Pronunciation and tones- is it important to spend dedicated time on them?

Pronunciation is often overlooked in a busy, time-pressed classroom. This is as true for Chinese as it is for many other languages, and understandably so when there are many areas that need to be covered, and precious little time to do it. However, in my teaching experience spending a little bit of dedicated time focusing on tone and sound skills is really important, especially in the earlier stages of learning. This time can really help in multiple ways:

  1. Building learner’s confidence to produce unfamiliar sounds right from the start of learning, which helps when building up to word and sentence-level language production.
  2. Chinese has a different rhythm to English, so exposing students early on to differences will help them as they build language.
  3. Pronunciation games are really fun! They are a great way to start/end a lesson, or to give to students as a challenge to practice together or at home.
  4. It helps with listening skills if students really learn to hear and produce the difference between different sounds, especially those commonly confused ones in Mandarin. This means building up to longer listening activities is less frightening and overwhelming for students.

The technique of teaching pronunciation is often overlooked, changed into a vocabulary focused activity, or not explained well. Too commonly teachers will say sounds and ask students to repeat, without helping them understand what they are supposed to be doing with their lips, mouth or jaw. You need to clearly show and tell students what to do (where to place their tongue, are their teeth together or not, is the sound in the nose, are the lips tight or loose) – all of this helps students be able to better produce the sound later.

An excellent resource is McGraw-Hill’s Chinese Pronunciation book. For teachers looking for fun games and activities, there are many suggested ideas on pages here, many of which were inspired by  Adrian Underhill (who is an expert in English pronunciation).  We are always happy to hear thoughts and suggestions, and to add to the site. For more ideas, click on the tab above!

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