Saturday, May 26, 2007

It matters where you put your tongue.

Tongues. You can skewer them with metal barbs without feeling much pain (apparently), you can almost find words at the tip of them, you can set other people's wagging with relative ease, you can twist them for fun, or roll them if you've got the right genes. And if you know just the right place to put the tip of your own, you can make all the difference to somebody else. If that somebody else is Chinese. Because then you can make all the difference between pinyin pronunciation of zh and j, or sh and x or indeed ch and q.

The problem is, that even if we are capable of daily high-speed lingual gymnastics, even if English speakers can say this, that those and these with a facility that would make a German speaker zrow up (allowing for notable exceptions like Bertie Ahern - our Taoiseach again for a record turd time), if you stopped somebody in the street and asked them "exactly what are you touching with your tongue when you pronounce a word that begins with w?" chances are they won't have a clue. Why? Because the last time you had to consciously think about it, you were at an age where you also had to consciously think about controlling the muscles at the opposite end of your alimentary canal.

It's been a while now (like since the start) that I wasn't quite sure what the difference in pronunciation between chi and qi was. Or shang and xiang for example. But the answer is easy and difficult at the same time. The pronunciation guide from Chinesepod makes it easy: for your x, j and q, put the tip of your tongue behind your lower teeth (or where they would normally be if you hadn't taken up rugby as a lad). For sh, zh and ch, reach for the roof of your mouth, maybe even curling your tongue back a little if you can manage it. Easy really. Easy to write about and easy enough to read (even if you had to wade through 3 paragraphs of nonsense to get here). Easier done than said, though.

To put this advice into practice, you are going to need to get back in touch with your tongue, and start to reacquaint yourself with its general whereabouts. This may even require a little bit of direct manipulation, which isn't what folks on the street or even family members are used to seeing you do (are they?) But once you hear the real difference between shang and xiang from your own mouth... Well - you'll be speechless.


John said...

It took me a while to figure this out. Pimsleur didn't teach me good pronunciation. It wasn't until I used the FSI Pronunciation tapes that I could finally hear and produce the difference between these sounds.

Nice blog, I'll link to it on mine, if that's ok.


Brendan Lawlor said...

Thanks John,
Yes of course - please do link, and I'll do likewise.

John Pasden's blog, and the CP pronunciation material, was what shone a torch on things for me.

Brendan said...

One of the things I found helpful at the outset of my Mandarin study ages ago was picking up old second-hand Chinese textbooks that used non-Pinyin romanization systems. It's interesting to see how different systems represent sounds -- the 'x' sound, which is the one that most non-native speakers seem to have the biggest problem with, is represented as 'sy-' in the Yale system, and 'hs-' in Wade-Giles, and I've always thought that those two give a nice approximation of the sound: somewhere between 'sy--' and a backwards 'sh.'

Brendan Lawlor said...

That does make a lot of sense, Brendan. There's very little intuitive about certain pinyin pronunciations. But now that the code is broken, it's not so bad.

Most courses, written or taught, begin with some kind of pronunciation tour, but that does tend to get very boring very quickly. The better teachers fold it in over time, I suppose. And some learners do seem absolutely incapable of reproducing the sounds. I don't know if it's more a problem of ear or attitude (being unwilling to sound stupid - something that I have no problems with!)

Dongxue said...

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