Phonetics

ICLP provided a sweet clinic that broke down some of the finer points of Chinese phonology. Compared to the other two lectures this week, the turn out was incredibly low. The few of us who did show up moved to the front of the large classroom and circled around the teacher. Since the majority of us were beginner students we got the option of conducting the program in English. We all were in favor of this move. The type of vocabulary required to explain and talk about language (language discussing its own language) would be immense, and I doubt any of us had those types of words. While there were next to no intermediate or above students, I feel that any clinic which seeks to go over the basics is a necessity, not an option. The basics of anything are just as important, if not more so, as the advanced grammatical patterns and sophisticated vocabulary. What good will it do if you know a particularly difficult word yet cannot even begin to pronounce it 100% correctly.

To begin with, I can make a vast majority of the sounds made in Chinese. The problem lies in the accuracy of my sounds. How close am I to a native speaker’s pronunciation of the sound is one of my top concerns. As a class we went and talked about which sounds we had the most difficulty making, mine being the umlaut that you would typically hear in German. Despite whether or not we as a class believed we were pronouncing things correctly, the teacher went through the entire list of possible sounds and taught us exactly how the mouth should move and what muscles were required. I never thought I could get an exercise for my mouth and after three hours of working on it, I felt exhausted! His description of certain sounds being “smiling” sounds really helped me out. English speakers tend not to use the same types of muscles that the Chinese language requires, especially since many of the Chinese sounds are formed at the front of the mouth with a sort of smile. We also went over the correct way of sounding out vowels. The pinyin “E” pronounced kind of like “uh” for instance requires the mouth to open while producing the sound. It’s these types of very, very fine tuning that will take a non-native speaker from good to excellent.

My own descriptions of the training are pretty weak, but over time I do believe I will get better at relating how this all works. I am not trained as a linguist, so my ways of explaining are a touch convoluted!

The next big piece was tones. Tones tend to be the thing that really intimidates non-natives, but the instructor had a great sense of musicality and break down the matter to very precise details. While I knew most of the information being relayed, I didn’t realize that the 3rd tone, normally termed a falling rising tone, is in fact not necessarily supposed to rise. “The little U shape is a liar!” the instructor said emphatically. The apparent rise is meant for emphasis, so if no emphasis is required you can drop the tone and leave it there. The only problem is, wouldn’t it be difficult to distinguish between 3rd (falling-rising) from 4th (falling). The short answer is no. Fourth tone, while a falling tone, has what the instructor calls a “punch” an initial strength that the 3rd tone simply does not have. When saying something that has a falling tone, you start at a much higher pitch and immediately drop to a low “bassy” tone. This punch signals that the tone is 4th and not 3rd. This matter has caused a bit of confusion for me, since now I don’t know how to correctly pronounce the tones with confidence, but muddy waters eventually will become clear again! The fact is, I’d love to do another clinic just like that and take more precise notes to bring back to the States. I still have much more to learn about proper sounds.

“Hooked on Phonics Worked for me!” Why isn’t there a Chinese one?! I felt like I was back to the absolute basic beginner’s blocks trying to stumble through pronunciation. It’s good to iron out wrinkles and step back for a little while. Remember that Chinese consonants are very often slightly to extremely different sounding than English ones. Precision is key! When I have some extra time, I’ll have to put up a guide with some sounds to help iron out the sounds. There’s a really cool website that shows mouth formations that could be helpful.

The Panda has reiterated some recently gained knowledge.

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One Response to “Phonetics”

  1. Reverend says:

    You are absolutely going hog wild on your blog, what an insane experience you are having. Talkin about immersing yourself in the language, hell you even write about that immersion at length. I think I feel a feature coming on, keep it up! You go, Joe boy!