Shurely shome mishtake!
If you’re reading this blog you’ve already heard that Chinese is So Damn Hard, but I sometimes wonder whether we make it more difficult than it need be.
Getting it wrong from the start
One of my clearest memories of those early baby steps in Pinyin was the strange obsession some teachers had with the difference between two groups of easily distinguished sounds:
zhi chi shi
zi ci si
Obviously, these syllables seemed pretty exotic with the so-called vowel represented by the letter ‘i‘ being nothing like any vowel I’d ever heard. But even as I started to make that fricative-cum-vowel, I was regularly reminded that the distinction between the 平舌 (píngshé, flat tongue) and 翘舌 (qiàoshé, cacuminal or retroflex, sometimes called 卷舌, juǎnshé) sounds was terribly important.
Any mention of 翘舌 would be accompanied by this sort of gesture.
Books listed minimal pairs to test the student on his ability to recognise the difference between words like 山 (shān – mountain) and 三 (sān – three)…
Obviously, for many Chinese speakers, learning this distinction is important; many dialects simply don’t employ it, but if you want to pass your 普通话考试 (Pǔtōnghuà Kǎoshì, Standard Mandarin Exam) and become, say, a teacher, you’d better be able to make these sounds.
I’m an English speaker. Where I come from, only drunks mix up those sounds.
I thought I’d pretty much discounted such distractions. I was much more worried about the distinction between 商 (shāng) and 香 (xiāng). Maybe that was where I went wrong. Producing a passable ‘xi‘ had in itself been no great problem. But I guess, at some stage I must have thought, if only I could make that sh, with my tongue curled right up, maybe then I’d get that sh–x distinction. After all, it’s called a retroflex.
Oh dear. Perhaps a little bit of linguistic knowledge is a dangerous thing.
However it happened, I somehow came to believe that I needed to make the sounds zh, ch, and sh way up in the roof of my mouth.
Now, I don’t think I was alone in this. I know at least some other foreign learners of Chinese find themselves exhausted by the attempt to produce these sounds, and gradually realise they’re going to have to relax a little. Maybe they even notice, as I did, that the sound produced right up there is just not very much like that of their Chinese friends. Besides, most of those friends don’t dribble that much during conversation.
So, gradually, I found a position with my tongue tip no longer turned up, but turned down a little, just above the alveolar ridge. This was easier, and it seemed to sound a little better.
These sounds are simply not produced that far back or that high up.
If you’re one of those who made the same mistake as me, and then adjusted a little, as I did, maybe you’re saying to yourself, “But, if I made those sounds any further forward, my tongue would be in basically the same place that it is for those English sounds!”
You’re catching on.
In the next few posts, I intend to show why English speakers should simply not be taught how to pronounce the Pinyin sounds zh, ch, and sh when they start learning Chinese.
Note: I appreciate many that many foreign learners of Chinese have a mother tongue other than English and that may well affect their Chinese pronunciation quite differently. Please do feel free to share any insights below.