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Pinyin, Pronunciation and Potential Problems


Mactuary
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In my experience, more than 90% of "foreign accent" can be attributed purely to tones and phrasing.

Initials and finals in Mandarin are relatively easy, all things considered, and people have less trouble with them than they do when learning many popular and widespread languages. I hear people mispronounce them, of course, but I've never considered it to be a major problem for anyone receiving decent instruction.

IMHO, Portuguese would be considerably more difficult to pronounce than Mandarin if it weren't for tones. It's the tones that break it for most of us, not the initials.

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Hi,

I'd like to ask you for help with finding some rules (or guidance) for pinyin. Mabye in a book or online. I am looking for something similar to the short description in lesson 2 of 成长汉语 ("i" after z, s, r, etc. is pronounced ..., but after j, b, etc. it is pronounced ...). A few examples I am trying to sort out right now (starting from the most difficult):

(1) The pinyin of 全 and 路 both use "u", however, the first is pronounced ü and the second is pronounced u

(2) The wovels (finals) of 斯 and 日 sound similar, different from the final of 历. However, the pinyin final is "i" in all three cases

(3) Is the wovel of 成 somewhere between pen and hmm? clearly different from the wovel of 面

English is my 3rd language.

非常感谢

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You have it pretty much figured out. What you're missing is that pinyin is not really phonetic at the level of individual letters (i.e. "i" is not always reat the same way, and neither is "e"), but at the level of initials and finals (i.e. "ch" is always read the same, "-eng" and "-ei" are always read the same). Pinyin makes use of the sometimes complementary distribution of initials and finals to create a more compact representation that needs fewer letters and diacritics. The right way to approach learning pinyin is to learn each final as a whole.

(1) The pinyin of 全 and 路 both use "u", however, the first is pronounced ü and the second is pronounced u

-u after q, x, j, and y is always pronounced ü. After all other initials, it is -u.

This also applies to -uan and -un, which are read as -üan and -ün, after q, x, j, and y. None of these initials can be followed by a "real" -u, so there is no confusion.

(2) The wovels (finals) of 斯 and 日 sound similar, different from the final of 历. However, the pinyin final is "i" in all three cases

Again, -i after palatals ch, zh, sh, and r is pronounced in the "silent" way (a very rough description). After all other initials, it is .

I've heard some native speakers also make it silent after j and q, but this is not standard AFAIK.

Sorry, I meant 成 and 非 in the 3rd example. The pinyin final contains an "e" in both.

Think of them as -eng and -ei, which are read differently. In -eng, the first part of the final (medial) is [ɤ], in -ei, it is [e].

Once again, just thinking of them as -eng and -ei, and learning the pronunciation of each will clear the confusion.

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You have it pretty much figured out. What you're missing is that pinyin is not really phonetic at the level of individual letters (i.e. "i" is not always reat the same way, and neither is "e")

You are just making my point (: Pinyin requires memorization of pronunciation of i vs i and u vs u, (something which I after many years still find occasionally difficult). Zhuyin gives each "sound" its own "letter", so to speak.

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Memorising two different finals which are both written using the letter "i" seems far easier to me than memorising all of zhuyin + a completely new keyboard layout. There have been more than 20 different phonetic scripts for Chinese throughout history, and they are all effectively dead. In fact, Chinese language learning (as a second language) has overwhelmingly moved away from zhuyin fuhao/bopomofo and towards pinyin, even in Taiwan.

But these discussions have been discussed enough and they never go anywhere and I'm tired of them :)

If you prefer zhuyin, you should by all means use that. No reason not to use any tools that help you.

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Hello,

"But these discussions have been discussed enough and they never go anywhere and I'm tired of them" I agree.

I don't even know what zhuyin is but I prefer using pinyin and I prefer some people use zhuyin. But the general education system is not advanced enough to be able to use multiple systems, let alone decide which is the one best suited to a student.

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Memorising two different finals which are both written using the letter "i" seems far easier to me than memorising all of zhuyin + a completely new keyboard layout.

I have been wondering about that for quite some time, which is why I set about to learn Zhuyin (Taiwans defacto standard) to see if it would provide me any benefits in both clarifying my pronunciation issues, and secondly to try out to see if it would help my typing speed. I have a sneaking suspicion the short term pain of learning it might be offset with a long term benefit. The jury is still out on that though.

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two different finals which are both written using the letter "i"

This seems to me is similar to the different pronunciations of "ch" in "school" and "choice" and "chandelier" in English. People who learn English have to learn these different pronunciations of "ch". It is no big deal. Why is it such a big deal when the letter "i" in Hanyu Pinyin denotes different sounds? Why is it difficult for Mandarin learners to learn and memorise them?

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Why is it such a big deal when the letter "i" in Hanyu Pinyin denotes different sounds? Why is it difficult for Mandarin learners to learn and memorise them?

That comparison would be perfect if Hanyu Pinyin were the language itself, but it isn't. I can imagine a learner questioning why a supposed tool for learning to pronounce the language is unnecessarily ambiguous/implicit about pronunciations, at first glance.

I guess what's happening is that some learners of Chinese expect a romanisation system to be consistently explicit and catered to them. What they don't realise is that pinyin was mainly invented for Chinese people to use themselves.

In any case I agree that pinyin is not a big deal to learn with some proper drilling.

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This seems to me is similar to the different pronunciations of "ch" in "school" and "choice" and "chandelier" in English. People who learn English have to learn these different pronunciations of "ch". It is no big deal. Why is it such a big deal when the letter "i" in Hanyu Pinyin denotes different sounds?

Just because something else is bad doesn't mean that Pinyin can't be better. I can still complain about getting rotten eggs in my basket regardless of the fact that my friend just fell of his skate board and broke his femur. We should not lower our standards to those of lesser systems, lest we abandon all laws and regulation because many more people have it much worse elsewhere. E.g. What's the big deal with smoking in restaurants, others have to put up with walking several kilometres to fetch fresh drinking water everyday! You get my point.

Let's just stick with the issue and just accept that some people are not language experts and what may seem trivial to some are just hell for others. Do not dismiss the issue just because English spelling is a mess, otherwise there won't be anything left to discuss. And if you don't have anything to say other than that in English learners have to memorise much more spelling rules, in Russian there are six different versions for most nouns or German has three genders, then don't say anything at all. It's a waste of space and I'm sick of it.

Good for feng for trying to break free from the "inconsistent" pinyin, since I've heard the consistent result of miseducation of pinyin and it's not pretty. Perhaps with zhuyin there is less room for personal instinctual interpretation, though I haven't had any experience with it myself.

Memorising two different finals which are both written using the letter "i" seems far easier to me than memorising all of zhuyin

Agreed. But if you hear someone pronounce “吃" as "chee" then please 尽管告诉他/她 on my behalf. Much would be appreciated.

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Exactly, I am not arrogant enough to suggest that people should use one system over another. In my opinion advocating that pinyin (拼音) should be replaced or updated is talk of a crazy person.

I would however suggest that for someone who has been learning chinese for a little while, it might be beneficial to consider spending a few hours learning Taiwans defacto standard system (注音). Thats my opinion, take it or leave it.

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I would however suggest that for someone who has been learning chinese for a little while, it might be beneficial to consider spending a few hours learning Taiwans defacto standard system (注音). Thats my opinion, take it or leave it.

Ok, so I've been learning Chinese for a while. Why should I learn zhuyin?

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@jkhsu Zhuyin, unlike pinyin has a single "letter" for each distinct sound. For me, learning what each of the individual sound "components"are, helped me see that some of my pronunciations were in some cases slightly off.

Its difficult to describe, but ill try, for example, you may already know that yu and wu are actually one letter/sound? (i.e. its not y + u, or w + u). When you see it written in zhuyin, It made me realize (for example) that 五 should have the same sound as the second half of 不. Seeing the w was making me start 五 with the shape of a w, when it should not. Same with y + u, are you making a y shape at the start of pronouncing 雨?

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Seeing the w was making me start 五 with the shape of a w, when it should not.

Really? I use it with 'w'. I don't think there's a problem either way.

Same with y + u, are you making a y shape at the start of pronouncing 雨?

Yep. No problems with any of my teachers, ever.

There are examples that may legitimately lead learners into mispronouncing words (e.g. -ui instead of -uei), but these two probably aren't the best examples.

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There are examples that may legitimately lead learners into mispronouncing words (e.g. -ui instead of -uei), but these two probably aren't the best examples.

My suggestion in this thread that it would be a good exercise for people to take a look at zhuyin, is primarily about my opinion that the exercise of comparing the two systems is beneficial.

i.e.The idea that I should know if it is really pronounced "u" or "w + u" would never have come up in my mind, had I not learn't both systems.

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With regards to the slight side track question of actually how is 五 pronounced. I am pretty sure making the 五 sound in the back of the throat not the front, is slightly closer to a natural accent.

I was originally starting the pronunciation of 五 with a "w" mouth shape, i.e. the same shape start with when you say what if you say "what", when I did this, the word was vibrating in the front of my mouths at the lips. Learning zhuyin lead me to have a discussion with some native mandarin speakers (Taiwan accented) that resulted in me discovering that native speakers make sound for 五 in the back of the throat.

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@feng: Thanks for your explanation on the benefits of zhuyin.

I think at the end of the day, it's all about how you learn pronunciation. Pinyin is a way to represent Mandarin pronunciation of Chinese characters but people who learn it the wrong way use their own native language (English for example) to pronounce pinyin instead. This is why I always suggest that you don't associate sounds from another language when learning pinyin. You should have a native speaker (or several native speakers) go over the pinyin sounds while you try to mimic those sounds. Have them correct you until you get it right.

Although using zhuyin does prevent someone from "accidentally" thinking a character should be pronounced a certain (incorrect) way because it doesn't use the alphabet, zhuyin can still be taught / learned incorrectly. Take a look at this site that has "approximate English spellings" next to the zhuyin symbols. Imagine how messed up I would be if I just took those English spellings and assumed that's how you pronounce the zhuyin symbols without hearing the correct pronunciations and/or have native speakers correct me.

My point is, if pinyin is taught correctly, then I don't see it as an impediment to proper Mandarin pronunciation.

In my experience, more than 90% of "foreign accent" can be attributed purely to tones and phrasing. Initials and finals in Mandarin are relatively easy, all things considered, and people have less trouble with them than they do when learning many popular and widespread languages. I hear people mispronounce them, of course, but I've never considered it to be a major problem for anyone receiving decent instruction.

Going back to renzhe's comment... I agree with this and in my opinion, most serious/advanced learners get the pronunciation of characters / words correctly when first learning them but have trouble remembering the tones and/or changes in emphasis when these characters / words are used in sentences / conversations in the future. In my opinion, to get "native-like" pronunciation, you need to spend time listening to / speaking with / getting corrected by native speakers on a daily basis. It's all about practice and fixing your mistakes.

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