Jump to content
Chinese-forums.com
Learn Chinese in China

Pinyin, Pronunciation and Potential Problems


Mactuary
 Share

Recommended Posts

Greetings fellow forumers,

After being in Harbin for three weeks I've noticed something, simply, in most cases foreigners' brains are fooled by what they see on the paper. What do I mean?

Pinyin is supposed to be a visual representation of sounds, many of which don't exist in other languages, which is a common occurrence. But the problem arises due to the mismatch between the symbols in the latin alphabet and sounds. (Who came up with "ba" for 吧 anyway?) Not to mention how other foreigners from different countries perceive the sounds of the letters in English, since many learn English first as a second language.

This is the problem of transliteration and after having studied several languages I've come to "hate" transliteration, not because of the negative effects on me but because I've noticed negative effects in other people. The transliteration problem is someone mitigated somewhat when learning other languages (non Chinese) because of the new alphabet, e.g. Korean and Russian have their own. So when the learner is taught that a certain letter refers to a certain sound, and he/she is corrected repeatedly, eventually, in most cases the learner will develop the correct pronunciation.

But with Chinese, there is no alphabet and they've had to borrow latin letters to represent sounds that don't exist in languages that use these letters. So the brain of the learners will no doubt instinctively mentally voice the sounds that are familiar to them instead of the new strange sound the letters are suppose to represent.

To be fair, this phenomenon also occurs within the Romance languages. For example, my French friend always says "fen" instead of "fun", "lek" insteak of "luck". Even thought the "a" sound exists in French, e.g. "pas". But I'm just focusing on Mandarin here because it's the language I'm learning now.

Back to Chinese, some examples: (I apologise in advanced for a lack of linguistic terminology or correct terminology for that matter)

b, d, g etc are closed unaspirated consonants in Chinese, (but they are also voiced consonants in English). The Koreans don't have trouble with these because there is a direct translation to ㅃ, ㄸ, ㄲ respectively and in Korean the voiced consonants are not phonemically define (e.g. there is no such letter to represent the voiced consonant b), even though they exist phonetically (e.g. when ㅂ is preceded by ㄴ "n", 안 바빠요 "not busy").

But! The Russians for some reason have a big problem with this, they keep pronouncing them the English way, i.e. voiced consonants. Even though there is also a direct translation to п, т, к, the problem is that in Russian the voiced consonants are also phonemically defined, i.e. б, д, г and many are already familiar with English so as soon as they see b, d, g as pinyin they will immediately say them as voiced consonants.

Other examples:

*The Koreans pronounce the "r" as trilled "r", I really notice it when they say 每个人 or 一个人。

*The "z" is pronounced as an open consonant instead of the funny closed "t" + "s" combination.

*要 "yao" is pronounced as 也奥 “ye+ao" (ignoring tones), like the English pronunciation of the Yao, in Yao Ming.

There is a Russian classmate, we are in the level C+ (A - lowest, H - highest), who has been studying Mandarin for one semester here in Harbin. She speaks very confidently and can express herself very well.

1. Why has no one corrected her pronunciation in the A level class?

2. Does she (or most learners) know that she (they) is pronouncing them incorrectly?

I've recently encountered a possible answer to 1. My friend in A class told me that the teacher is much less strict when Russians are talking, however, she is very strict with my Asian looking friend (who is originally Chinese anyway.). Perhaps Chinese people find it amazing enough that someone non Asian looking can speak Mandarin at all that they are willing to overlook many shortcomings.

As for 2. I think that depends on the learner. Many have a goal of speaking as the locals, others just want to understand and be understood. But my classmate is such a studious learner that it's hard to imagine that she doesn't care about her pronunciation. Some people are just simple deaf to the differences in the sounds, regardless of how strongly distinguishable other's might think they are.

I know that pronunciation is regarded as a non issue, particularly at the beginner level, but why not kill two birds with one stone? It encourages the learner when some locals complement on their speech, it can also give a false sense of fluency encouraging the locals to reply in a natural manner rather than trying to slow down their speech to be understood. And when the learners have reached an advanced level they wouldn't have to spend a lot of time undoing bad habits and a lot of money hiring accent coaches.

I think when teaching a language, the system used should be primarily clear and secondarily simple. Using b, d, g to represent non voiced consonants is certainly simple, but it is also just insane! Particulary since pinyin was developed to cater to the English speaking world! (or even if not English, many who use the latin alphabet have b, d, g etc as voiced consonants) "b, d, g" already exist as different sounds in English and they want us to start pronouncing it differently. And that these sounds don't exist in English phonemically!

The solution is simple, there is already a standard way of clearly representing sounds, i.e. IPA. The added "difficulty" of using several new symbols is not much considering that learners have to memorise up to 10000 characters. Spending at extra week or two at the beginning learning new symbols should not be a problem at all. I think this is better than making the brain constantly fight its instincts for the whole of the learning period, at least for some learners. It's no different from learning a new alphabet anyway.

As an extra thought, I think all kids everywhere should be taught the IPA (at least for the most spoken languages) at a young age. This will give them the opportunity to develop foreign languages more naturally at a later stage should they wish. I feel that my native town of Sydney, is so blind and deaf to foreign languages that it makes me ashamed, since Australia is supposed to be multicultural. But when almost all of the locals can't even pronounce 酒 "sake" properly, it doesn't really feel like the cultures have integrated very well at all.

Holy crap that was long! Kudos to those who put up to the end, but I feel very strongly about this. Send me some links of similar arguments, I would love to read them.

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Site Sponsors:
Pleco for iPhone / Android iPhone & Android Chinese dictionary: camera & hand- writing input, flashcards, audio.
Study Chinese in Kunming 1-1 classes, qualified teachers and unique teaching methods in the Spring City.
Learn Chinese Characters Learn 2289 Chinese Characters in 90 Days with a Unique Flash Card System.
Hacking Chinese Tips and strategies for how to learn Chinese more efficiently
Popup Chinese Translator Understand Chinese inside any Windows application, website or PDF.
Chinese Grammar Wiki All Chinese grammar, organised by level, all in one place.

Sorry but I don't think most learners feel this way about Pinyin. Personally, I DO think it is a very simple, easy-to-learn system. You mention people pronouncing some sounds wrong - so what? Foreigners who learn a language will speak with an accent. I don't think that has anything to do with Pinyin. It is the simplest way they create to show different sounds. It is 10x faster and easier to learn than IPA, which itself isn't a guarantee of correct pronunciation anyway. Plenty of Chinese have to learn IPA when studying English but still have horrible pronunciation.

I feel you are exaggerating the way the Roman Alphabet can influence people to say sounds wrong. It's plain from day 1 that when using pinyin the Roman letters stand for different sounds than they are used for in other languages. It's just a system of representing the sounds. At no point did I feel like I was 'fighting' with the natural way I read 'x' or 'ch', since they are obviously not indicating the same sounds as they do in English.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

WestTexas,

Like you I also haven't encountered any problems with the pinyin at all, perhaps we are part of the lucky some who noticed straight away the differences and hence didn't have to "fight". It's only after arriving in Harbin that I've noticed the major shortcomings of pinyin, and I'm not talking about just an accent, which are slight mispronunciations (even in extreme cases). I'm talking about systematically pronouncing something wrong due to the way they are represented on paper AND in particular when the correct sounds exist in the native language of the learner. It just seems that they haven't been told the correct information and they aren't lucky enough to have a language oriented brain, perhaps like ours, to notice themselves.

I think that accents are partly derived from slight misrepresentations and if the learners are fully aware of the sounds of the target language then accents can be reduced dramatically.

Also when you say that most people don't feel this way about pinyin, I have to stress that the feeling is towards other learners and not themselves. Those who have grasped the concept of pinyin correctly will have nothing to complain about, since they're speaking it properly. Those who have grasped the concept of pinyin incorrectly will not know that they have learned the wrong way, since feedback will probably be about accent anyway (as you've mentioned), and the learner will not complain since they think they just have an accent.

With regard to Chinese learning the IPA, I do agree that some still have horrible accents. However, as to whether learning the IPA is effective or not, I'm not ready to comment. However, I suspect the teachers might have something to do with that. But there are just those who aren't able to distinguish unfamiliar sounds, just like there are tone deaf people.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I don't think this is really a pinyin problem. I mean, it might be for absolute beginners, but anyone with more than a couple of weeks tuition will surely have noticed the difference between pinyin pronunciation of letters and their counterparts in their own languages.

I think it's more likely an issue of whether they can distinguish or pronounce the sounds in question. Personally, as a native English speaker, I have no problem with b and p, but find it difficult to distinguish the English b and the pinyin b sound. In fact, if anyone can upload an exagerated recording of the differences between these sounds, it might help the rest of us.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

xiaoxiaocao: I agree.

anonymoose: Well, these Russians have been studying for one semester and they all have the same problems more or less. I really don't think it's an issue of the ability to distinguish or create the sounds since these sounds also exist in Russian. I really think reading the pinyin has messed with their brain to the extreme level. I'm a bit apprehensive confronting the Russian in my class regarding, perhaps I'll try my theory on some Russians in the A level who are more likely to see me as more of an authoritative figure, since I'm in the C+ level, haha. What I'd like to do is to use Russian letters to create the sounds of the Chinese characters, it was quite effective with English when I tried last time.

As for the b sound in Chinese, in fact these sounds occur in English, but I bet 99.9% of the native speakers don't realise it.

The sound only occurs in consonant clusters as the second consonant, e.g. "spit". If you listen carefully, the "pit" in "spit" is different to just "pit" as a word and if you try to say "pit" with an "s" at the front it would sound very strange, I've heard some Chinese people with this problem. Other examples are "stop" vs "top", "skit" vs "kit".

If your still not convinced I might make an audio file. How do I attached one of those here?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Not that I want to advocate replacement of pinyin, I am not sure I do. I have found that pinyin initially is not a huge issue with pronunciation. It is relatively easy to learn the correct approximations of the chinese sounds. As I improve my chinese level to intermediate I have started to loathe pinyin. Mainly some confusion with the fact the final "i" is sometimes pronounced differently and the "u" is not consistently marked as "u:" in all cases.

My personal opinion based on my limited experience is that if there was to be a change, zhuyin (bopomofo) would be a much better alphabet to use.

http://www.jacobrhod...huyin+(bopomofo)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Interesting post. I think there are problems with Pinyin, but I agree with the others that what you're talking about here isn't confined to Pinyin (except for b, g d etc., note that they are also voiceless, which they aren't in English). I think this is a much more general problem related to pronunciation, where teachers are way too lenient. I had a pronunciation problem (a fairly serious one) for years before being corrected by a teacher, so I've spent some time looking into this and try to understand why.

My conclusion is that some students don't want to improve their pronunciation and they make teachers less inclined to correct pronunciation in class. I've asked many teacher about correcting pronunciation and I often get answers like "some students feel it's embarrassing to be corrected in front of the class". If teachers receive negative responses on what they do, I think they are likely to stop. Very good teachers won't, of course, but not all teachers are good. I've also found that teachers tend to correct only the best students, while ignoring the weaker ones. Perhaps they do spend time with them as well in the beginning, but then when they figure out that the students don't learn (either because the teacher isn't patient enough or because the students don't care either), they stop. People who listen, change the pronunciation and improve are much more interesting to teach.

The solution is that the student is utterly responsible for learning, not the teacher. What I mean is that if we believe that the teacher will teach us what we need, the likelihood is that we will miss out on some really important things and we only have ourselves to blame for that. Clearly telling teacher that we're interested in pronunciation and don't mind being corrected in front of the class also helps.

This is a topic that interests me greatly and I've written about it elsewhere:

Link to comment
Share on other sites

As I improve my chinese level to intermediate I have started to loathe pinyin. Mainly some confusion with the fact the final "i" is sometimes pronounced differently and the "u" is not consistently marked as "u:" in all cases.

Then you have failed to learn pinyin correctly. Or your teacher has failed to teach you correctly (and you have failed to take control of your own learning and learn it correctly). It certainly isn't pinyin's problem. It's a coherent, consistent system, but you have to learn how the system works in order to use it correctly.

"Final i" has three variations, and they all rely on the initial. If the initial is retroflex (chi, zhi, shi, ri), then final i is retroflexed. If the initial is dental (ci, zi, si), then the i has the buzzed sound associated with those syllables. If it is palatal (qi, ji, xi) or anything else, then it it pronounced like you would think an i is pronunced ('ee'). Obviously, when it is the initial ('yi', where the 'y' is added probably for aesthetic reasons more than anything else), then it is also pronounced 'ee'.

ü is not marked with an umlaut when it follows y, q, j, or x, because there is no need to mark it. There is never a case where a normal (no umlaut) 'u' follows those syllables. Either final can follow 'n' or 'l', so it is marked in those syllables.

Again, it isn't a problem with pinyin. You have to actually learn how the system works before you start complaining that it's no good. Once you know it, you'll find it's quite adequate for its intended purpose.

  • Like 3
Link to comment
Share on other sites

OneEye: agreed in general. But I think the pinyin system can be made less vague.

Just to nit pick: As for the learning how the system works before complaining about it, I can certainly complain about pinyin if I have trouble learning it, perhaps it's confusing me (the average Joe) why the sound of "i" changes depending on the preceding consonants.

Even when I've mastered it, I can still complain that the process was such a painful one.

Not that I've ever had any troubles though, I just see a non negligible amount of other learners having all sort of trouble with it. Not just random troubles, systematic ones particular to their native language which have nothing to do with producing unfamiliar sounds.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

So again, it isn't the system, it's how people go about learning and teaching it. The system itself is clear; I really don't know what you mean when you say it's "vague". Perhaps your understanding is vague. If it's taught correctly (the FSI Pronunciation and Romanization module is still the best thing I know of for native English speakers), then there's really no ambiguity about any of it.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think the pronunciation problem is partly that teachers will correct you when you're a beginner, but at some point pronunciation is expected to be taken care of and they'll stop correcting you because they'll perhaps feel that that is not the point of a more advanced class. I once took a class at Shida at the second-to-highest level where I had a Japanese classmate with absolutely atrocious pronunciation. Pronoucing shi and xi in the same way, that kind of stuff. He was never ever corrected. We did learn all kinds of other things.

Pinyin, in my opinion, is a fairly simple and consistent system. Once you've learned the rules you can spell every possible word in Mandarin without ever having to check a dictionary. There are no exceptions, there is a very limited number of sounds each letter represents, every word can only be pronounced in one way and no other. There are very few languages that have a writing system that is that easy, in any alphabet. If you mix up the various possibilities for i or u/ü, just check the rules.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I agree with the above posters that pinyin is a consistent system adequate for its intended purposes. And Mactuary, I suggest you just drop pinyin and stick to characters if you find pinyin confusing or inadequate. When I was a kid learning Chinese we didn't have any tools even remotely similar to pinyin so when we learnt a new word we marked a word of the same pronunciation against it. Perhaps you can use this approach.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Particulary since pinyin was developed to cater to the English speaking world!

Why do you say that?

I am pretty sure that pinyin was developed primarily for the Chinese-speaking world, as a teaching aid. It was actually meant to replace characters completely. The overwhelming majority of people using it today are native Chinese speakers. The second role of pinyin is romanisation of Chinese names into the English alphabet, and this is obviously going to have all the problems you mention, by definition.

I don't think that pinyin is any different than any other language using the Latin alphabet. English-speaking students don't only pronounce Chinese written in pinyin incorrectly, they also pronounce German, French, Portuguese. etc. incorrectly. All languages, including English, simply took letters from the Latin language and applied them to their own languages. Chinese did the same with pinyin (and Wade-Giles, and Yale etc.) Some of the decisions in pinyin were controversial -- like the b-p thing, however no other romanisation method has solved it better IMHO. Since pinyin was primarily designed for Chinese people, these things don't really play a role and the gains in terms of compactness and writing/typing ease outweigh it.

I agree that IPA is the best way to write pronunciation when learning a language -- I've used it a lot when learning Portuguese -- but for everyday practicality, pinyin has it beaten hands-down, and you'll have to learn pinyin anyway, if only for using dictionaries and transcribing names. Personally, if pinyin is drilled in correctly at the very beginning, I find it not to be a huge problem.

If you think that people learning Chinese have problems with pronunciation of Chinese, you must listen to a class consisting of Germans, Britons, Croatians, Chinese, etc. pronouncing Portuguese. Really, it's hours of laughter. Pinyin is a walk in the park in comparison :)

What I'd like to do is to use Russian letters to create the sounds of the Chinese characters, it was quite effective with English when I tried last time.

No need to create a system, such a thing already exists:

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

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

As for the b sound in Chinese, in fact these sounds occur in English, but I bet 99.9% of the native speakers don't realise it.

The sound only occurs in consonant clusters as the second consonant, e.g. "spit". If you listen carefully, the "pit" in "spit" is different to just "pit" as a word and if you try to say "pit" with an "s" at the front it would sound very strange, I've heard some Chinese people with this problem. Other examples are "stop" vs "top", "skit" vs "kit".

I am aware of this, in theory. It is brought up periodically on these forums.

I agree that putting an "s" in front of "pit" does not give exactly the same sound as "spit" (although I wouldn't go so far as to say it sounds "very strange"), but I feel it is just a slightly different sound along a continuum, rather than being absolutely distinct. At least when speaking Chinese, I have never really concerned myself with this distinction, and I'm sure the result, if defective, is not significant compared with other possible errors of pronunciation.

If your still not convinced I might make an audio file. How do I attached one of those here?

That would be useful, if it's not too much hassle. These sounds in isolation would be more useful than as parts of other words.

Well, these Russians have been studying for one semester and they all have the same problems more or less. I really don't think it's an issue of the ability to distinguish or create the sounds since these sounds also exist in Russian. I really think reading the pinyin has messed with their brain to the extreme level.

I'm still not convinced. I mean, if those Russians spoke English with a perfect accent, then maybe. But I suspect they make similar pronunciation errors when speaking English, and thus it could hardly be expected for them to have perfect Chinese pronunciation, irrespective of the pinyin issue.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

This is why I wish bopomofo was used rather than pinyin. In Japanese language pedagogy, studies have shown that teaching hiragana/katakana early to replace romanization reduces mispronunciation. So I think the same would be true of Chinese.

But really, most of the mispronunciation I see with beginners is not subtle at all, and it's clear that they never bothered to sit down with a pinyin+audio table for a few hours...

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I learnt pinyin when I was a university freshman. I thought I was going to learn bopomofo/zhuyin fuhao, because that was what 拼音 appeared to be. Instead I was taught Hanyu Pinyin, and I was so relieved that I did not need to learn a new set of script / symbols. But different people like different things. Whatever works.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I also can't believe that pinyin was developed for foreigners. Foreigners already had their own transliteration systems. The issue with those is that they often require typing more than 1 letter for a single initial consonant, and there were multiple transliteration systems depending on the first language of the learner, or on the teaching system they followed.

Pinyin makes an efficient use of the roman alphabet, and therefore of the existing qwerty keyboards, which must have appealed to Chinese pragmatism.

(this is only my 2 cents, I haven't any source to quote on this.)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

With the few special rules, like for –i and –u, I find pinyin to be a close to perfect system. At least, it must be exceedingly difficult to find a written language that has a more consistent spelling (but Finnish might be as good). Making good use of q and x is just clever.

When you learn a new language, there will probably be several letter pronunciations that don’t match what you’re used to. Some letters are quite variable between languages. The letter c is always [k] to a Welshman, normally to a Swede, [ʦ] to a German, and then the various Slavic sibilants with extras like č and ć, and combinations in assorted languages like cs, sc, ch, ck.

Using b' date=' d, g to represent non voiced consonants is certainly simple, but it is also just insane![/quote']

A word of advice: don’t say that to a Dane’s face…

The solution is simple, there is already a standard way of clearly representing sounds, i.e. IPA.

Simple? How good is your keyboard at writing in IPA? At least for me, it’s a lot easier to write bĕifēng than ˏbeiˉfʌŋ.

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Wow, lots of replies, much food for thought. Please note the below for future posts.

1. Let me reiterate that I don't get confused by pinyin, I notice other learners get confused.

2. I agree that the same problems occur when learning any foreign language, hence my French example, but I'm just focusing on Chinese since this is a Chinese forum. Also as opposed to French, for example, who already use the latin alphabet, Chinese didn't. There was an opportunity to develop something completely new.

3. Using b, d, g etc is also bad for Chinese people, since when they learn English they will have trouble producing the voiced consonants the same way the Russians mentioned had difficulty producing the non voiced counterpart. (just a theory from observation)

4. Russians make consistent errors when pronouncing English too. Most non ending Russian consonants are non aspirated, so whoever started the transliteration system of п -> p, т -> t, к - k etc should also be fired because in Russian there are also aspirated counterparts. Also why the r(trilled), which looks like "р" in Russian, becomes "r" in English is beyond me, this is worse the pinyin issue in my opinion.

5. Many seem to be ignoring the dominance of the reading part of our brain. I can only give examples: saying the colour of words of colours in different colours (I'm sure there's a name for this), many people find this extremely difficult. Or why many Germans say "vat" instead of "what", this is an unfortunate case of using the same letter for a different sound, similarly with Spanish trilled r. So when they read something familiar, it seems like they instinctively refer to the pronunciation of their native language. This doesn't happen to astute learners, those who constantly get feedback (but how can one get feedback when doing review by oneself) and I bet this won't happen if the symbols on the page are foreign.

6. I do agree that it makes typing much more convenient. But perhaps the first exposure learners get should not be the simply latin letters but the IPA version. If anything it will make it clear to the learner that using b, d, g is just a convenient shorthand for representing particular sounds and not meant to be read as are p, t, k (at least for native English speakers) which are their aspirated counterparts.

7. Perhaps there are books that does 6., but I didn't learned pinyin the traditional way, I first learned from audio lessons (Pimsleur). I distinguished all the sounds first then matched them to pinyin, by which stage I didn't have a chance to get confused by the b, d, g issue. I knew there are no such sounds as voiced closed consonants in Mandarin.

8. Don't compare the pinyin issue with similar ones that occur in other languages. I'm not purporting that other languages don't have similar problems, I'm interested in finding possible ways to eliminate consistent pronunciation issues that occur for beginners learning Chinese.

9. Those who don't have problems learning pinyin, such as myself, please extend your observation and analysis to others who are pronouncing Chinese a little differently. Then ask yourself, do the sounds that they pronounce incorrectly exist in their native language. If it does then it's just as much a failure of pinyin as it is the teacher and the learner. In language education/acquisition, I would like to think that accents are a limitation of one's ability rather than the failure of learning systems.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and select your username and password later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Guest
Click here to reply. Select text to quote.

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

 Share

×
×
  • Create New...