Introduction

Your chief concern as you start this course is learning to pronounce Chinese. So, naturally before we plunge right into trying to say things in Chinese, we will need to begin with a brief, systematic introduction to the sound system of Standard Chinese, as well as to its written representation in Pinyin romanization.

Both the videos and the text resources contain discussions of the sounds of the language and their spellings. You may find that these discussions offer useful hints, allowing you to put your intellect to work on the problems of pronunciation and romanization. However, particularly in pronunciation, most of your learning must come from doing. It is important to practice reading and writing the romanization, but it is vital to practice recognizing and producing the sounds of the language. Serious and sustained attempts to mimic, as faithfully as possible, either your instructor or the speakers in the videos will allow you to pick up unconsciously far more than you can attend to consciously.

The most important thing for you to do is to abandon the phonetic "prejudices" you have built up as a speaker of English and surrender yourself to the sounds of Chinese. Being less set than adults in their ways, children are quicker to pick up a proper accent. Try to regress to the phonetic suggestibility of childhood, however hard it is to shed the safe and comfortable rigidity and certainty of adulthood. The most your intellect can supply is a certain amount of guidance and monitoring.

Be sure to repeat the words and sentences in the videos in your full normal speaking voice, or even louder, as if you were speaking to someone at a reasonable distance. When you speak to yourself under your breath, you are considerably less precise in your pronunciation than when you speak aloud. This is all right in EnglIsh, since you can already pronounce the language. But, in Chinese, you would not be practicing that skill which you are trying to develop, and you would find yourself at a loss when you tried to switch to full volume.

One of the advantages an adult has over a child in learning a language is the ability to make use of a written representation of it. In this course you learn the Pinyin system of romanization at the same time that you are learning the sound system of Standard Chinese. You will find that Pinyin is not the simplest possible phonetic transcription. Some of the letters and combinations of letters chosen to represent the sounds of Chinese are not the most obvious ones. While consonant letters generally stand for fixed consonant sounds, vowel letters can stand for various vowel sounds, depending on what letters precede them and follow them. Some of the abbreviation rules are more trouble than they are worth at first. These drawbacks - which are actually relatively minor compared with those of most spelling systems - stem from the fact that Pinyin was designed for speakers of Chinese, not for speakers of English. The primary consideration in devising the system was the most efficient use of the letters of the Roman alphabet to represent the sounds of Chinese. The drawbacks to learning Pinyin are considerably outweighed by the advantage that Pinyin is widely taught and used as a supplementary script in China. You are learning Pinyin not merely as an aid during the first few weeks of the course, but also as one of the ways Chinese is actually written, and as what may well represent the wave of the future.

NOTE: A number of surnames used the pronunciation lessons are rare. Some may even be unfamiliar to most Chinese, although all are authentic. These rare surnames are used to illustrate various contrasts in sound and spelling.

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