Watch and Learn: Use People and Video
Speaking a language is essentially a behavior, and how do we learn behavior?
A lot of the time when we can’t seem to get pinyin right, it’s because we’re not shaping our mouths or using our tongues the same way that native speakers do.
Seeing and picturing the mouth movements of a fluent speaker is a visual lesson that everyone can use to get rid of English-speaking habits that challenge their progress.
Obviously, it’s a bit creepy if you watch Mandarin Chinese speakers up close, especially if you’re out in public and just randomly watching people at the table next to yours. So instead of eavesdropping and blatantly staring at strangers’ oral behavior, try the following learning techniques:
- Learn from a language partner. Finding a language partner in person or online is extremely helpful in the language learning process, as the feedback is individualized to your conversational Mandarin needs. Because it’ll just be the two of you, you can watch your partner speak, ask them any questions you have about tongue placement and do as they do!
- Watch YouTube videos. An alternative or supplement to a language partner is watching videos on YouTube. The good thing about videos is that they do take away the awkwardness of asking your language partner what you’re supposed to do with your tongue when saying “hi.”
In general, watching videos is helpful for nailing pronunciation, but there are also videos that will actually show you diagrams that exhibit what parts of your mouth are moving to create each pinyin sound, which are very helpful for visual learners.
Don’t Forget About Apps
Your smartphone can do just about anything for you these days, even help you practice Chinese pinyin pronunciation when you can’t keep up with the rest of the class. App stores are bursting with options for learning Mandarin, and you may find a more general app among them that’s great for practicing pinyin.
For an app specifically tailored for pronunciation and tones, Standard Mandarin has got you covered. It’s suited for every level of speaker, from beginners with zero Chinese knowledge to those who would like to brush up on their pinyin. If you don’t have access to the iOS version, you can use the desktop version instead.
Once you have an app that works for you, make sure to practice regularly with it. Too often, we’ll obsess over new apps, spending hours upon hours exploring all the features, only to forget about them the following week. What you should do instead is put aside maybe 15 or 20 minutes per day for using your pinyin app. Consistency is vital in grasping pinyin.
Other Fun Ways to Practice
Learning doesn’t have to be all about conventional study methods, or even the same modern methods because, let’s face it, those can get boring.
Keep things light with these fun techniques:
- Sing songs in pinyin. Music is a creative way to memorize anything and everything, and pinyin pronunciation is no exception. And don’t worry about tones, since they’re not often heard in Mandarin songs. You can turn your music video habit into a personal karaoke session, as there’s a host of YouTube channels of Chinese music videos with pinyin subtitles!
- Practice tongue twisters. Tongue twisters are the ultimate test for pronunciation across languages. Although these Chinese tongue twisters do incorporate the tones, they’re still good practice for beginners. You can even take out the tones just to work on the subtle differences in sound. Take this one, for example:
红凤凰，粉凤凰，红粉凤凰，粉红凤凰。(hóng fèng huáng, fěn fèng huáng, hóng fěn fèng huáng
fěn hóng fèng huáng. — Red phoenix, pink phoenix, red and pink phoenix, pink and red phoenix.)
Read this as “hong feng huang, fen feng huang, hong fen feng huang, fen hong feng huang.”
- Talk to yourself. Kind of like when rehearsing for a speech, it can be helpful to practice Chinese pinyin pronunciation in front of the mirror. You might look and feel a little goofy, but what does it matter? You’re by yourself, anyway.
With all these tips, tricks and techniques in your hands, pronouncing Chinese pinyin will become second nature to you!