How to make the sound of Chinese characters stick
Learning a language requires to be able to pronounce its words, and for Chinese characters, it means learning to pronounce pinyin syllables made up of initial and final phonemes.
Since not all initials can be combined to all finals, the total number of possible Chinese syllables is limited to 404. Also, not all syllables are pronounced in the four tones. The net result is that we get a total of about 1300 distinct syllables, which is far smaller than in a language such as English. Considering that there are roughly 6,000 Chinese characters still commonly used, this amounts to a lot of homophones, that is, different characters that are pronounced with the exact same sound and tone. It is therefore imperative to develop a system that would allow us to reduce the confusion and differentiate between all these homophones.
When I devised my own system to read and remember Chinese characters, I wanted to use mnemonics to reproduce the sound of Mandarin. I then quickly realized that it was close to impossible to reproduce all Chinese sounds with enough precision by relying only on English sounds. For example, the letter ‘u’ in a pinyin syllable is pronounced as the English ‘u’ in some cases and as the German ‘ü’ or the French ‘u’ in some other cases (like in the pinyin yu). The ‘c’ in the pinyin ‘cun’ is best remembered as a German ‘z’ (which sounds like ‘ts’) while the ‘z’ of ‘zan’ sounds more like the Italian ‘z’ letter (sounds like ‘ds’). The initial ‘ch’ is a good match for the Spanish ‘ch’ sound and the initial ‘r’ sounds almost like the French ‘j.’
Europe to the rescue
This was when I realized that by using five European languages (English, French, Italian, Spanish and German) to create ‘sound words’ mimicking Chinese sounds, I had a fighting chance to better remember the pronunciation of the characters I was studying! This system allowed me to differentiate between similarly sounding initials (like the ‘c’ sound and the ‘z’ sound above), a frequent source of confusion for Chinese learners because some of them sound almost the same to our ears but they are in fact quite different. To learn characters well, you need to be able to make the difference and know which pinyin sound a character belongs to.
The approach used in the Chinese Blockbuster series is to assign a sound word to each of these unique syllables, along with its tone. Part of this sound word, let’s call it the ‘sound part,’ stands for the Chinese pronunciation of the character under study. Sound words are designed to create an image in your mind that will become part of a story and will help you remember the proper pronunciation and tone of a character. Chinese sounds are reproduced in a variety of ways and the sound words selected may sometimes remain rough approximations in the case of sounds that are ‘very Chinese.’ Your brain won’t mind, though, because it will know after a while that a sound word is used to represent a specific pinyin and not another.
How to remember the tone too!
“Fine,” you might say, “but how do I know if a sound word is for a first, a second, a third or a fourth tone? And which part of the sound word should I focus on?” Here is how I solved this problem:
- One-syllable sound words beginning with the sound part are used for the first tone.
- Two-syllables sound words beginning with the sound part are used for the second tone.
- Sound words with three or more syllables beginning with the sound part are used for the third tone.
- Since four-syllable words are hard to come by, sound words ending with the sound part or having the sound part anywhere except at the beginning are used for the fourth tone.
- The neutral tone is treated as a fourth tone as far as its sound word is concerned.
It is important to realize that what I mean by one syllable, two syllables and three syllables is not the actual number of grammatical syllables a word contains, but the number of pronounced syllables it has. For example, the English verb ‘choke’ has two grammatical syllables but is pronounced as a one-syllable word. It would therefore represent a first tone. On the other hand, Germans are known to pronounce all the syllables of their words. For example, the word ‘Zeuge,’ meaning ‘witness,’ is pronounced zeu-ge (with the ‘ge’ syllable clearly heard) and is used for a second tone.
As an example, here are the sound words selected for pinyin fa, ji and peng. The sound part of each sound word is underlined.
|Pinyin||First tone||Second tone||Third tone||Fourth tone|
As the example for peng demonstrates, the spelling of the sound word does not have to match the pinyin spelling. It just needs to sound like it. ‘Punk’ is not spelled like ‘peng,’ but the pronunciation is similar. I have attempted to select sound words that are a good phonetic representation of their Chinese counterparts, although they are not always a perfect match.
The Chinese Blockbuster series describes a few conventions used for the creation of sound words related to non-European sounds.
 When in doubt about the pronunciation of a foreign sound word, I invite you to visit Forvo, the pronunciation dictionary online. It is a fantastic tool where you can hear native people pronounce a word in their language and it’s free.