Chinese pronunciation is systematic and relatively simple, especially when it comes to spelling (Pinyin). In theory, it’s possible to teach a class of beginners almost everything they need in a week. Naturally, it will take much longer to master pronunciation, so don’t feel bad if you still struggle, but since Chinese has so few syllables and they are very regular, it’s still easier than many other languages.
That doesn’t mean that it’s always systematic, simple and easy, though. I have been responsible for Skritter’s Chinese language support for a couple of months now, and much of the feedback we receive is about pronunciation. Since we adopted an absolute standard for pronunciation, we have sorted out a few issues that keep popping up, so I thought I’d share some of them with you.
Some common questions about Chinese pronunciation
The conclusions below are based on the resources given in the article linked to above (mainly 现代汉语词典). That doesn’t mean that other pronunciations are uncommon, rare or wrong, but they don’t conform to the standard. If people in your area speak differently, by all means study the way they speak, but if you have no preference or care about being “correct”, follow the advice here, which is also what we use in Skritter (if you find other words you think are incorrect, please report them).
If you want to check if you know the answers before you see them, write down the Pinyin for the following five words before you read on:
- 尽快 (儘快)
- 下载 (下載)
- 一模一样 (一模一樣)
Here are the right answers with brief discussions:
- 背包 (bēibāo) “backpack” – This word should be pronounced with two first tones. I have seen people argue that it should be “bèibāo” because backpack is a noun and 背 is a also a noun (meaning “back”) when read with a fourth tone, but a verb (meaning “to carry on the back”) when read with a first tone. However, 现代汉语词典 only lists “bēibāo”. The standard in Taiwan is the same as on the Mainland.
- 打烊 (dǎyàng) “to close a shop or restaurant (for the evening)” – I was a bit surprised by this standard pronunciation here myself, because most native speakers I know say dǎyáng with a second tone rather than a fourth tone. This includes speakers both from Taiwan (where it is the standard) and Northern China. Conclusion: dǎyáng is very common, but the standard pronunciation of this word is dǎyàng.
- 尽快 (jǐnkuài) “as quickly as possible” – This word is tricky because the first character can also be pronounced with a fourth tone and has a very similar meaning. I won’t go into the details here, but jǐnkuài is the only listed version. Note that it should be a fourth tone for 尽力 (jìnlì) “to the utmost” and that both are possible for 尽量 (jǐnliàng or jìnliàng), but that they have slightly different meanings.
- 下载 (xiàzài) “download” – This word is very common with the internet invading our everyday life, but it is perhaps less obvious what the correct pronunciation is. 现代汉语词典 only lists xiàzài. It’s true that 载 can be read with a third tone, but then it means “year”. It’s still common to hear this word pronounced xiàzǎi, though.
- 一模一样 (yìmúyíyàng) “identical” – This is often pronounced “yìmóyíyàng” in Mainland China and Taiwan (where it is the standard), but the standard pronunciation should be mú not mó. The difference isn’t very big, and as is the case with the other words on this list, people will definitely understand what you say regardless of which version you choose.
These are five of the more interesting words I have dealt with recently and I plan on sharing more later. I don’t do this because I think all students have to follow the standard, I do it because I want to explain what we’re doing and perhaps also clear some questions marks regarding these words. Finally, I’d like to apologise to those of you who have reported errors but still haven’t been taken care of. We’re doing our best to catch up, but we’re not there yet!