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Accent improvement: more natural-sounding tones


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I thoroughly enjoyed reading this as I'm very much interested in the acquisition of native-like levels of pronunciation (even if I haven't really tried that with Chinese) in foreign languages. Thanks for sharing your experience and insight.

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Just browsed through your post and was reminded of a Sinosplice post here about what Dr. Liao said about tones not always being "perfect" and recommended that learners should try not to stress themselves out trying to attain tone perfection. 




Wow...even looking at your graph of your fourth tone had me stressed out...looks like a steep deep cliff...I was grasping my desk. Were you feeling stressed and tense about making the right fourth tone?

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"It's definitely made me ask myself whether it's really worth it, especially as I was mostly understandable already before starting this."


I think that if you have a special interest in it you certainly didn't waste your time. Only two months, on something that fascinates you? Not a waste.

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I've been working on improving my speech this year, making it more natural and native sounding. Have put nowhere near as much sweat and muscle into the project as you have and also did not employ a computer. I salute your devotion to the project.


My humble attempts have been with the assistance of a teacher who is mainly a singer of Chinese opera. She coaches junior singers and only teaches language when she needs extra income. I've recorded and shadowed some of her speech. We have also used lots of poetry to try and help me get better at expressing different degrees of varyious emotions.


I downloaded some famous people doing theatrical renditions of well-known poems and used them as a model. We start with exaggeration, then dial it down. My teacher has also corrected my degree of nasalization, which is sometimes too little and sometimes too much. Nasalization is something I don't find discussed very much. 


These efforts have probably helped, but I have a long way to go. The biggest problem I have to surmount is that I am already understandable in daily, normal-speed conversation and, in my secret heart of hearts, I think that's good enough. I don't aspire to perfection as strongly as you do.

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Whether or not it was worth it for you, it taught the rest of us something. I think if you added the recordings you could whip it up into a multi-media presentation that people would pay you for, anywhere where they train teachers of CFL or at language schools.

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Meng Lelan -


You had me laughing out loud with this:



Wow...even looking at your graph of your fourth tone had me stressed out...looks like a steep deep cliff...I was grasping my desk.


On your other point, what I found is that I had reached the point where I was able to shadow/mimic/chorus native speakers' sentences and match many other aspects of their speech like syllable timing, overall rhythm, etc... but my individual tones were still off slightly in pitch/contour. My tones were "right" in the sense that they could be easily identified and understood lexically by native speakers, but they still sounded weird and sometimes conveyed a mood, emotion, or emphasis which I didn't want.


I saw the sinosplice article you mentioned. The author, John Pasden, wrote a great blog post in 2004 about accent.



Some of the hardest aspects to master in order to sound truly native-like are intonation and accent. Usually there comes a point when, either through lack of effort or through linguistic inability, non-native speakers stop improving (look at Arnold Schwarzenegger). Linguists call this phenomenon fossilization. (The term fossilization is usually applied to grammar, but I think it can be used for the fine points of pronunciation as well.) It’s understandable that learners would eventually halt their progress in this area; there comes a point when the benefits of added native-like fluency just aren’t worth the effort it would require.


I think these questions of accent and intonation enter the mind of any person bent on mastery of a language. Exactly how good do I need to sound? Do I care if I’m always easily identifiable as an American (or just a foreigner) to native speakers? Does my accent affect listeners’ comprehension? Does my accent in their language sound bad to them, or is it charming? If I can reduce my accent with coaching, should I? How much money is that worth to me? And if I did go through coaching, how would I know when to be satisfied?


abcdefg -


Shadowing poetry read by an opera singer!? Wow! :)


I'd recommend doing a quick analysis using Praat. It's not hard to get set up for just basic tone work. I have no idea what your level is, but it could be really beneficial to see your own speech. As a non-native speaker, you'll never truly "feel" what native speakers feel about accents, you'll never really know how an accent sounds to them. But all this work has emphasized to me in incredible detail how much tones matter both to convey lexical information as well as emotion, emphasis, etc. Seeing the acoustic analysis on the computer can at least give you some idea of how close your tone patterns really are to those of natives. For me at least, it was eye-opening and has been very beneficial in improving my speech and not randomly conveying wrong emotion and emphasis. My non-tonal brain was tricking me, so I could never have improved quickly without the visual feedback of the computer.


My post above was on tones specifically, but if you're working on pronunciation as well, I really recommend a short guide John Pasden at sinosplice wrote. It was very helpful to me when I really started focusing on pronunciation.


li3wei1 -

Thanks... but I'm just a beginner. If anything, I was hoping to get feedback from the advanced learners here on all the points I mentioned which I'm unsure of. Hopefully someone will know! :)


roddy - Quantity definitely doesn't equal quality lol! :)


querido  -

You're right, investigating something I find personally fascinating is worth it in any case! :)


My questions about whether it's worth it is musing about the marginal improvement that's possible through concentrated accent effort specifically.


It's hard to separate a lot of pronunciation-only work from work on other areas. But if I try to limit it to just pure accent improvement work like analyzing speech patterns and singing along with the tone contours, I'd guess I've put in somewhere from 150-200 hours in the last 2 months on that alone. If I'd put that time into vocab building instead...? Or TV?  Or reading? Or...?  I worked on those areas, but how much would my accent have improved from all that additional time? Or is dedicated accent-work necessary?


In my case, I think I was fossilizing lexically-accurate but kinda-off tones. I think I needed the work on tones specifically to raise my ability to perceive and produce more accurate contours and pitches. But who knows...  I'd be interested what others here have found.


Davoosh - Thanks! Good luck to you too! :)

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This looks like a great tutorial for Praat.



Using Praat for Linguistic Research by Will Styler is a practical guidebook and information package designed to help you use the Praat phonetics software package more effectively in Phonetic or Phonological research. Although it was originally written in the Spring/Summer of 2011 for the 2011 Linguistic Institute's Praat workshop, it's now available for anybody who's interested, and is being updated over time, both as Praat changes and as the author adds new information.
The guidebook itself is a 70+ page compilation of walkthroughs, explanations, and tutorials explaining how to use Praat for a variety of measurements and tasks. Although the guide does start with "basic" tasks like opening sound files, measuring duration, formants, pitch, it also covers more "advanced" tasks like source-filter resynthesis, A1-P0 nasality measurement, formula manipulation of sounds and even Praat scripting.
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The sort of tone work I've been doing with my opera-singer teacher/coach may actually fall under the heading of "remedial pronunciation." She has a very good ear, and the corrections involve things like "The pitch and rise of that second tone were generally OK, but you need to hold it slightly longer in a situation like that." By "situation like that" she means the context of the sounds that come immediately before and after it, the emotional connotation the word carries in that specific use, whether or not it should convey emphasis, or perhaps an emotional message such as approval, fear, anger, disgust and such, its place in the sentence, and so on. 


Using your reference to Pasden's term, she is trying to "unfossilize" me. One problem of living in Yunnan for most of the past six or seven years is that my Putonghua is already better than half the native speakers I meet on the street. I'm surrounded by a dreadful mish-mash of micro-regional accents and I get cheap, undeserved praise left and right for my speech being 标准 (standard.)


Zhang Dong speaks terrible Putonghua because he learned it from a rural teacher in Simao and his parents only spoke dialect, so he never used Putonghua at home during his formative years. Li Fang, who grew up on the other side of the mountain, speaks Putonghua which sounds quite different from his, because it was infused with Yizu dialect instead of Hanizu dialect. And so on.


Interesting thread.

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Hey Tamu, long time forum reader here that felt obliged to make an account upon seeing your thread. As a beginner trying to avoid fossilizing bad habits, this is exactly the kind of methodical strategy I was looking for to improve tone control, as asking pretty much any native speaker tends to prompt a "your tones are already great!" response. This Praat program is a godsend, but I have to ask; which keyboard program do you use that helps you mimic the tones? I can't seem to find it in the Praat program so I'm assuming you're using another one.
Also, whenever you get that talented DJ to record some phrases with different emotional emphasis, you ought to share it with the masses here as I'm sure it'll be great study material for the more advanced learner!

I think you're onto something here though, this could be an integral studying method for the adult learner that wants to surmount the hefty barrier of trying to get an ear for pronunciation. Keep at it my friend

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That was an interesting post


Tamu - if you haven't come across it already I suggest you take a look at the book 'Tone' by Moira Yip. It's not all about Chinese, but for obvious reasons touches on it quite often. It gives a very good understanding of how tone is actually expressed in a language, and some common elements that appear across tonal languages.


While reading the book two things particularly struck me as salient for learners of Chinese. Firstly, is the fact that the pitch of the tone depending on the context. An obvious example is that a 1st tone near the beginning of a sentence is significantly higher in pitch than one at the end. I'd assume it was quite noticeable, but I have noticed that many learners of Chinese seem to have cookie-cutter tones so perhaps those tone box diagrams that always feature in textbooks have mislead many into thinking that x tone is always in x part of your range.


The other thing was there was some discussion about where in speech tones actually manifest, and it had some graphs showing how the tonal pattern of a word actually starts in the previous word. So if you chopped a single word from a sentence, it would have a different tonal pattern to the same word chopped from a different sentence, or in isolation.


If you're doing some work to prescriptively improve your pronunciation, you'll probably find the book will help you to avoid some assumptions that might hinder your progress.


Regarding nasality, I found that to be a bit of an issue. If you try to breathe out softly as you articulate your vowels you might find it easier to avoid. Also, if your native language is British English, make sure when you pronounce 'a' as in 'car' with your tongue towards the front of your mouth and not bunched at the back, much as you would when pronouncing 'e' as in 'bed'. You should do that anyway in 99% of the world languages, but it'll be helpful too for avoiding nasalization.

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abcdefg -


Unfossilization lol! :)


I'm curious how all the regional accents affect the tones where you are. I've only analyzed the Mandarin of native-speakers of Taiwanese and of Hakka. There are lots of differences in how the consonants are produced, but I haven't found any real patterns regarding tones. In other words, I haven't really seen any way based on tone-only to identify the level of influence of Taiwanese dialect or Hakka dialect in someone's Mandarin.


I saw one recent research paper that found changes in tone contours related to age, rather than dialect. Old people's tones were more textbook contours, young people (especially young men) showed more contour change. Local dialect influence was tied to the change through age (old people speak dialect more, young people speak it less), but as an independent variable dialect was relatively insignificant.


What I've taken from all that on a practical level as a foreigner learning Mandarin is that, at least here, people might have "non-standard" consonants (and a few non-standard vowels), but their tones and intonation patterns are correct and something I want to imitate. Foreigners learning Chinese have totally different issues than native speakers with regional/dialectal accents. Chinese speakers here (normal people, not linguists) don't focus much on tone because the tones are so clear and obvious to them, but they do think about retroflex because they all have been taught and believe the mantra that retroflex is standard and that they all drop their retroflexes because they're just too lazy to bother. The upshot I've found is that even when my tones aren't smooth, are weird, or are flat-out wrong, people will still praise my speech as 标准 if I make a little retroflex. As you said, it's cheap praise. On the other hand, I've noticed that when I get tones and intonation truly smooth and natural (usually it's for sentences which I've shadowed and pre-practiced massively), the praise is that I sound natural, normal, like a Taiwanese, etc. That's my goal for all my speech.


manjusri33 / c_redman:

I started with Praat, SpeakGoodChinese, and Audacity.


The link gato gave is a great guide for Praat. There's a lot of depth, but it's really easy to get started. I really recommend using the program to take a look at your own speech, it was really eye-opening for me! :)


I've found that there's definitely an art to using the software, particularly as a learner trying to improve my own tones. There's a lot of complexity and variability that affects the quality of pitch detection. For example, 3rd tones are very tricky because they're low and creaky, there are voicing effects of consonants, many more things which make a basic tone graph look really weird.


It's part of the problem I've had with SpeakGoodChinese. It's a great idea to match your speech to a native's and compare the differences, and the developer team is really helpful and proactice, but it's very tricky to implement. Single syllables is more simple, but beyond one or two syllables it becomes a pretty complex exercise to measure the similarities between two samples which vary in time or speed; it essentially becomes a speech recognizer. As I understand, SGC uses a DTW approach instead of HMM, which makes it simpler to implement but limits its ability.


Baron -


Thanks for the book suggestion.


You're right that tones really depend on context. Prosody in non-tonal languages is already phenomenally complex; then throw lexical tones on top of that and watch out! :) Everything affects the lexical tones' contour and pitch. Emphasis, mood, questioning all affect the lexical tones' contour and pitch. The adjacent tones affect the tone. Whether it comes before or after the focus of the sentence affects it. Etc, etc, etc. I've seen it myself even in my really basic analysis of recordings I've done recently. There's lots of in-depth research in this area which you're probably familiar with; not sure if you've seen it, but one about Mandarin specifically I thought was very interesting is "Effects of tone and focus on the formation and alignment of f0 contours" by Yi Xu here.


It's debatable how well linguists have understood all these issues or ever will. But there's no way to memorize even the parts that are well understood. As a learner just focused on improving my own accent, my idea is that the only way to get more natural is through very concentrated repetition of native speech. Shadowing, chorusing, mimicking, whatever you want to call it. Gradually all - or at least, most - of the nuances and quirks and arbitrariness of native speech will become internalized.


Who knows if you ever will achieve true 100% native-like patterns, but it definitely works to get you to much smoother and more natural speech. We do handle it in our own languages after all... so my non-tonal brain was doing ok adapting to the differences with Chinese. My problem, though, is that I was flailing on the lexical tones. I was improving the supersegmental aspects that you mention, like context, emphasis, syllable speed, overall pitch and rhythm... but my lexical tones were accurate-but-weird so the whole thing was still weird.


You seem quite interested in pronunciation, that's great! What work have you done on it? How has it been for you?




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I'm curious how all the regional accents affect the tones where you are.

One striking feature of Kunming accents is that other tones, especially 3rds, are changed into 4th tones in ordinary speech. 


My pronunciation teacher/vocal coach is not local (She's from Shanxi) and so she notices the local accents a lot. People from other provinces often say, partly in jest, that if you want to sound like a Kunming native, just change most of your tones to 4ths and put a "ge" or "ga" on the end of most utterances.


"Xiexie ge" is the way you say thanks. "Nihao ga" is the way say hello. And so on.

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Meng Lelan, have you ever used a visual aid like this before? I would be interested in how you experience it and in what progress you make. 


 Yes and I don't think I make progress with visual aids. My low and high tones (the two tones that can stay somewhat monotone and flat, easy for the deaf to do) are never a problem. But as for rising tones, I end up looking at the screen while tightening my vocal cords (that's the only way I can sense myself going into a higher pitch) and sometimes I almost asphyxiate myself trying to get to the rising stage as I watch the graph show any rise at all. Also when I say a sentence of at least six words in length the visual aid ALWAYS shows two or three tone errors though never ever got an entire sentence tone-wrong. When I say a word or phrase the visual aid rarely shows any errors at all in tones except for rising (I can't go high enough without blacking out).  I wonder if that is a major problem. When I speak Chinese I focus so much on the message to be conveyed that I don't think at all about the tones and I always speak in sentences of at least six words or more (according to peers).


Maybe if I became a Chinese teacher this would be a problem. If I work on tones and consonants then I prefer to work with a live teacher, and I wish I could go to Taiwan for a month to work with a live teacher on Chinese speech and tones. The way my career path is going now looks like I will end up working in blind rehab not Chinese teaching which is fine by me, though I worry about my speech situation in Chinese - reading, writing, and listening (when presented with speechreading) are no problem to me but the tones and some consonants are a problem and I am not sure what to think of that. 

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You seem quite interested in pronunciation, that's great! What work have you done on it? How has it been for you?


I've made little concerted effort on my accent besides trying to make it comprehensible. My goal has always been to not have a horrendous English accent, and I've probably achieved that. It seems you've set your sights higher. In any case, having an understanding of phonetics/phonology has helped. In my experience, understanding the phonology of my native language (English) has been more useful for reducing an English accent on Chinese than learning about Chinese phonetics and phonology. The thing you discovered about vowel nasalisation is one of many phonological phenomena in English that we simply don't hear and thus carry over to foreign languages, so it often the case that we need to work on eliminating them more than we need to work on emulating native accents.


How much time do you spend work on your accent on a daily/weekly basis? 

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Thanks for the response Tamu, I'll be sure to check SpeakGoodChinese out. Audacity is certainly a godsend for language learning, I don't know where I'd be without it!

So I you're learning chinese in kunming as well ga? I would give an arm and a leg to have a Shaanxi-based vocal trainer to help with pronounciation, definitely not a connection easy to come across :)
I'm trying to figure out how to message you through chinese-forums, but so far to no avail. If you could help me contact your teacher by however means (presuming she has time to squeeze in a few classes for me) I would be forever indebted to you!

I'll make another post on GoKunming in regards to my search for someone with this sort of specialization later today. If there's another method in which I can contact you, please let me know... I will pay for a lesson or two of yours if you find this is sufficient for helping me out ^_^

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