with whom they study 相声's.

Now, on topic. Although I agree to a great extent with the natural ability explanation, one can still go a long way with hard work. Even if you don't end up sounding 100% Chinese (what is that, anyway, since Chinese people speak in a huge variety of accents), you might still end up having great pronunciation.

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Etwood

Although sometimes a non-native accent can sound quaint! As long as tones are correct and you can be understood, that is.

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Altair

In my view, although innate ability plays a role in all learning, acquiring accents has more to do with attitude and effort, both being important. I think all learners face the overwhelming temptation to map the sounds they hear in the new language to the sounds of languages they already know and to reproduce the known sounds rather than the new sounds they hear. The closer the new sounds are to the old sounds, the more the temptation. This mapping actually may accelerate the ability to speak, but will definitely affect the accent.

Compare the sounds of 替 and "tea." As far as I am aware, no dialects of English match the sounds of 替. The "t" is different, the "i" is different, the intonation is different, the sound dynamics are different, and the length of the syllables are different. And yet, it is hard to avoid bringing the sounds of one language into the other, unless you concentrate hard on not making the new sound familiar.

Often learners cannot even hear what is wrong, since they have not been trained to hear what is necessary. However, such training is not rocket science. For instance, I have recently been surprised by a number of American TV shows featuring stars with distinctive American accents, who, when interviewed, speak with clear native English accents. Although I am sure some talent is involved, I think their ability to mimic accents perfectly has more to do with time spent with dialect coaches and the need to win acting roles.

I think part of the attitude issue is that most people do not want to sound "strange" when they speak and do not want to put effort into producing new unpracticed sounds. To most learners, part of this means some unwillingness to speak with strange rhythms, strange combinations of sound, or intonations that they are not used to reproducing. The process of making these strange sounds feels like giving up a part of their personality and distinctiveness. To other types of learners, not sounding strange means not sounding different from the speakers around them. If you have no problems creating a new "identity" in the new language or accent, it is probably much easier to adapt and to leave old habits behind.

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roddy

Although sometimes a non-native accent can sound quaint!

Who wants to sound quaint though?

Very much in agreement with Altair's post. And if there is any 'natural' ability, I suspect it was actually just learned ability you had from way back when you were a kid taking music lessons or doing goofy accents.

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rezaf

Some of those foreigners are awesome in Chinese but their problem is that they speak the language too standard which makes it unnatural especially when they say zh, ch, sh and er hua. No one in China speaks the standard Putonghua at home. The best way is to live with a Chinese family and take part in their conversations especially in their arguements cuz when you are arguing you will forget the tones and will speak more naturally like them. It has been very helpful for me to have my Chinese mother-in-law living with us and criticising me everyday.

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Etwood

Perhaps 'quaint' was the wrong word, but I just feel people should be proud of their accents. :)

Also, if you are understood perfectly well already, wouldn't if be more beneficial to spend time on another aspect of one's Chinese. Vocab, for example. Just saying...

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Hofmann

I agree that it takes effort, but I think what matters even more is where you put the effort. One can put in a lot of effort doing something almost useless. I try to encourage efficient study so that people can get the best results from the least amount of effort.

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roddy

Yeah, I think there's an element of diminishing returns - if you are being consistently understood and your interlocutors don't need to make any particular effort for that to happen, you may well be better off spending the time on extra vocab or whatever rather than nitpicking your pronunciation.

As for how to actually do it - as is so often tragically the case, lots of practice with quick and reliable feedback. A crash course in phonetics at the start won't hurt. For actual books, this one is the best I've seen, but is in Chinese and I may be out of date. Does cover intonation though, which is a major part of accent and often overlooked. I think Chinese Made Easier handles pronunciation better than any of the other general textbooks.

Tones are obviously a major issue for us foreign types, you might get some good ideas here. You may also want to look at shadowing.

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realmayo

I'd love to do more to remove the English-speaker Chinese accent I have -- I posted somewhere else here that to my ears this kind of accent always sounds super-earnest. But I wonder how foreign accents in Chinese compare with the same in English: I know French and German people who speak truly excellent English, at native-level in terms of complexity, and 100% easy to understand, but who still have a very very obvious French or German accent -- though this accent does not in any way make it difficult to understand them. Why is this different from Chinese?

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bob2222

Some great stuff guys, thanks for the response!

I won't throw myself into the 'nurture/nature' debate here, will just say I think the role of 'talent' is almost always overstated when it comes to language learning, while you will seldom hear those that have got themselves to a native like level in their second language say 'I'm just talented at learning languages'...

Anyway, I can understand what etwood is saying, why do you need a perfect accent if you are getting understood? I understand the logic, but I have found that while I am understood in almost everything I say, my tones are almost always off, and I have come to realise that Chinese people find the way I talk Chinese to be, well strange... Is that important? I'd say if you're hoping to be treated on equal terms, make friends, work, Etc. its extremely important. Otherwise people are going to have a hard time just relating to you, and I think that at the end of the day, the only good reason to work towards having a native like accent is strengthening the connection you can have with speakers of that language.

Back to the original topic, I think another problem, which is not specific to Chinese, is who's accent do you really want to imitate? You have to make a choice here, and for Chinese I think this can be a very difficult one. Do you want to sound like a Beijing broadcaster? It's standard Putonghua, and you'll impress a whole bunch of people, but does anyone actually speak like that? Do you go the other way, and imitate those around you in your small provincial city, those who completely murder Putonghua, but are still understandable. Or the million options in between?

At the end of the day, I think anyone seriously learning Chinese will have to consider putting effort into their accent sooner or later, the hardest part is where to put that effort?

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roddy
You have to make a choice here, and for Chinese I think this can be a very difficult one. Do you want to sound like a Beijing broadcaster? It's standard Putonghua, and you'll impress a whole bunch of people, but does anyone actually speak like that? Do you go the other way, and imitate those around you in your small provincial city, those who completely murder Putonghua, but are still understandable.

For the bulk of learners I think this is a no-brainer - there's a recognized standard, which all the textbooks and teachers will teach to, and which will get you understood wherever you go. If you know you're going to be in Chongqing for the rest of your life, fair enough, but otherwise you run the risk of being the foreigner with the provincial accent rather than the foreigner with the foreign accent, which is only going to make you stand out more.

If you want to add in a bit of local colour, do so after you've got the standard down pat so you can add it in and out as necessary - just like Chinese people will code switch depending on who they're talking to.

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Etwood

Also another suggestion (which has helped me somewhat) is to learn some basic phonetics/phonology and about the speech organs. After learning a bit about the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) and how to pronounce some of the sounds physically, I was able to go back and use the IPA to produce Mandarin sounds. It kind of 'clicked' in my head, and I realised where to put my tongue exactly etc. Wikipedia is normally quite good for providing the IPA for the sounds in a language.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandarin_phonology

Some of it is a bit heavy going, but it seems to list all of the phonemes as well as some sandhi rules. Unfortunately it doesn't show what the pinyin is for each IPA symbol (but that shouldn't be too much of an issue).

Hopefully it helps a little bit :)

P.S. It might be beneficial to listen out for the tonal contour of a whole sentence, rather than just focus on getting individual tones perfect. After all, we don't usually pronounce each syllable in isolation. Besides, it's easy enough (with practise) to get the individual tones (close to) perfect.

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rezaf
Back to the original topic, I think another problem, which is not specific to Chinese, is who's accent do you really want to imitate? You have to make a choice here, and for Chinese I think this can be a very difficult one. Do you want to sound like a Beijing broadcaster? It's standard Putonghua, and you'll impress a whole bunch of people, but does anyone actually speak like that? Do you go the other way, and imitate those around you in your small provincial city, those who completely murder Putonghua, but are still understandable. Or the million options in between?

Obviously the super standard Putonghua like the broadcasters is very difficult and I have never heard a foreigner who can speak it. Even those super-laowais on the TV who are awesome in Chinese just sound unnatural when they try to do that. The easier option is Putonghua that the people around you speak. I have two groups of people for practising my Chinese, One is my wife and her family who are from the north and one is my Malaysian-Chinese classmates. Automatically I tend to change my accent when I speak to each group. For example I don't use big zh, ch, sh with my classmates and I use er hua with my family. You really don't need to put a great effort. You just need to hang out with a certain group for a long time to absorb their accent. Practising the tones might be necessary at the beginning but it's useless for speaking the language cuz puting words together and making a sentence is more complicated than saying just one word.

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renzhe
Practising the tones might be necessary at the beginning but it's useless for speaking the language cuz puting words together and making a sentence is more complicated than saying just one word.

I wouldn't say that practicing the tones is useless, it's just that you need to practice tones in the context of complete sentences. Because, as you say, at the sentence levels, tones are not just isolated between words, but get a bit more complex.

Repeating whole sentences and paying attention to tonal patterns is very important if you want to sound native. Of course, there is a time for everything, and there are more important things to do in the beginning.

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