For most language learners, we learn with the primary goal of communication in mind.
But how we get to the point where we can express ourselves verbally differs from person to person. I personally have learned the most language through extensive input – specifically, a lot of reading and listening.
Some people believe that speaking should be the priority from the get-go, especially if you want to get good at speaking and pronunciation. That seems obvious, right?
But although we can acquire language differently, it comes out the same way for all of us.
And if you want to speak well and pronounce Mandarin as well as possible, there are a few things you need to do.
Realise there’s no such thing as a ‘perfect’ accent in Mandarin
As a former English teacher and a current language learner, I personally find this idea really annoying. Striving for a non-existent ‘perfect’ accent is enough to make many people quit learning a language before they’ve even started.
By all means, strive to improve your pronunciation.
Aim to communicate more clearly.
But if you’re learning Mandarin as an adult and your goal is to sound like a China Daily news anchor, you need to calm down a bit.
Take the pressure off yourself, and enjoy the ride. Accents exist, and that’s OK.
Aquire more of the language
This might seem like the most annoyingly obvious suggestion in the world but hear (read) me out.
To speak Mandarin, you have to know it. To speak more, you have to know more.
One of the issues I have with the ‘speak everything all the time’ method is that as a beginner, you simply don’t have enough to say.
Engaging in conversation all the time when you have acquired very little of the language isn’t the best use of your time.
Constantly having the same basic conversation that doesn’t lead anywhere can quickly become demoralising, too. You’re trying to connect with native speakers over and over again when you’re just not ready for it!
Knowing more of the language gives you more confidence to speak, and more opportunities to engage in meaningful practice.
This is closely connected with my previous point, but listening is going to help your pronunciation more than reading or writing.
Think about it.
Have you ever heard of a concert pianist who doesn’t listen to piano music?
How about an impressionist who doesn’t listen to other people?
These activities go together like peas and carrots, and you need to listen well in order to emulate well.
The more listening practice you do, the better.
Mandarin tones need a special mention as they’re an unfamiliar feature to a lot of native speakers of European languages.
I mean, we have tones in English as well, but they’re not used in the same way.
Tones in Mandarin directly impact the meaning of a word.
Although they probably seem a bit mental at first, the difficulty of Mandarin tones is massively exaggerated. You will get to grips with them pretty quickly if you listen enough.
A seriously excellent way to improve your Mandarin pronunciation is through shadowing.
Mandarin Blueprint provides a solid guide to shadowing which can be found below, but it basically means copying and speaking out loud what you hear.
It feels weird and you’ll probably suck at first, but if done regularly over time, shadowing will greatly improve your speaking and pronunciation.
I use an app called Audio Stretch, which allows me to import audio clips and change the speed of playback, as well as isolate sections of audio to repeat on a loop.
Find and mimic a target speaking style
This has been recommended by quite a few advanced learners, including the YouTube sensation that is 马斯瑞 AKA Laoma Chris, who has used it to develop a pretty incredible Beijing accent.
Some people can find this kind of thing very uncomfortable at first, but you’ll get used to it quickly.
The three main benefits of this technique are:
- It’s a form of practice – Any speaking practice is valuable.
- You can spot your own mistakes and work on them – In real time it’s much more difficult to do this. ‘The spectator sees more of the game’, as they say.
- You can gauge your progress – Language learning is a long process where to day to day improvements aren’t identifiable. Watching really old videos of yourself might make you cringe, but they can also show you clearly how far you’ve come!
Talk to a native speaker or get a tutour
A native speaker of Mandarin Chinese knows what sounds ‘right’, or natural, better than anyone else. Sure, there are geographical and generational differences in language, but by and large, you know you’re getting the best feedback on your use of language from a native speaker (but not necessarily the best advice on how to learn).
If you have access to a professional tutor, that’s even better.
Conversing one on one with a professional tutor is what I call time-intensive reinforcement. You’re constantly speaking and being corrected over and over again which results in very rapid speaking progression.
I actually had a 6-month one-on-one course with a tutor at Omeida Chinese Academy in Yangshuo, China.
Although there are a few things I would have done differently if I had my time again, it was a great experience and my speaking improved a LOT during my course.
For my guide to finding good Chinese tutors and language partners online, check this out.
Practise, practise, and then practise some more… and then some more.
You don’t need to be the smartest person in the world to get to an advanced level of Mandarin.
But you do have to put in the hours.
The legend that is Steve Kauffman says that your skills with a language directly correlate with the amount of time you’ve spent with a language.
Give yourself some time, practice daily, and speak until your tongue falls out!
No, but seriously, you don’t have to be obsessed to the point of abandoning your whole life and moving to provincial Beijing to become a good speaker of Mandarin Chinese.
But it helps…
- 100+ MANDARIN LEARNING RESOURCES: THE FASTEST WAY TO FLUENCY
- LEARNING CHINESE: 15+ LISTENING TOOLS PERFECT FOR BEGINNERS
- THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO LEARNING CHINESE IN CHINA
- THE 24 BEST MANDARIN STUDY RESOURCES FOR BEGINNERS
- 14 REASONS WHY YOU SHOULD LEARN MANDARIN CHINESE
- IS IT EASY TO LEARN MANDARIN CHINESE?
- THE 21 BEST APPS TO LEARN CHINESE
- STUDYING MANDARIN AT A UNIVERSITY IN CHINA: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW