Achieving Native-like Mandarin Pronunciation

Most students want to improve their pronunciation in Mandarin Chinese, and for good reason! Often students who are learning Mandarin do not have great pronunciation. Their teachers and native speakers struggle to understand them. Many students think that they need to “practice” speaking in order to get better pronunciation. But this is not really how acquiring native-like pronunciation works. We need input in the target language, in our case Mandarin Chinese, in order to be able to speak it beautifully. In short, we need to listen to lots of Chinese to pronounce it well.

What acquiring pronunciation is NOT

As with all other aspects of language learning, acquiring Mandarin is not a process of practicing. Students need input in order to acquire good Mandarin pronunciation. This means listening to a lot of spoken language. Sitting in a room saying “xie4xie” over and over again will not help a student learn how to pronounce “thank you” like a native speaker. The student needs to hear the word many times in a meaningful context.

Getting Enough Input in Mandarin

Students (and teachers!) have to be realistic about how much input they are getting in Mandarin. If class is only one or two hours per week, then after four months, a student has only gotten 16-32 hours of input in Chinese. This is assuming that he or she is in a class with a good teacher who provides lots of comprehensible input. This is really very little exposure to Chinese. It is no wonder that so many students still struggle with saying basic words after a semester of study. Motivated students sometimes watch Mandarin-language movies and tv shows in their spare time. If their proficiency level is still low, however, they might end up looking only at the subtitles in English and just tune out all the spoken Chinese.

Students need to use resources that are appropriate for their level. Chinesepod has podcasts that are broken down by level, which give students the audio input they need. It is a paid service, however. At the very least, students should use the audio feature of a multimedia dictionary (I like Pleco) or use the audio button on Google translate so that they can hear the pronunciation of a word. Native speakers also publish new Mandarin podcasts all the time. Keep searching to find one that you like!

More on why repetition is so important for language acquisition.

Do you have any resources to give students more input on pronunciation of Mandarin? Share in the comments!

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