Mandarin Chinese Pronunciation Tips for Those with a Month, Week or Minute to Learn
I want to kiss you… err… I mean, I want to ask you a question. Did you know that “kiss” and “ask” are pronounced exactly the same in Mandarin Chinese except for the tones? Did you know you have been mispronouncing the family name “Wang” all these years? Whether you have a month to learn basic Chinese pronunciation, or only a minute, here are some quick learning tips.
If you have a month to learn Mandarin, learn the proper tones! Anybody who speaks Chinese as a second language knows that the four tones in Mandarin Chinese provide ample room for amusement. First, to understand what a tone is, try saying the sentence “he’s here already” and the question “he’s here already?” Notice the different inflection on the two? In English whether the same phrase is a statement or a question depends on how we say it. Mandarin is the same except that almost every syllable has its own tone! Let’s take the syllable “ma” for example. Said with different tones it could mean mom, horse, curse, or hemp. So if you learn the tones correctly you can avoid telling people about how you “know how to ride your mom” or how “your dad lives with a horse.” A more common mistake is mixing up “buy” and “sell” which are both pronounced “mai” but with different tones. If you want to learn Chinese and have the time to learn it properly, make sure to learn the tones first!
If you don’t have the time to learn how to pronounce the tones properly, there is still some hope for making your Chinese understandable for the most basic circumstances. Luckily, if you are saying a short phrase and are speaking in context, Chinese people should be able to understand you even if you don’t use any tones at all. They may hear you say “I want to sell some shoes,” but if you are in a shoe store the salesperson should hopefully have the mental capacity to realize you actually want to buy shoes. To learn the tones or just the pronunciation, learn pinyin first. Pinyin is a system of writing Mandarin Chinese with English letters. Every travel phrase book or Chinese-English dictionary worth its salt should include pinyin and an explanation of how to use it. Even without learning tones or any new sounds, by reading up on pinyin you can quickly learn some basic Chinese pronunciation. For example, by learning basic pinyin you can see that “a” is pronounced like the “a” in the word “jaw” - keep that in mind when pronouncing the family name “Wang” or the city “Shanghai.”
Finally, if you only have a minute to learn to pronounce Mandarin Chinese, just forget what you think Chinese should sound like. Why do people trying to pronounce Mandarin words add that “aaa” sound on the end of each word? Chances are they have some misconceptions due to listening to Cantonese, Japanese or some other Asian language. If you were learning English would you say “computer aaaa” or “I’m going to the store aaa?” Would you pronounce the end of each sentence louder like in “please paSS THE SALT” like some samurai in a Japanese cartoon? Hopefully not, and you shouldn’t do so with Mandarin either. With the exception of the tones, most Mandarin sounds are English sounds as well!