5 Innovative Ways to Perfect the Chinese Accent Before Your Next Trip

For English speakers unused to adapting themselves to other languages, pronouncing sounds that don’t exist in your native tongue can be difficult and frustrating.

Trying to use correctly the subtle tones and inflections of a language as far removed from the Indo-European language family as Chinese can be nothing short of a nightmare.

Whether you’re a beginner or have been studying the language for many years, it never hurts to brush up on your pronunciation skills. Here are five never-fail tips to help you perfect your Chinese accent.

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1. Remember that Chinese languages have no alphabet per se

Each word is expressed by a unique pictogram, making for a lot of memorisation that can be overwhelming to beginners.

To prevent bombarding new students of Chinese from all directions, most Chinese language learning methods start off by teaching Pinyin, the standardised transcription of Chinese phonetics into the Roman alphabet.

Keep in mind that these transcriptions are approximate and not exactly faithful to the original Chinese sounds.

2. Don’t get tripped up by misleading diphthongs

Most errors in pronunciation of Chinese occur when reading various diphthongs and consonant sounds, which is understandable, given how the “standardised” Pinyin transcription changes with every generation.

The ones you should be particularly careful about are x, which is pronounced like the English sh sound, r which equals the English z sound, and q which sounds like the English ch.

3. Be conscious of the correct tongue position

Compared to Chinese, English is pronounced sloppily: tongue position is unimportant so long as the words are more or less recognizable.

Chinese, however, has very nuanced pronunciation: if you get the sound slightly wrong, you may find yourself saying something completely different from what you had intended.

As such, the position of your lips and tongue is extremely important. Remember to purse your lips and keep your tongue high and forward in your mouth for the sound yu, and to keep your tongue curled back for the sound er. 

4. The force of air behind your syllables can change the sound

The sounds ji, zhi, and zi differ from the sounds qi, chi, and ci simply based on the force made after the full stop of the tongue against the teeth.  The sounds xi, shi, and si are made by constricting the mouth narrowly—all of these may sound identical to an English speaker, but make a real difference to a Chinese speaker.

5. Pay attention to your intonation

All languages in China are tonal, meaning that the word can change according to the pitch at which it is spoken.

Mandarin alone has five separate tones to take into consideration when speaking: a high-level tone, a mid-range tone that becomes high, a low tone that drops even lower, a tone that starts high and drops sharply, and a short, neutral tone.

Be sure to practice pronouncing each of them until you have complete control of the tones you use when you speak.

If all of these rules governing pronunciation seem daunting, you are far from alone in thinking so.  Fortunately, Language Trainers offers extensive courses with native Chinese tutors to provide expert guidance in perfecting your pronunciation. Take our free online Mandarin Chinese language level test, or send us an inquiry for more information on our Chinese courses.