The rhythm of spoken Mandarin Chinese and how to sound like a native Chinese speaker

Are you familiar with the rhythm of spoken Mandarin Chinese? How would you describe it compared to English, or your native language? Once you become aware of the unique rhythm of Mandarin Chinese, you will be able to improve your listening comprehension skills, and gain more comfort speaking it.

Take a guess. English or Chinese?

I made a recording of myself speaking the same sentence in Chinese and English. Could you tell based on the audio graph alone, whether I said the sentence in Chinese first (left hand side) or second (right hand side)?

Now, let’s hear it:

This is a sentence 佩奇和乔治最爱吃巧克力蛋糕了 from S01E04 Part 3.

It’s not hard to see that the Chinese sentence seems to be more uniform and monotonic. It is not hard to hear that either.

The monotonic rhythm of Mandarin Chinese

Monotonic, that’s one way I would describe the rhythm of spoken Mandarin Chinese.

As a native Chinese speaker, I generally think English speakers tend to sound dramatic. (“Oh– My– God—” “THANK YOU!!!”, along with exaggerated facial expressions.) Of course, over time I’ve picked up some of that and my mom thinks I sound dramatic now.

Similarly, it is not uncommon to think native Chinese speakers sound boring and monotonic when they speak English. (Surely I’ve heard stories of some Chinese profs putting students to sleep in lectures. Granted, it’s probably a combination of the accent and the material.)

Have you wondered why they sound so different? I thought about it and I came up with a few generalizations. I don’t think this list is comprehensive, but I hope the insights from this list can help you improve your Chinese speaking skills.

Chinese has less distinct word segmentation

In English, words can be short and can be long. And they are distinct. In a sentence, it’s easy to tell a word apart from another, even if you don’t know what they mean. In Chinese, everything is more continuous (although not fully, there are natural pauses, and I will get into that more. Also, this comparison is relative to English. I think Japanese is even more continuous.)

Word segmentation is an additional challenge in Chinese natural language processing compared to English. In English, you can hear the word one by one (in most cases), but in Chinese, it may be difficult to tell the “words” apart from the single characters.

On the other hand, because there is less distinct word segmentation, it is extremely important to pronounce each character evenly and audibly. This is a concept called 字正腔圆 in Chinese, which literally translates to “square characters and round sounds” but it essentially means clear articulation and full tunes.

In English, you often connect two words together and “mix” the sounds. For example, “thank you”, the “k” sound and “you” sound are often closely tied together. But in Chinese you almost never do that. The only exception I can think of is the use of erhua or er-coloring. Each character has its own sound and they don’t mix.

Tip: To practice clear articulation, you could speak slowly. Make sure every single character is clearly said. As a beginner, your best bet is following pinyin. Pinyin isn’t accurate all the time, but if you could speak “perfect pinyin”, you would not run into any issues in spoken communication.

Now, let’s hear me say the same sentence again. The first part is a natural way of saying it. The second part is my recommended slow practice.

You may say, hey, clearly the first one sounds more natural, how can I get there? Well, first of all, get to the level of the slow version first (i.e. clear articulation of every single sound). I would say most learners are not even there.

Don’t strive for sounding like a native if you can’t even produce comprehensible speech. Learn to crawl first! You can set the speed to be lower when you repeat after Peppa Pig!

If you want to further improve your Chinese pronunciation and sound like a native Chinese, read on!

Mandarin Chinese has less variation in intonation

As you all know by now, each Chinese character has its own tone. It’s difficult to master the tones. However, I’d like to point out that the intonation within the sentences matter much less.

An obvious example is questions that end with 吗. 吗 can turn a statement into a question. Now, let me ask, do you change the intonation of the sentence much depending on whether it’s a statement or question? The answer is generally no.

In S01E51 Part 3, Mummy Pig asked: 可以把这个声音关掉吗?

I recorded this sentence with and without 吗. One is obviously a question “Can (we) turn this sound off?”, the other is just a statement “Can turn this sound off.”

If you look at the audio graph, you’d see that they look highly similar. The question is simply longer because of the additional 吗.

intonation in spoken Chinese

If you were to take the original recording from Peppa Pig and cut the 吗 off, taken out of context I would interpret the sentence as a statement, “Can turn this sound off”, instead of a question or suggestion (Mummy Pig’s 吗 is lower than mine. My 吗 is a stronger question, her 吗 sounds like a suggestion.)

There are lots of varying pitches in English. In Chinese, there is much less variation within the sentence, the variation is just the tones. As a result, the Chinese language in generally sounds more uniform or monotonic. (Again, compared to English. I think Japanese is even more uniform and monotonic.)

Tip: When you speak Chinese, focus on the tone of every single character, but between characters, you don’t need a lot of contrasts. Overall the sentences tend to sound flat and uniform.

I’ve talked a lot about how to sound like a Chinese native speaker. Note that sounding like one does not imply you are speaking like a Chinese native speaker. You could very well be making the right sounds and producing the right rhythms but still speaking non-sense.

Is there something that you should know that will both help you sound more like a native speaker and make your Chinese speech more comprehensible? Read on.

Spoken Chinese sentences tend to be short and simple

I hesitate to make blanket statements such as “shorter is better” but it’s generally true. In fact, the sentences that I found unnatural from Peppa Pig Mandarin Chinese dub tend to be the longer ones.

For example, S01E04 Part 3, Peppa asked: 奶奶,我们现在可以离开餐桌去和鹦鹉波利玩吗?

Well, the sentence is grammatically correct, and it’s voiced by a native Mandarin Chinese speaker. However, the sentence sounds unnatural and it is obvious that it’s translated from English.

In English, it’s “Grandma, can we leave the table to play with Polly Parrot?” which is perfectly valid and something I can imagine a child asking.

If I were to say the same thing in Chinese, I would say something along the lines of “Grandma, can we leave the table? We want to play with Polly Parrot”. Or, even simpler, you don’t need to mention the table at all, it’s obvious from the context.

奶奶,我们能走了吗?我们想和鹦鹉波利玩儿!

(In Chinese, you tend to omit as much as possible, subject to conventions, anything that’s obvious from the context.)

The clear difference between 奶奶,我们现在可以离开餐桌去和鹦鹉波利玩吗? and 奶奶,我们能走了吗?我们想和鹦鹉波利玩儿! is that the former sentence is long and complicated, and the latter one consists of multiple short simple sentences.

It’s rare to come across complex sentence structure in spoken Chinese. Most sentences appeared in Peppa Pig are realistically structured. I break up longer sentences and I usually put the shorter “sentences” in its own line. They’re usually short and simple. Check the Transcript Lookup page.

(I didn’t know what to call this difference, but my husband suggested that this difference can be described as parataxis vs syntaxis.

From Wikipdia, Parataxis is “a literary technique, in writing or speaking, that favors short, simple sentences, without conjunctions or with the use of coordinating, but not with subordinating conjunctions.” Syntaxis is “a style in writing or in rhetoric that favors complex syntax.”)

Tip: Break up your sentences, and use multiple short and simple sentences in Chinese. Avoid complex structures if you can use simpler ones.

This is a very important point in both spoken and written Chinese. I personally struggle with this difference from time to time when I try to translate English stories on the fly to Chinese when I read to my daughter. I will write further about it in future articles.

Concluding thoughts

I generalized quite a bit in this article. There are always exceptions to the rules. (Also, a Chinese speaker may take offence that I called it monotonic. It’s all relative!) Anyhow, awareness of the general rhythm of the Chinese language could be very helpful and it could lead you to think about the sounds of the language differently.

Have you noticed other patterns in the Chinese language? Share with me!

Leave a Comment