START AT THE BEGINNING WITH LETTER A
CHINESE PRONUNCIATION IS CHALLENGING, BUT IT’S ALSO SMALL
As we’ve mentioned before in our popular article The Sounds of Mandarin Chinese, there aren’t that many syllables in Mandarin Chinese. Consequently, it is worth spending a lot of your attention in the early days on each individual sound, especially the vowel sounds A, E, I, O, U & Ü. This article is about the Chinese Alphabet Letter A. (BTW, the so-called “Chinese Alphabet” is really called Pinyin)
HOW TO SAY CHINESE ALPHABET LETTER A PART 1- Eight, Pronouns, Mom & Dad
Let’s get into some actual content, shall we? Up until now, we’ve been helping you understand what are the basics of Chinese learning, but its all been a bit meta. Previous articles were about what you are going to be doing later from a wide-view. No more! We’re getting into the nitty-gritty now, diving into individual sets of syllables, but we’re going to use REAL language to help you with this. Let’s start with Simple Final A in the video above.
Articulated the vowel sound “a” in Chinese is not universal across the Pinyin chart. There are actually three different ways to pronounce it, but the most common way is like it is in Simple Final A. The sound reverberates more towards the front of your mouth, your lips remain tight at the corners, and the mouth position is similar to when you say “cat” in English. Refer to Luke’s explanation & repeat after him to really say it correctly.
In this video we talk about four words that use Simple Final A: 八 bā “eight”, 他 她 它 tā “he/him, she/her, it”, 妈妈 māma “mother/mom” & 爸爸 bàba “father/dad”
Lucky Number 8
The number eight is a VERY lucky number in Chinese. One of the reason is actually the pronunciation. 八 bā is the same final and tone as “发 fā”, which is the first character in the word “发财 fācái”. 发财 means “become rich”, so the more eights you have in your life the more likely you are to get rich. Superstition is fun! Some Chinese people have paid incredibly exorbitant amounts of money to get phone numbers or license plates that are all 88888888 or the like.
Pronouns in Chinese are all pronounced TĀ, which is quite convenient. Any time you want to refer to a person or a living thing (sometimes objects as well), you can say tā. Words like this are incredibly useful when you have a limited vocabulary. Most of the incredibly high-frequency categorical words get covered throughout the course, super useful.
Mom & Dad
妈妈 māma & 爸爸 bàba are fairly close to “mama & papa” in English, so these shouldn’t give you any trouble on the definition front. However, they are the first two words we’ve covered that have a Tone Pair. 妈妈 māma is 1st tone – 5th tone, which means that the 5th tone is LOW. 5th tone responds to 1st tone (and 3rd tone) by being the opposite in pitch. 爸爸 bàba is a 4th tone – 5th tone. 5th tone is quite easy after 4th tone, the 4th tone falls to the bottom of your range and the 5th tone is said right where 4th tone ends.
CHINESE ALPHABET LETTER A PART 2- Pronouns Continued & Fear of Lions
Simple final A, as Luke has mentioned in the videos, requires effort in the early days regarding lip tightness. Tighten the corners of your mouth when saying it and you are less likely to sound like a foreigner. In this particular video, Luke discusses the sentence “他怕它 tā pà tā – He’s afraid of it”. In this sentence, you actually have two of the initials (t & p) we describe as “tougher”. Why? Because they are more aspirated than in English. Aspiration is a fancy way of saying “how much air comes out of your mouth”. While writing this, it occurs to us that “t” and “p” could be thought of as the “spitting initials”. They have the highest likelihood of bringing a little saliva into the conversation. They’re intense!
Say to yourself right now a “t” sound. Now say it again, but really over-emphasize it. Maybe you even went too far the second time, but Chinese doesn’t pussyfoot around with these sounds. It’s strong, assertive and staccato. If you spit on someone, well, you may feel embarrassed but at least you’ll know you are aspirating correctly.
General Mandarin Pronunciation Point
Some languages are very legato (French comes to mind). If you are unfamiliar with the term, it is used in music to describe notes that flow together. The antonym to legato is “staccato”. Staccato refers to musical notes that are clearly distinct from one another, there is obvious space in between. When people speak in all languages there are moments of words flowing together (legato) and moments where they are clearly separate (staccato). They exists on a continuum. French is on the legato side of the continuum, but I’d be willing to bet there are moments when French speakers have clear borders between words. What about Chinese? Chinese is very staccato. If you listen to the news (the most standard Mandarin around), most syllables are very distinct and separate from one another. We’re not saying words never flow together, but rather that it is on the “staccato” side of the continuum.
Don’t be afraid to be forceful when speaking Mandarin. If anything, you will train up your muscles well and later learn how to dial it back. Learn by exaggerating. It helps break you out of your native language habits. For example, when Phil was 18 and worked in a guitar shop, fellow salesman and guitar player Mark explained that many guitar players start by playing an acoustic guitar as opposed to an electric guitar. This recommendation from guitar teachers derives from acoustic guitar being more difficult to play. The young musician’s developing fingers go through guitar boot camp on acoustic, and then electric guitar becomes easier by comparison. Apply this principle to your pronunciation practice. You’ll know when you’ve gone too far in your exaggerations, but that’s WAY better than sticking to your old habits.
Aurally speaking, there is no distinction between the pronouns “he/him”, “she/her” & “it” in Mandarin Chinese. The characters are different, but the pronunciation is exactly the same. This is why native Chinese speakers sometimes say the wrong pronoun when speaking English. It is an easy mistake to make when your language doesn’t have that conception of pronouns. Luckily for those of us learning Chinese, you can always give people, other living things & sometimes objects the shorthand of “TĀ”. Simple!
怕 pà means “to fear” or “be afraid of”, so it having a 4th tone is excellent. 4th tone sounds very assertive as we mentioned before, and wouldn’t you want to act assertively in a state of fear? Now we know all the words, let’s look at the grammar.
This sentence is about as simple as it gets. Good to know that Chinese grammar isn’t all that difficult. It is Subject (他 tā) + Verb （怕 pà) + Object (它 tā). It’s quite caveman like. “He scared it!” “She care child!” “It fight hippopotamus!”. There are more complex grammatical structures that explain what the Subject is doing, but the purpose of taking note of grammar in the early days is really just about knowing that you can.
THINK ABOUT GRAMMAR THE RIGHT WAY
Know what you can do, don’t worry about what you can’t do. Why? Because there are infinite ways to get grammatical structures wrong, so why analyze it? The whole “learn from your mistakes” thing is way overthought by most people. This is all you have to do to learn from a language mistake, ready? “Oh, what I just said didn’t work, don’t say it like that again”. Done. Don’t ask why! If you ask why you are now focusing your attention on something you got wrong. What’s much more interesting is learning from what you got right. “Oh, the Chinese person I’m speaking to understood me. Use that again!” Much better.
CHINESE ALPHABET LETTER A PART 3- Statement + 吗 ma and Saying “Yes”
As we continue to explore Simple Final A, it is worth taking note of how you ask yes or no questions in Chinese. Think about how we ask Yes or No questions in English. Generally, you’ll change your tone of voice and change the words around in the sentence. Here’s an example:
Statement in English: “This is your platypus!”
Question in English: “Is this your platypus?”
Statement in Chinese: 这是你的PLATYPUS。
Question in Chinese: 这是你的PLATYPUS吗？
So what’s the difference between these two approaches to handling yes or no questions? There are two main answers, Grammar & Tone of Voice.
The biggest difference grammatically between the English & Chinese sentences here is which Grammar function they are using. The most frequent functions of grammar are the following:
1. Changing the order of words
2. Adding Words
3. Changing the form of words (go, gone, went, etc.)
The English sentence above doesn’t add any words to make the yes or no question, but it does change their order. The Chinese sentence doesn’t change the order, instead, it just adds a word. That word is “吗 ma”, and that’s the most common way to ask a yes or no question in Mandarin. “Statement + 吗= Yes or no Question”. Love that formula, easy peasy. Oh yeah, and that third function of grammar “changing the form of words”, remember that? Luckily Chinese doesn’t ever do the 3rd one, which is seriously a relief.
TONE OF VOICE
“OMG Mandarin is a TONAL language! That sounds sooooo hard! I could never imagine using the tone of my voice to communicate with someone!” Well, guess what deliberately overly-dramatic figment of my imagination? You use tones that have specific meaning all the time! Don’t believe me?
Experiment: Say to yourself “This is your platypus”, pause, then say “Is this your platypus?”. Now say them again, but take special note of the word “platypus”. Pause. Now say “platypus” the way you did in the 1st sentence & then immediately say it as you did in the 2nd sentence. Say them back and forth a few times. Those two words are very different, and they are expressing meaning! Do no fear Mandarin Tones our child!
The funny part of it is, Mandarin is actually easier than English in this particular area. When it comes to using tone to express the meaning that you are asking a yes or no question, Chinese is easier. 吗 ma is a 5th tone, which as we mentioned in the 5th tone video, is usually very dynamic. However, a notable exception to this is 吗 ma. It is possible for certain emotional contexts to cause slight variation, but generally speaking, it’s high & short. 5th tone is always short, and it’s easy to say, and the fact that it is higher than usual the vast majority of the time means there is less variation. Just make that sound at the end of the sentence. Boom. English? Far too complicated with its end of sentence tone of voice changes.
Before we start proclaiming Chinese to be easier than learning how to babble, we’ll have to take note that the proper way to respond “yes”. It is NOT as intuitive as English. You could just say “嗯”, which is kind of a grunt of confirmation, but it’s not exactly polite in certain situations. Wouldn’t want you losing face now, would we? Responding “Yes” in Mandarin requires repeating back the relevant information (usually an action or description). Here’s how it works:
If English used Chinese “yes” responses:
A: Is this your platypus?
A: Did you run today?
A: Are there several thousand giant artificially intelligent super spiders attacking Antarctica?
A: Is she happy with her gift?
The concept of “yes” is contextual in Chinese. A lot of foreigners make the mistake of applying “对 duì – correct” or “是 shì – is” as “yes” to everything. We’re both guilty of doing that, but the better way to respond is to find the point in the sentence where the questioner is looking for an answer and say it back to them.
Seriously don’t think about the academic side of grammar too much. If you find yourself curious about something, by all means, satisfy your curiosity. We hope this type of article will spark interest for you in Chinese and help you notice it when native speakers use this particular pattern. We hope it will make you want to understand more and pay attention to the language more. What we don’t want is for you to over-think it. Grammar can actually be fascinating, but your rational mind does not have to achieve a logical understanding of it in order to use it. Not even close. Carts are much better to be put after horses, you guys.
You found this useful吗？