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Over the past few years I’ve been conducting an experiment on myself to see whether it’s possible to undo deeply entrenched Chinese pronunciation mistakes, otherwise known as fossilisation.
For the first four years of learning Chinese I didn’t pay much focused attention to tones. As a result, like many foreigners, I spoke an atonal dialect of Mandarin which was unpleasant to listen to and frequently caused communication barriers.
By the time I got round to working on my pronunciation I’d already reached higher intermediate levels of reading and listening. When researching how to improve my tones all the advice I came across warned students to take them seriously from the start or suffer the consequences.
It felt like I’d left it too late. I couldn’t find any documented cases of learners overcoming Chinese fossilisation. Was it really possible to undo all those bad pronunciation habits I’d accumulated over the years?
I decided to find out and document the results in the four clips below.
April 2020: Hosting Online Seminar
In this recording I’m hosting an online seminar for international Chinese law students. This was during the first UK lockdown. I’d been learning Chinese for approximately three years in total but hadn’t worked on pronunciation or spoken fluency. My routine involved spending several hours a day reading and listening but barely ever speaking.
My speech is just about comprehensible in the context of the seminar discussion, partly because the things I’m saying are banal and predictable. Most of my initials and finals are acceptable but my sentence structure is awkward and the tones are all over the place, something I was blissfully unaware of at the time.
Frankly, I find it painful to listen to.
July 2021: Interview by Language Exchange Partner
Just over a year later I recorded myself being interviewed by my language exchange partner. Between the previous recording and this one I spent hundreds of hours listening to audiobooks, podcasts and reading novels. I’d also developed a routine of speaking to my language exchange partner several times a week.
However, I hadn’t done any deliberate or structured pronunciation training. Despite my improved comprehension skills and widened vocabulary my Chinese didn’t sound much better than the previous year and my pronunciation hadn’t progressed at all. My tones were still pretty bad as was my sentence structure.
January 2022: Interview by Tutor
Shortly after the previous recording was made I decided to start working on my tones and this became my primary focus over the following few months. I found an Italki tutor who agreed to correct all my mistakes, re-memorised all the tone pairs for my active vocabulary using flashcards and began paying closer attention to tones when listening to podcasts. I documented the whole process in-depth in this blog.
Six months later I recorded the above clip with my tutor. My tones had significantly improved and most of the glaring errors present in the previous recordings had been eradicated. This improvement in tonal accuracy also helped with my fluency as I was more confident in my ability to express myself correctly. My speech remains a little slow as I struggle to remember all the tones while talking at a natural pace. However, it is much clearer and easier to understand than the previous recordings.
July 2023: Interview by YouTuber Will Hart
With tones no longer a major issue I was able to focus on improving my fluency using techniques such as sentence mining, repetitive listening and shadowing. In January 2023 I moved to Taiwan and studied an advanced course in Chinese for a semester at NTU. In July my friend Will Hart who is well known for his exceptional Chinese speaking skills invited me on his podcast. You can check out the full interview in the video below.
In this clip (which is taken from that video) I sound significantly more fluent and confident than the previous year. I no longer need to use as much brain power in order to put my thoughts into words and speak with accurate pronunciation. The rhythm of my speech is also more natural.
Can Fossilisation Be Reversed?
It’s often said if you don’t nail pronunciation from the beginning your bad habits will become fossilised and you won’t be able to change them later on.
However, in this blog I’ve tried to demonstrated that mistakes, however deeply engrained, are reversible. Moreover the bulk of my progress was made within a relatively short space of time – the six months between recordings two and three.
Although I believe new learners should focus on tones and pronunciation at the start, I hope documenting my progress might offer hope and motivation to the large proportion of Chinese learners who reach intermediate and advanced levels of Mandarin with poor pronunciation and tones.
The above clips can also serve as a test of your tone perception. If you can’t tell the difference between the earlier recordings and the later ones this suggests you need to work on your ear for tones. After all if you can’t hear them you don’t have much hope of producing them accurately.
You may benefit from some of the tone training techniques I blogged about in my roadmap to good tones.
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