Mysteries of Spoken Chinese

I’m exchanging language instruction with my Taiwanese brother-in-law and have encountered several mysteries of spoken Chinese that are befuddling me. He spent ten minutes tonight patiently teaching me how to correctly place my tongue against my teeth to make the final “zz” sound of the Mandarin word follow but I just couldn’t get it, even though I was convinced that I had imitated his sound exactly.

We gave up and moved on. Shortly thereafter we were working on the opening “juh” sound of the clause that way and he announced all of a sudden that I was making the earlier unattainable “zz” sound correctly somehow.

When I asked him to alternate between both words I could clearly hear him going back and forth between the “zz” sound and the “juh” sound and he couldn’t hear any difference whatsoever. This has happened on several other sounds. I hear a clear difference. He hears only complete consistency.

This has also happened when I teach him English. He continually pronounces made as make to my ear and he can’t hear any difference whatsoever.

I’ve had this nerve-ratttling experience many times before with other native Mandarin speakers so it’s not just my brother-in-law.

What in the world is going on here? Do I have a tin ear or does he?

He does. It’s a problem I encounter quite often, too.

You both do but it’s two very different composites of tin.

You’re thinking of follow “sui zhe”, and this way “zhe yang”, right? Supposedly, it’s the same “zhe” sound, but I’ve heard the 2nd one pronounced as zhi or zhei, plus the different tones and emphasis can play all kinds of tricks on the ear.

Hope this helps (oh, who am I kidding)

Yes, this way is what I should have reported. Our method is that I compose sentences in English before class, help him understand, pronounce and assimilate them, then he translates into conformal Chinese for me and repeats the process.

He pronounces the ‘zhe’ sound when it’s an ending entirely as an alliterative fifth-tone ‘zz’ sound without the ‘zh’. He, apparently, pronounces the ‘zhe’ sound correctly when it’s an opening of a word.

You explain – and I respect your deep knowledge of language as shown in your other posts – that the differences can be attributed to ‘tricks of the ear’ but I don’t understand this explanation. To my mind, you either clearly hear the sounds you’re producing or you miss them, much as a ‘good’ musician does versus a bad one.

I don’t recall this problem in Beijing with those who had a good habit of standard putonghua. the sounds they made with the zhi, zhe seem quite clear and distinctive and i don’t remember them conflating the two (as they taught it to me separately) I think just those (mistyped and came out hosers, eh. lol) regional accents do have this sort of problem from what i’ve noticed (shanghai, beijing local, taiwan). The Taiwan mandarin in general is a lot ‘sloppier’ if you will than standard putonghua. like the verb to be. si instead of shi. at least in general.

Little-known fact: My “real” job, i.e. the one I did before I came to Taiwan, is teaching Chinese. My Mandarin pronunciation is near-native and certainly more standard than most Taiwanese. I would be happy to give you a couple of free pronunciation lessons if you want. When I say “free,” I mean if you want to treat me to a glass of beer or a pot of tea, I won’t say no.

In my opinion you should be cautious about modeling your pronunciation on that of a Taiwanese person. There is one Taiwanese in particular I can think out whose Mandarin is ultra standard - a broadcaster/DJ named Yu Guang. If you can get hold of any tapes of Yu Guang talking, you know you have a model for really excellent Mandarin. You can hear him on Voice of Taipei (Taibei zhi yin), 107.7 FM every Saturday and Sunday, 3-4 p.m.

I also tend to put faith in my hearing ability, but some linguists say that different people just hear things differently, due to the baggage of languages they already know.

In terms of your musician analogy, some musicians have absolute or perfect pitch, meaning they can identify and produce any single pitch by name. But some have what’s called “localized perfect pitch” (i think), meaning they can do this only on the instrument they are familiar with, because the different tambre of other instruments confuses them.

In terms of natural language, our instrument is our voice, and its tambre is the collection of sounds we can make plus the way we pronounce them. English and Chinese are about as far away in the orchestra as a flute from a double bass.

But you are doing the right thing, practicing with a real native speaker.

Learn your mandarin with Putonghua, and find a teacher who does not speak with a taiwanese accent this will solve your problem. For example here the “h” sound is often dropped “Shan: mountain is often prononced san:three” there are many more examples but you get the idea from here. Learn your tones too.


Sorry, tambre in my previous post is correctly spelled timbre. My excuse, of course, is that I was spelling it phonetically. :smiley: Please please don’t pronounce it as timber.

[quote=“chodofu”]Learn your Mandarin with Putonghua, and find a teacher who does not speak with a Taiwanese accent this will solve your problem. For example here the “h” sound is often dropped “Shan: mountain is often prononced san:three” there are many more examples but you get the idea from here.

I don’t think this is unique to Taiwan. In Shanghai I heard the same “corruption” of putonghua sounds. I heard an explanation that I like better, which is that retroflex consontants (the ones where you need to curl your tongue) become more or less retroflex depending on the social situation of the speaker. For example, “sh” will move up and down on the scale of “sh” to “s”, where one extreme is flawless textbook speech, and the other is casual street talk. There’s also a “zh” to “z” scale and a “ch” to “c” scale. If you want to become fluent, you should try to learn these nuances.

Mangalica, you daoli, but I still believe that a solid grounding in putonghua will help one learn that nuance, and earn frequent comments to the effect of how ones pronuciation is very biao zhun.