Speaking – Will They Understand Me?
Yes, They Will!
One issue that Chinese students studying abroad frequently worry about is whether their English will be understood by native English language speakers.
In general, Chinese students speak English slowly and clearly, which helps to make what they say understandable. The problem is that many of the sounds present in English are absent from Mandarin and Cantonese, and so Chinese students frequently mispronounce words. However, language is always interpreted in a particular context, and most of these mispronunciations will be readily deciphered and correctly construed by most native English language speakers.
If you’re worried that you sound different from everyone else, then just find a busy location on campus; sit down, close your eyes, and listen for a moment to all the different accents that you can hear around you. You’ll hear a diverse assortment of accents emanating from both international students and native students alike – people, like me, who speak with a standard English RP accent will be in a small minority.
Chinese students studying in the UK can be confidence that they are likely to be understood:
About 20% of students studying in the UK come from overseas, and about 40% of postgraduate students studying in the UK come not only from outside the UK but also from outside the EU. So, when it comes to students with non-UK accents, you’ll be in good company.
About 20% of all overseas students studying in the UK come from China (see Figure 4). Because there are so many, students who speak English with a Chinese accent are frequently encountered, and are therefore more readily understood than many other international students.
English language speakers with regional UK accents are often more difficult to understand than individuals with Chinese accents; so your fellow students will probably find it easier to understand what you say than they will a student with, for example, a pronounced Liverpool or Newcastle accent (see the section entitled Listening – Will I Understand Them?).
If you’re still worried that your Chinese accent might be difficult to understand, then listen to the Chinese students speaking in the videos referenced in the section entitled Chinese Student Videos. Native English language speakers will have little difficulty in understanding almost all of what is said in these videos (there are only a few occasions in which a mispronounced word cannot be construed correctly based on the context). Even if your English is not quite as good as that of these students, you should still have little difficulty in being understood.
So, don’t worry. Understanding the language is far more important than perfecting your pronunciation.
Pronunciation of Words
If you want to improve your pronunciation, then how should you go about it? Chinese speakers usually mispronounce many English words. The first step to improving your pronunciation is to understand why so many words are mispronounced: the reason is that English has many sounds (phonemes) that are not found in Mandarin or Cantonese.
When you were learning to speak Mandarin or Cantonese as a child, your first task was to distinguish the different sounds that you heard, and your second was to move your tongue and facial muscles in such a way as to reproduce these sounds. You brain became “hardwired” to recognize and generate these sounds. So when you are introduced to a foreign language, such as English, your brain tends to map an English sound on to the closest matching sound in Mandarin or Cantonese.
Have you ever had an experience similar to the following: you say something, such as it’s very good; in response, a native English speaker says to you it’s not very, it’s very; you repeat it’s very good, and once again the English speaker says it’s not very, it’s very; and then, very annoyed, you change the subject. You can’t see the problem. From your perspective, you are pronouncing the word very in the same way that the native English speaker did. However, what the native English speaker heard you say was not it’s very good but rather it’s wery good, and when trying to correct you what he or she said was not it’s not very, it’s very but rather it’s not wery, it’s very.
This scenario illustrates a problem that most individuals encounter when learning a second language: it’s often very difficult to recognize sounds that do not occur in your first language. While there are many courses available to help you improve your pronunciation, many of these courses bring little benefit because they start by asking you to move your tongue and facial muscles in particular ways so as to produce the correct sound. But if you can’t recognize whether the sound you produce is correct or not, then it becomes very difficult to consistently produce that sound. It’s no use someone else telling you when the sound you make is correct; you must be able to decide for yourself when the sound is correct.
So, the steps to improving your pronunciation are as follows:
Learn to recognize the phonemes that are present in English but not in Mandarin/Cantonese; in particular, learn to distinguish between an English phoneme and the nearest matching phoneme in Mandarin/Cantonese.
Learn to generate the phonemes that are present in English but not in Mandarin/Cantonese; in particular, learn to generate both an English phoneme and the nearest matching phoneme in Mandarin/Cantonese, one after another.
Find a collection of English words that contains all the phonemes found in English but not in Mandarin/Cantonese, and then spend some time learning how to pronounce each of these words correctly.
You’ll then be in a position to pronounce any English word correctly – yes, you’ll still need to determine what the correct pronunciation is, but that’s the easy part.
The Missing Phonemes
So how can you put these steps into practice? The starting point is the IPA alphabet, a set of symbols that represents the phonemes found in all human languages, among them English and Mandarin/Cantonese. You’ll find a useful website that explains the differences between English and Mandarin/Cantonese phonemes at The Education University of Hong Kong. In particular, depending on which Chinese language variant you speak, look at one of the following web pages:
For example, on the web page for Mandarin segmentals, look at Table 1 and you’ll see highlighted in red fifteen consonant sounds that are present in English but not in Mandarin. Look at Figure 2, and you’ll see that eight of the English vowels have no close correspondence in Mandarin, and that the other three do not have exact matches.
Identifying the Missing Phonemes
The first step is to identify examples of all the ways in which you may tend to mispronounce English:
Hearing the Missing Phonemes
The second step is to be able to hear the differences between the way you pronounce a sound and the way it should be pronounced. Let’s take one of the examples that is common to both Mandarin and Cantonese:
bad (/baed/) => bed (/bed/)
The word bad may be pronounced as bed (the IPA sound ae may be pronounced as e). So, the first thing to do is to learn to distinguish between the vowels ae and e. You’ll find recordings of the sounds associated with all the vowels and consonants of the IPA alphabet on the following Wikipedia web pages:
Learning to distinguish the sounds in isolation is much easier than trying to distinguish them when they are embedded within words: the sounds in the Wikipedia recordings are emphasized by being drawn out, making it much easier to perceive the differences between them. Use a sound recording program to record at least three repetitions of the pair of sounds:
ae e ae e ae e
Next, consult an online dictionary and record the words bad and bed spoken in the version of English that you intend to use. For British English you might try a variant of the Oxford English Dictionary and for American English the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Use the sound recording program to record at least three repetitions of the pair of words:
bad bed bad bed bad bed
Now, whenever you want to practice your pronunciation, you can play back the entire sequence:
ae e ae e ae e bad bed bad bed bad bed
Listening to pairs in a series helps considerably when trying to detect the differences between their sounds. Repeat this step for all the different sounds that are frequently mispronounced. Then spend some time each day playing back the collections of sounds, over and over again.
You may also find it helpful to take some online tests to assess your progress:
Generating the Missing Phonemes
The third step is to generate the sounds that you have just learnt to distinguish. Simply speaking the sounds or words containing the sounds, and then trying to assess whether the pronunciation is correct while you speak is not very effective – how we sound to ourselves is not usually how we sound to other people. The best approach is to record yourself saying an entire sequence of pairs of sounds:
ae e ae e ae e bad bed bad bed bad bed
Then play the sequence back to assess the quality of your pronunciation. At first, you’re most likely to pronounce the sounds of the phonemes distinctly but to pronounce the words identically. The problem here is that the difference in pronunciation between the words requires very fine-grained motor control, and such control requires considerable practice. In the beginning, it’s best to over-pronounce the words, emphasizing and drawing out the vowels, as in:
ae e ae e ae e baaad beeed baaad beeed baaad beeed
As you do so, examine and remember how your mouth and tongue move – it’s easy to detect these movements given the over-pronunciation. When you can clearly distinguish the words by following this contrivance, then steadily reduce the degree of emphasis – move your mouth and tongue in the same manner as before, but to a lesser extent, and do so more quickly. With practice, the words will be pronounced with the same emphasis as a native English language speaker would use, while still retaining the distinction in pronunciation.
Rather than relying on your ear alone, why not also rely on your eye to help you determine if your pronunciation is correct. Some sound recording programs include a facility to display the sound spectrum of the recording. Comparing the shape of a phoneme or word as pronounced by you with the shape as pronounced by a native English language speaker can help you to determine if your pronunciation is correct, and, if not, why it is incorrect. For a program with very extensive display facilities – one widely used for research in linguistics – navigate to the following web page:
Click on the link corresponding to your operating system in the pane entitled “Download Praat”; for example, click on the “Windows” link, and then on the link for the zip file corresponding to your operating system (currently, the file is most likely to be “praat6043_win64.zip”). Save the file to disk. It will appear as a zip folder. Double click on the folder, and then on the file “Praat.exe” that you’ll find inside (or use another program, such as “WinZip”, to open the file). Press the “Run” button when asked. Two windows will appear, “Praat Objects” and “Praat Picture”.
To make a new recording, in the “Praat Objects” window select the “New” menu and then the “Record Mono Sound” menu item. Press the “Record” button; play the sounds you want to record; and when finished press the “Stop” button. To play back the sounds, press the “Play” button. Press the “Save to List & Close” button. The object “1. Sound Untitled” will appear in the “Objects” pane of the “Pratt Objects” window.
To open a file made by another recording program in the “Objects” pane of the “Pratt Objects” window, select the “Open” menu and then the “Read from File” menu item. Select the file to open (the “wav” format is among those supported).
To display the spectrum of a file already opened in the “Objects” pane of the “Pratt Objects” window, click on the file object, and then press the “View & Edit” button. Maximize the window that appears to view the spectrum more clearly. If no trace appears in the bottom half of the window, select the “View” menu and then the “Show Analyses…” menu item; then set the “Longest Analysis” field to a value greater than the total length of the recording, and press the “OK” button. From the “Intensity” menu, select the “Show Intensity” menu item; and from the “Formant” menu, select the “Show Formants” menu item. You can press the “In” and “Out” buttons at the bottom of the window to zoom in and out respectively. You’ll now have a very good visual representation of the sounds recorded. If you compare a part of the recording that displays your pronunciation with a part that displays the pronunciation of a native English language speaker, you’ll be able to see how closely the two recordings, and pronunciations, match each other.
Remember that learning to pronounce words correctly is not an intellectual activity: it’s a motor activity. And it’s every bit as difficult as mastering a new sport: just imagine how long it would take you to become proficient at, say, table tennis or football or golf if you started from scratch. It takes patience. It takes time. And – as we all know – some people are better at sport than others!
Determining Correct Word Pronunciation
Once you can generate the correct pronunciation, you are now in a position to pronounce any word correctly. A good dictionary, such as those referred to above, will have a sound recording of the correct pronunciation and the IPA spelling of each word (Merriam-Webster at the beginning of each entry, Oxford at the end). Always check the IPA spelling of a new word; if it contains any of the features that may result in mispronunciation, then practice its pronunciation very carefully to avoid falling back into bad habits.
You might also find it helpful to ask a sympathetic friend who is a native English language speaker to pick out those words which you most often mispronounce or which you pronounce indistinctly.
Pronunciation of Sentences
Stress, Intonation, and Contextual Transformation
Unfortunately, there are other big differences between Chinese and English, differences that make English particularly difficult to learn for native Chinese speakers:
Stress: In Chinese, equal stress is placed on each syllable; but in English different stresses are placed on different syllables – a variation that lends the language a melodic quality. To the ear of a native English speaker, the Chinese pronunciation of English typically lacks this melody, and the uniform syllabic stress makes utterances seem somewhat robotic in character (much like the computer-generated voice used by the late Stephen Hawking).
Intonation: In Chinese, the vocal pitch (tone) changes quickly – over the course of a syllable; but in English, the vocal pitch changes slowly – over the course of many words. As Chinese speakers are unfamiliar with the muscular control needed to generate this slow pitch variation, they tend to avoid these pitch changes altogether, or, instead, to make the change on a single word rather than progressively over a group of words.
Contextual transformations: In English, the way a word is pronounced often depends on the word that precedes it or succeeds it (by way of elision, liaison, or assimilation). These contextual transformations smooth the flow of words within a sentence. But, with its emphasis on pronouncing each syllable clearly and distinctly, these contextual transformations are absent from Chinese, making them novel speech functions that are difficult to emulate when learning English.
Improving Sentence Pronunciation
The best way to improve sentence pronunciation is by way of listening to native English language speakers, by trying to reproduce what they say, and by comparing the original and its reproduction to determinate the discrepancies in the speech patterns.
Chiness students in the UK can try listening to a news broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (you can download and play the podcast without signing up to the BBC Radio Player):
Chiness students in the US can try listening to an “Issues in the News” broadcast on Voice of America (click on “Direct Link” to download a podcast):
Use a speech-recording program to record a segment of speech about a sentence in length from the radio programme. Then record yourself speaking the same sentence. Repeatedly play back the two recordings one after the other, and try to determine the differences in stress, intonation, and contextual transformation. Record yourself speaking the same segment again and again, as you try to match the speech pattern found in the radio programme. Then select another segment from the radio programme and repeat the process.
You might find it helpful to take some online tests to assess your progress (see the “Suprasegmentals” section):
Once you develop the ability to mimic the speech patterns that you hear, you can dispense with the speech-recording program: simply listen to the news presenter; then, at intervals, press the pause button, and repeat the last sentence that you’ve heard.
Unfortunately, it’s not practical to reduce English sentence pronunciation patterns down to a list of rules that you can practice and master. The only solution to improving pronunciation is to listen frequently to native speech (such as that found in news broadcasts), and to repeat what you hear. In time, your brain’s neural network will develop an algorithm that allows it to predict and generate the speech patterns associated with a particular sentence, even if it’s a sentence that you’ve never heard before.