[this post was originally published on Practice-Chinese.com]
Don’t read this if you speak perfect Chinese
For everyone else who doesn’t speak perfect Chinese, read on…
Having trouble being understood?
It’s happened to everybody learning Chinese. You need to say something to someone in Chinese, but they look at you like you’re speaking French! Everybody makes mistakes when speaking Chinese. With its strange sounds and tones, Chinese isn’t the easiest language to learn how to speak. That being said, there are several categories of mistakes people make when speaking Chinese:
- You don’t know the tones (or sounds) for the words you’re trying to say. If you didn’t know there’s a difference between the words for mother and horse (妈 ma1 and 马 ma3), you’re probably going to pronounce them incorrectly. Taking the time to learn the tones for all the words you say in everyday life will save you lots of angst. If you find yourself using less and less body language, you’re on the right track.
- Some people seem to understand you perfectly, but others don’t. This can be really frustrating. Why can some people understand you perfectly, but others can’t? People who have been around Chinese learners, your friends, teachers, and coworkers, have probably learned to understand you’re Chinese. Even when you get tones wrong, they are able to figure it out. But outside those settings, the majority of Chinese speakers you’ll encounter cannot understand words when the tones are incorrect.
- You know the tones, kind of, but sometimes they just come out wrong. Your tongue and brain haven’t committed the words to “muscle memory”. You need to spend more time listening to the word and pronouncing the word. With enough practice, it becomes second nature. Native Chinese speakers rarely make tone mistakes because they have built up strong muscle memories of each word over the course of a lifetime. With dedicated tone practice, using tones becomes effortless. (Or at least easier.)
- You’re speaking faster than your brain can process. See #3. Why are you trying to speak so fast? Taking the time to think about what you want to say before you say it adds another layer of practice. Slow it down. Walk before you run.
How do you practice your listening skills?
You might be wondering what listening has to do with speaking. Have you ever wondered how a child learns a language? They listen. All the time. For 1-2 years before they start really saying anything. Obviously since you want to learn Chinese on a faster time table than two years, you will have to use all the cognitive skills you’ve acquired over a lifetime.
Listen to anything. Listen to podcasts, listen to news, listen to radio. Even if you don’t understand what’s being said, your brain is slowly but surely piecing everything together. It’s fine-tuning your pronunciation, trying to figure out grammar patterns, and doing everything in its power to help you understand and use Chinese. Pretty cool how it does that. Adding podcasts, conversations and listening drills to your study routine will improve your listening skills. Once you have listening down, mastering sounds and tones becomes much easier.
Make practicing tones easier
Make it easy to practice listening. Telling yourself to study an extra an hour everyday quickly leads to disappointment and broken promises with yourself. Instead, try to make practicing listening and pronunciation as easy as possible. Fill up your iPod exclusively with Chinese podcasts and listen to them on the way to school (or work). Record yourself reading your textbook on your mobile phone in a coffee shop. Or find a Chinese TV station and watch a program while you do the dishes. I worked on sounds and tones I was having problems with by repeating them out loud to myself while walking. Sure the people around me probably thought I looked/sounded crazy, but it got the job done. After doing this for a few weeks, I saw a great deal of improvement in my pronunciation.