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Dirty little pronunciation secret


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Now that I'm no longer a beginner, I can dispense some profound home-grown observations for those just starting out. (I say this tongue in cheek -- I'm no scholar.)

First of all, it isn't all tones. Pinyin is great, don't get me wrong. But you can sing the high first tone like a bird and swoop up and down with your thirds from the mountain tops to the valleys and back up again and still not be understood. You need to learn how long to hold each tone in a multi-syllabic word. For example a first is often held longer than a fourth.

Where the emphasis falls in a word is also critical to being understood on the street by ordinary people at normal conversation speed. If only your teacher can understand you, that's not enough. And don't forget about giving all the context you possibly can to whatever it is you are trying to communicate so if the listener misses a word here or there, they can still figure out what you are getting at.

That's all for today, boys and girls. (Tongue in cheek again.)

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You need to learn how long to hold each tone in a multi-syllabic word. For example a first is often held longer than a fourth.

Interesting. I have heard only one person talk about this before. I.e. that Mandarin has also syllabic length (stress) which is as equally important as the tones. Though I've never came across any teaching material which acknowledges this, which is very sad :(

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Do you think there's maybe a case for saying that length of syllable is as important as the direction: both these contribute to how a "tone" is heard? And that neither of these are completely fixed -- a second tone, say, can vary in both its rising and its length depending on where in a word/sentence it comes.

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Equally important?

Not really. What I had in mind was that other things besides the isolated tones are "also important."

I've never had a teacher point it out, but in copying how they talk, it seems to be a necessary componnent for the spoken language to "sound right."

...both these contribute to how a "tone" is heard? And that neither of these are completely fixed -- a second tone, say, can vary in both its rising and its length depending on where in a word/sentence it comes.

Yes, I agree. You have put it well.

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Equally important?

The person who first told me about this was a native Mandarin speaker. He's also well versed in linguistics and could speak ten languages fluently with perfect 'accent' (I could only confirm two of these :))

I asked him which one is more important: the tones or the length of the syllables. Maybe the question was a bit leading, but he answered that both are as important because without the correct syllable length it would be difficult for Mandarin speakers to understand you. He also told me this is the main reason foreigners suck at Chinese because they just think tones matter. But how could they know when even the teachers don't know? It's a classic blind leading the blind situation :P

EDIT: Forgot to mention that I asked this also from my Chinese teacher. She's a native speaker and she did not know anything about this. Perhaps she's a little too old and I could see that asking a question she couldn't answer was taking 面子 from her, so I ceased asking further questions :D

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The discussion is a bit confusing.

The concept of "tone" in Mandarin includes the pitch, length, and intensity. The first tone is long, level, and has constant intensity. Fourth tone is short, falling, and is stressed at the beginning, lighter towards the end. The second tone is long, rising, and builds intensity towards the end. The "full" third tone is stressed at the "dip", in the middle. Neutral tone is always short and roughly level in pitch, but the pitch depends on the preceding tone.

Disclaimer: this is how I hear them, and not some official definition.

I don't think that you should see it as "tone" plus "other things", I think that it's more correct to think of all these things as defining a certain tone of a syllable. And I agree that they are all important, but only the pitch is discussed in detail by most textbooks and teachers.

Also keep in mind that there is also stress in Mandarin, which is usually not handled. Stressed syllables are longer than unstressed ones. Unstressed syllables are shorter.

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The discussion is a bit confusing.

Sorry for my part, I haven't been very clear in my using of words.

The concept of "tone" in Mandarin includes the pitch, length, and intensity...

By the length of the syllable I did not mean this length. This length is independent of the tone...

Also keep in mind that there is also stress in Mandarin, which is usually not handled. Stressed syllables are longer than unstressed ones. Unstressed syllables are shorter.

...this is probably what I am trying to say. Can you give some examples of how the stress goes?

I remember the person who told me about the phenomena saying that there are three classes of this (let's say) stress:

1. long

2. short

3. consonant-like/very-short

Sadly I can't remember any examples. It was long time ago and I was an absolute beginner in the language and didn't understand much else anyway. But I do remember that all tones could belong to any of the three classes (except neutrals not long?)

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The concept of "tone" in Mandarin includes the pitch, length, and intensity. The first tone is long, level, and has constant intensity. Fourth tone is short, falling, and is stressed at the beginning, lighter towards the end. The second tone is long, rising, and builds intensity towards the end. The "full" third tone is stressed at the "dip", in the middle. Neutral tone is always short and roughly level in pitch, but the pitch depends on the preceding tone.

@renzhe -- I really like that explanation and can only wish that even one of my Chinese teachers had been able to articulate it so well.

I did once have a Chinese friend (non-teacher) who told me that when he was young and playing outside with young friends during heavy snow storms, they sometimes would have short simple exchanges without opening their mouths so as not to get a mouth full of blowing snow. They would just sort of "hum" the words with lips shut tight and could usually guess what the other meant from the factors mentioned by @renzhe above. That was, of course, just a kids game, and not a pedagogical technique, but it conveyed to me how important such factors as pitch, length, and intensity, as well as pitch trajectory, really were in daily speech.

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