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Pinyin, Pronunciation and Potential Problems


Mactuary
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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.

This is not related to whether you pronounce a 'w' at the front or not. A "throaty" 'u' is correct in all cases. skylee and I were just saying that a 'w' shape can certainly be formed in front of the 'u'.

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.

I think what's happening is that in English, the sound of "ooh" is close to the throaty 'u' while the sound of "woo" is more frontal. So an English-speaking learner who hasn't been taught pinyin pronunciation properly will naturally pronounce wu like English "woo" (incorrectly). This comes down to what jkhsu mentioned: proper pronunciation training. I've always pronounced 五 and 不 with the same final, because I learned them as wu and bu, and clearly the us should be pronounced the same way.

Learners can get this training in China or Taiwan - all they need is a teacher who actually bothers about correcting pronunciation. It doesn't depend on learning a second pronunciation system, IMO.

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Learners can get this training in China or Taiwan - all they need is a teacher who actually bothers about correcting pronunciation. It doesn't depend on learning a second pronunciation system, IMO.

Of course its possible to learn correct pronunciation without learning zhuyin, is someone suggesting otherwise? My point is simply that people are likely to benefit by going through the process of learning zhuyin.

For myself learning zhuyin it was probably about 2 hours of flashcard work to learn the symbols, and then about a week of reading some children's books every night to get comfortable with reading zhuyin. People seem to have such strong feelings about this, I can't help but wonder why.

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Of course its possible to learn correct pronunciation without learning zhuyin, is someone suggesting otherwise? My point is simply that people are likely to benefit by going through the process of learning zhuyin.

And my point is that your claim is weakened when proper pronunciation training is factored in (as I hope it is, in most Chinese programs). I have nothing against learning zhuyin, but if someone's pronunciation were not very good, I'd say that person should practice with pronunciation audio/video material or a native speaker. That would directly address the problem, instead of indirectly attempting it by learning zhuyin.

People seem to have such strong feelings about this, I can't help but wonder why.

We're discussing things rationally here, no strong feelings involved. Please don't resort to ad hominems.

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Let's think about it this way, and don't shoot me if I misquote someone, it seems that pinyin is misguiding people - different people in different ways, due to ambiguity, doesn't matter how slight. To the extent that zhuyin doesn't do this, or does this to a lesser extent, statistically speaking (if there ever were a study done) then I would agree with learning zhuyin, or better yet, I would agree to implementing zhuyin as the first exposure foreign learners get to a visual representation of Chinese pronunciation.

To exaggerate greatly: Despite the simplicity of Pinyin, what's the point of learning it if it is going to make people mispronounce if there is a "better" alternative, particularly considering the fact that "most of" current teachers seem to be ignoring these mispronunciations and "some" learners are not well equipped enough to distinguish the sounds themselves. I think spending a few weeks at the very start preventing a bad habit is much better than correcting it using, what I assume to be more expensive, pronunciation correction teachers later down the road and I'm also betting that it would take longer than a few weeks correcting it.

The best way to pronounce well in any language to get a native speaker to provide feedback, (it's not enough to just listen and repeat) some people's personalities don't suit this way of learning, particularly at the very beginner level.

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Again, it isn't the fault of the system, but of the teachers and learners. The same teachers who teach pinyin insufficiently will also teach zhuyin insufficiently. The same learners who don't take control of their own learning to learn pinyin correctly will be the same way if it's zhuyin.

Really, the writing system used to represent sounds doesn't matter. Most people would be better off learning pronunciation first, using only audio and/or native speakers, and only attaching a writing system once they've gotten a really good handle on pronunciation. "Now that you can say it, this is how you write those sounds you've been saying." Unfortunately nobody does it this way.

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I did, haha! I learned everything first from Pimsleur, by the end of the program I had figured out all the sounds. I would've written my own system of pronunciation were it not for the predominance of pinyin, I would've written "wu" as "u", "yi" as "i", "ying" as "ieng" and so on.

As for who to blame, as far as studious students go, I would blame the teacher more since some students have not yet been taught how to learn, so they spend their time wastefully learning the wrong way.

If I were teaching Mandarin to complete beginners, I would certainly not start with pinyin, as it would immediately get students stuck on what their preconceptions are of the letters and once this is done it's so hard to get them out. I've had the experience of teaching a friend such a thing, I can make him pronounce a word or two perfectly after constant monitoring, but as soon as he reads something else he just went back to his old habits.

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If I were teaching Mandarin to complete beginners, I would certainly not start with pinyin, as it would immediately get students stuck on what their preconceptions are

Only if you're a rubbish teacher ;-)

I think you're overestimating the contribution of the orthography and underestimating the effect of L1 pronunciation. The problem isn't that beginners can't learn that pinyin 'ch' isn't the same as English (or French, or Portugese, if they have 'ch's) 'ch' - that's, as we say on the playground, easy peasy lemon squeezy. The problem is that they can't hear that it isn't the same, and their pronunciation gets pulled towards the nearest L1 equivalent. That'll happen if you're using pinyin, zhuyin or hieroglyphics.

Is pinyin perhaps a factor? Sure. But it's a minor one, and in the context of learning Chinese it's trivial and easily accounted for. Certainly for mainland learners the as-good-as complete lack of zhuyin in learning materials means pinyin makes way more sense, even if you do allow a marginal advantage to zhuyin.

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I may be wrong, but I don't think in that quote he meant he'd start with zhuyin. It's certainly not what I was talking about if that is what he meant.

I'm talking about starting with no written material. You're exactly right that it's a problem of hearing the difference, but hearing sounds is not something you can learn from a sheet of paper. You have to hear them. My students here in Taiwan have a huge problem with this because any time they speak or hear English, there are a bunch of letters flying around in their heads that they're trying to make sense of. This is really, really bad. Had they learned to actually make and produce the sounds first, and maybe (hopefully) even basic conversation before doing anything with written material, they wouldn't have this problem.

As it is, getting them to hear the difference is really easy, even once their bad habits have been ingrained. I can get them repeating after me, in a great near-American accent, after a few sessions. That's not to say the habit is undone, but it's the first step. If you did all speech and audio at the beginning, there wouldn't be this problem to fix. Too many learners of Chinese are the same. They see c-h-i-1 in their mind when trying to remember how to say "eat", and so they have to think about the retroflex, think about the tone, etc. Of course, it gets to where this is pretty fast, but it's still no way to speak a language. If they just associated the meaning with the sound (rather than by way of letters and tone number) then, again, the problem would be avoided.

Unfortunately the way language is usually taught precludes this in the vast majority of cases.

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Well since I'm not a teacher, perhaps I am a rubbish teacher. But I can't argue against my observations. Let's not even talk about the sounds that don't exist in the learner's native language. No one has been able to explain to me why the Russians (most) pronounce "b" as English "b", even though the Chinese "b" sound exists in Russian, so obviously they are able to hear the difference but choose not to pronounce the right way. Which would mean that all teachers here are rubbish. This observation makes me think that the pinyin factor is not a minor one and not so easily accounted for, hence perhaps allowing a much larger advantage to zhuyin.

By the way, I haven't learned zhuyin and haven't met anyone who has learned Chinese the zhuyin way.

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Couldn't agree more with OneEye. I still think people looking at letters stuffs up their pronunciation if they haven't learned it properly, Chinese people often say "like" as "lake", but when I write "来k"...voila. But when they see the word "like" again and try to pronounce it...

Speaking from a perspective of the history of language, the phenomenon of writing is actually quite a recent one. Just as the human body hasn't evolved fast enough compared to the evolution of the processed food industry, so I think the same applies for written language. The written language is a secondary way to communicate and it has evolved beyond the spoken language, hence the distinction between casual speech as formal writing. Everyone learning a language will not argue that those two are very different indeed, and in the normal case written language develops well after spoken language. Perhaps this is why using written language to teach/learn a new language causes all sorts of problems if great care is not taken.

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Too many learners of Chinese are the same. They see c-h-i-1 in their mind when trying to remember how to say "eat", and so they have to think about the retroflex, think about the tone, etc. Of course, it gets to where this is pretty fast, but it's still no way to speak a language. If they just associated the meaning with the sound (rather than by way of letters and tone number) then, again, the problem would be avoided.

That is essentially how children learning their first language learn. However, it is very difficult for adults to learn languages this way, especially in a classroom setting.

Personally, I think some form of phonetic representation for Chinese is important, because it helps to categorise sounds. To illustrate what I mean, imagine if you had no prior knowledge of Mandarin, would you be able to distinguish that there are four tones just by listening to it? Would you be able to distinguish all the potential syllables? If you are learning from numerous speakers, how would you know that 吃 said with a clear retroflex or an unclear retrofelx or no retroflex were actually representing the same word? You might end up learning three pronunciations for the same word, and you might actually think they are three separate words. If you know the word is represented as chi1, and all those different pronunciations are variations of the same word, it would be much easier to tolerate the variation in pronunciation.

The above theory is not based solely on speculation, but rather my experience learning Shanghainese. For me personally, the largest challenge to learning Shanghainese is the pronunciation because, having no unified way of representing the various sounds, it is extremely difficult to qualify words, and hence store them in the appropriate category in my brain.

If I know that 吃 is pronounced chi in the first tone, then I can say it accurately without any hesitation. On the other hand, if I have to recall its sound from a hazy memory of someone having said it a few days ago, my pronunciation is likely to be much less accurate.

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The important part is the way you first realise that there are four tones or that 吃 is retroflexed or not. If you have never heard it, it's quite pointless to be told on paper that it is retroflexed while 词 is not. But if you hear it many times (and also being told that 吃 and 词 are different, for example) then chances are you are likely to repeat those words in the correct way despite not having read the pronunciation. I think the best way for developing pronunciation is to make sure the student can repeat the sounds correctly and then let the students write down what they think the best representation would be. Only after they've learned all the sounds well can they be introduced to a "new" set of standards for representation that is pinyin.

I have never heard of the sounds of Shanghainese, let alone learn it, so all my arguments and opinions are all based on standard Mandarin.

If there is no unified way of representing Shanghainese sounds perhaps you should resort to IPA, something I wish be taught to young students for the most common languages.

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"Doesn't work in a classroom setting", unfortunately, is the phrase that kills most effective teaching methods before they even get off the ground. I think it's better to first find the best method possible, regardless of any real-world restraints, and then figure out how to make it applicable to the classroom or what-gave-you.

Your second paragraph doesn't make much sense to me. If you have a native speaking teacher, they will explain the tones to you. I don't remember recommending just trying to absord the language without any explanations about it. If you have three native speakers, presumably you could ask them if they're all saying the same word. Then they could tell you about differences in pronunciation, and which one you should stick with. Assuming you've picked good teachers. This really isn't difficult stuff. Ideally, your native speaker would be able to teach you a more or less standard pronunciation and the variations in pronunciation can come later. I don't see why you have to know that the word is spelled 'chī' in 漢語拼音 to be able to understand that different people have different accents.

Associate sound with meaning. I don't see why you would possible need something else getting in the way. Chorus audio tracks, preferably with a native speaker listening (or record to give them later), until you have the pronunciation and prosody down solid, and then attach the writing. So many pronunciation and accent problems would be solved if this were the approach taken by teachers.

I agree, if there absolutely must be something written down (though I really don't see why there must, in any situation), then IPA would be better until the sounds are mastered.

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Ok, so I get the drawbacks of using pinyin, but I don’t see how using pinyin is any different than an English speaker using the alphabet to learn Spanish for example. Even though you see the same letters, you still have to remember that they are pronounced differently in Spanish. Plenty of people can read English and Spanish fluently (with the correct pronunciations) while reading essentially the same alphabet all the time. With Chinese, at least when you start to recognize characters, you don’t really see pinyin that often.

Also, a lot has been mentioned about IPA. I agree that if you’ve mastered IPA and have confirmation that your pronunciation of IPA is correct, then using IPA to represent Mandarin pronunciation might be better. However, how many people have mastered IPA? And how many people can confirm that your pronunciation of IPA is correct in the first place? So, if you are learning IPA just for Mandarin, then you’re essentially doing the same thing as learning pinyin (or zhuyin) except with different symbols, many of which are also characters in the English alphabet. Does anyone have any empirical evidence showing that someone who learns Mandarin using IPA will have better pronunciation than someone using pinyin, assuming that neither have any knowledge of IPA or pinyin at the start?

No one has been able to explain to me why the Russians (most) pronounce "b" as English "b", even though the Chinese "b" sound exists in Russian, so obviously they are able to hear the difference but choose not to pronounce the right way. Which would mean that all teachers here are rubbish. This observation makes me think that the pinyin factor is not a minor one and not so easily accounted for, hence perhaps allowing a much larger advantage to zhuyin.

This example and the ones you’ve mentioned in your earlier posts are, in my opinion, a combination of poor teaching (less so) and the students’ low motivation/desire to improve their pronunciation (more so). In general, you’ll always find (usually beginner) students who are not that motivated and/or are just not willing to put in the hard work to improve their pronunciation. Again, pinyin is just a tool for representing pronunciation in written form, it doesn’t replace the countless hours one needs to spend listening to native speakers, recording themselves and correcting their mistakes. Someone has said that learning Chinese is like learning the piano. You can learn all the music theory and sight reading but until you practice, practice, and practice on the keyboard, you really can’t play the piano. It’s the same with speaking Chinese.

Here's a line from an article about Julien Gaudfroy:

"He constantly listened to television and radio shows, and would repeat new phrases to himself until he was sure the pronunciation was perfect. Gaudfroy believes his musical background helped him pick up the tonal sounds of Chinese, but puts his successful quest in learning mostly down to hard work."

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you may already know that yu and wu are actually one letter/sound? (i.e. its not y + u, or w + u).

Be careful here.

Y and W are glides which are pronounced by some native speakers, but not by others. They are completely optional, and completely correct either way.

This also goes for many other tricky parts of pinyin.

-ui has a range between -uei and -ui, depending on the speaker

-iu has a range between -iou and -iu, depending on the speaker

-ong can have a more open or a more close "o", depending on the speaker

The initial 'w' in 'wei' ranges between a "u" and a "v", depending on the speaker

I'm talking about native Mandarin speakers from the north, not secondary speakers whose native dialect is not Mandarin. You can listen to Cui Jian pronounce "liu", for example, and I've clearly heard "dui" instead of "duei" with some native speakers. Mandarin, like every other language, is not perfectly and completely standardised to perfection, there is a range.

Once you understand that, it makes sense that some things are written a certain way. Whether you pronounce a sylable closer to "dui" or "duei" doesn't matter, it's the same character, and the same final, with some variation. "Dui" is shorter, so that's what's written.

Zhuyin has its own set of problems, though not as sneaky for total beginners who are familiar with the latin alphabet. The zhuyin spelling of "yong" is infamous, because it's based on a pronunciation variant that is extremely rare today. If you speak it the way it's written in zhuyin, you will be consistently corrected by native speakers.

I completely agree that if you find zhuyin more beneficial for your accent, then use it -- it won't cost you anything. But I haven't seen any evidence that long-term students of Mandarin who start with zhuyin have better pronunciation than those who started with pinyin. Advanced students don't really use either anyway.

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Getting back to how "wu3" is pronounced... I've been listening to this CCTV news broadcast (thanks to creamyhorror who pointed me to these links a while back) and have noticed that the existence of the "w" sound seems to depend on how long the "wu3" is spoken and whether or not it's the starting character of a word or the ending character.

Here's the link:

http://english.cntv.cn/program/learnchinese/20120306/119217.shtml

I listened for 五 and 午 which should have exactly the same pronunciation regardless of pinyin, zhuyin, etc. I only listened to the first and third articles.

Here's where I don't hear the "w":

"5号": (00:16 - 00:18)

"第五次" (00:23 - 00:26)

"人大五次" (00:57 - 01:00),(01:14 - 01:17), (01:24 - 01:27), (01:35-01:39)

Here's where I do hear a very slight "w":

"上午": (00:16 - 00:19)

"下午": (00:45 - 00:47)

"上午": (01:01 - 01:03)

"15次" (4:16 - 4:19),(5:19 - 5:21)

"15年" (4:35 - 4:37)

Again, this is all coming from the same speaker. I've found that if "wu3" falls at the end of a word or if the sound is stretched out, then the "w" sound seems more noticeable (e.g. "下午", "上午", or "十五"). Anyways, that's just my observation from this single news clip. Is this the same glide that that renzhe is talking about or something different?

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I completely agree that if you find zhuyin more beneficial for your accent, then use it -- it won't cost you anything. But I haven't seen any evidence that long-term students of Mandarin who start with zhuyin have better pronunciation than those who started with pinyin. Advanced students don't really use either anyway.

I feel a little frustrated to the point that I obviously need to improve my communication skills. (: Thanks for your interesting insights into some pronunciation variants, the concept of the length of the sound changing how it might be pronounced is new to me.

Just to be clear, I was by no means trying to suggest people should permanently switch to zhuyin, especially if you live somewhere like china, it would make no sense. All I am trying to suggest is that the activity of learning zhuyin in and of itself will likely afford people the opportunity to start thinking through some of these issues. It is completely correct that getting a "proper" teacher would be ideal. I have been in many chinese classes over the years in my home country and in Taiwan, throughout all of this time, never have I been in a class where students have had even vaguely correct pronunciation.

This is especially irritating when it becomes clear that a teacher can understand (for example) a chinese+french/chinese+german accent but no one else can. This is one of the main reasons I stopped formal classes. It was after I stopped my formal classes and decided that learning zhuyin would be interesting that some of my "rough edges" with my speaking was finally ironed out.

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"Doesn't work in a classroom setting", unfortunately, is the phrase that kills most effective teaching methods before they even get off the ground. I think it's better to first find the best method possible, regardless of any real-world restraints, and then figure out how to make it applicable to the classroom or what-gave-you.

An effective teaching method first and foremost requires an effective teacher, and with an effective teacher, pronunciation can be taught effectively with the help of pinyin as a memory aid. With an effective teacher there is no need to avoid pinyin or waste time learning fuyinzhuhao.

In the absense of an effective teacher, the teaching method become irrelevant.

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I've wanted to comment this thread for a longe time, but thought the better of it each time, but now I can't resist. I feel that people are overlooking one very important fact when discussing whether pinyin is good or not. Namely that the learning situation is never perfect. Yes, in a perfect world with perfect teachers and perfect teaching materials and unlimited amounts of teaching time, pinyin wouldn't be a problem at all. Sadly, this isn't the world we live in, as I'm sure most of you are aware of.

Thus, it might be true that problems with pronunciation are unrelated to which (if any) system you use if you have a good teacher and enough time. The thing is that I don't think most people have good teachers, teachers who have enough time to teacch pronunciation or indeed any teacher at all. For these students, pinyin does become a problem. It might not be the fault of pinyin itself, it can be taught just as well as any other system, but it does create problems, regardless of whose fault it is. I'm not saying other systems would solve all these problems, but I'm quite tired of hearing "if you have a good teacher it doesn't matter". What if you don't have a good teacher? What if you're teacher has limited time and can't cover everything? What if you don't have a teacher at all?

I'm not going to argue that Zhuyin is better or anything (there are numerous reasons against Zhuyin as well), but there are two things I think are improtant.

1) Pinyin has some quirks which make it hard for beginners and are quite unnecessary (such as ü loosing the umlaut after j, q, x)

The first issue has been discussed endlessly already. What we should talk about instead is how do we teach Pinyin in a meaningful way.

2) Learning more than one system is quite useful, because it allows new angles of approach to pronunciation

This is more interesting. I learnt Zhuyin after having studied Chinese for a year with a competent teacher (using only Pinyin, of course). Looking at differences between Zhuyin and Pinyin has taught be a lot. Sure, this might not have been necessary if my teacher had taught me everything about pronunciation, but that's usually not possible in a real classroom with 20 students and limited time.

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