On Sounding Natural.

Victor Mair’s latest Log post is about Mandarin Chinese, but its implications are far more general. He begins:

When I began studying Mandarin over half a century ago, I very quickly developed a pet phrase […]: lǎoshí shuō 老實說 / 老实说 (“to tell the truth; honestly”), After I married one of the best Mandarin teachers on earth (Chang Li-ching) several years later, she corrected me when I said my favorite phrase. She told me that I made it sound like lǎoshī shuō 老師說 / 老师说 (“teacher says”).

Now, I know my tones very well, and can tell the difference between first and second tone. I’m also able to produce them clearly and distinctly. So it wasn’t a problem with my being incapable of distinguishing tonally in my speech between lǎoshí shuō and lǎoshī shuō. Something else was wrong with the way I said “lǎoshí shuō” (“honestly speaking”) that made it sound like “lǎoshī shuō” (“teacher says”).

He goes into great deal about what that “something” was, and gives similar examples from spoken Nepali. As I said in a comment there, it applies to much more than just Chinese:

I’ve never heard a convincing example of spoken Ancient Greek on those videos that purport to provide one, because the people speaking are working so hard to make sure the consonants, vowels, and pitches are correct that they don’t sound like they’re speaking a real language. I’ve even heard this complaint about actors speaking Klingon; it may not be “real,” but if it’s to be believable as a spoken language it has to sound like one, not like a careful combination of painfully learned sounds.

Comments

  1. Greg Pandatshang says:

    By the way, sections of the advanced glosses are inadvertantly poetic: “tire the troops; take greetings and gifts to army units”

  2. I totally agree with Prof Mair’s observations. However, despite the rather breathless tone, I really don’t think that most of this is terribly new stuff. Any student who has got past the initial stage of mastering ā á ǎ à will notice that Chinese isn’t spoken with nice clear tones. I have a dictionary of Chinese somewhere that gives the pronunciation of Chinese words according to stress (I don’t remember the name but I might even have got it on the recommendation of a post at Language Log).

    It’s a feature of southern Chinese dialect speakers that they often don’t use neutral tones when speaking Mandarin. I think this might also partly apply to the use of stress, although I’m not totally sure of that.

    And as Hat says, I think it applies to any language. Knowing when NOT to spell out every individual sound in full is a part of learning a foreign language.

  3. I’ve even heard this complaint about actors speaking Klingon; it may not be “real,” but if it’s to be believable as a spoken language it has to sound like one, not like a careful combination of painfully learned sounds.

    Yeah – whereas the earlier Trek series would basically give the actors a rough pronunciation guide and then let them spit out whatever they wanted, the current show appears to have focused on phonetic accuracy at the cost of a slow and laborious manner of speaking.

    Also on the topic of sounding like you’re speaking a real language, one example that’s stuck in my mind is this Latin teacher – who, notwithstanding his apparently fine grasp of the language, speaks it in an affectedly low and singsongy way that I’d find unbearable to listen to at length. I want to mimic the same effect in English and sing at him, “Whyyy are you speaaaking in that ridiiiculous waaay?

  4. He sounds like he’s speaking Italian (sort of).

  5. David Marjanović says:

    Sounds totally Italian, except for turning every r into rr (if not rrrrrr). I have no trouble believing the intonation at all.

  6. David Marjanović says:

    At the bottom of this post is a link to how to read Ancient Greek without “sounding like yodelling Martians”. It sounds quite believable for the most part (except for a few instances where /h/ comes out with a Modern accent, as [x]).

  7. Well maybe I shouldn’t beat up on the guy, but I think he is overshooting the mark in his use of Italian as a model. The stressed vowel in “dociō” (0:26), for one concrete example, should be nice and short given the classical norm that he’s using.

  8. I agree with Lazar: that’s a classic case of “LOOK! I am SPEAK-ing this AN-ci-ent LANG-uage VERRR-y NA-turrral-ly!!” It does not sound in the least convincing as a person talking a normal language normally.

  9. This over-clarity probably accounts for Foreigner-Speak-Better-Than-Me syndrome, along with the prescriptive grammar that foreigners learn.

  10. I think you’re right.

  11. “It’s a feature of southern Chinese dialect speakers that they often don’t use neutral tones when speaking Mandarin.”

    When I studied Mandarin Chinese at Defense Language Institute a good long time ago, out of our 5 teachers was one who insisted that everyone neutral tone be pronounced as high tone. Any time a student pronounced the question particle ma in a neutral fashion, for example, he would get angry, reproach the student and say it was to be pronounced (and he gave it a very exaggerated high tone). I got the impression that the other teachers thought he was a bit barmy and didn’t want us to pay much mind to his views on pronunciation, but now I wonder if he was from southern China and that is the reason he did that.

  12. “but now I wonder if he was from southern China and that is the reason he did that.”

    Probably. Neutral tones probably sounded like an Americanism to him, and he sounds like he was unaware that they are also a Mandarinism. It sounds like he was hypercorrecting on top of that.

    DLI has a spotty record when it comes to instructors. The school seems to have been started with a ragbag of emigres and the tendency to get people from the high end of society has persisted. This is problematic in training military linguists, since the majority are likelier to be functioning as terps on patrols talking to local people, not as attaches at diplomatic functions. I can only guess what kind of mess the training in a dialect cluster like Pashtun is. The situation with Arabic is pretty much the same, a decades-long running sore.

    When I was messing with this stuff 20 years ago, it wasn’t just the obvious operational problem; it also skewed the test results since the instructors wrote the tests to their own expectations while the students were concentrating on whatever form of the language they expected to use operationally.

  13. But Southern people, or any fluent L2 Mandarin speakers, do not pronounce neutral tone uniformly as a high tone ˥˥; nobody in their right mind does that. The general pronunciation for those who eschew a neutral tone is either: a low tone kinda like tone 3, which sounds like the neutral tone; or the etymological tone according to the spelling. The latter is not unlike the general furriner English, which always distinguishes too much more neutral vowels than English speakers.

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