Yo! After a 1.5+ year long nerve injury and the general life changes of graduating from college, I'm done with Powlyglot. If I find myself sharing my language experience in another format later on, I'll probably link to it here, on my personal site, or on Twitter at @mpvboehme. Thanks for reading.
Practice Chinese Like the Judoon

Practice Chinese Like the Judoon

For those of you who watch Doctor Who, you may remember the Judoon – a rhinoceros-headed alien species that are often employed as mercenaries. You probably also remember the way they speak, with rapid-fire single-syllable words almost always ending with an ‘o’. But did you know that studying how the Judoon speak can help you with your Chinese?

First, watch this video.

Notice how they pronounce every syllable in the same amount of time?

Good – we’ll get back to that shortly.

Chinese is Tonal

The way you say something in Chinese is incredibly important. There are 5 tones – 4 pitched tones and 1 neutral tone – that help to determine what a word means just as much as the consonants and vowels.

For example, each of the pronunciations of ‘ma’ in this video mean a completely different thing.

It’s very important that you use the correct tones when speaking – if you don’t, you might not be understood at all.

Tones Take Practice

For native English speakers like myself, tones don’t come so naturally. At least, we don’t think about them in this way. We do have tones – we just use them differently. A good example is how we raise our pitch at the end of a question. The tone we’re using definitely brings meaning to the sentence, just not to the same extent that it would in Chinese.

In addition to that, we frequently pronounce syllables using the 4th tone (high pitch to low pitch). We just don’t realize we’re doing it.

But even with those comforting bits of knowledge, Chinese is a whole new way of speaking – you have to learn how to pronounce each of the tones and how to switch between them quickly. That means without pausing to think before ev-er-y syl-la-ble.

This isn’t a problem, of course. You just need to tackle it in the right way.

How the Judoon Can Help You with Chinese

Remember how I pointed out how the Judoon language gives every syllable the same amount of time and emphasis as the others?

We’re going to use that to our advantage here. See, we need to practice speaking and switching between Chinese tones a little slower than native speed at first, but not too slow. To make sure we do that, we’re going to give every syllable the same amount of time, just like the Judoon.

Pick a speed – I’d suggest following the same speed as the Judoon in the video above at first, at least until you can easily switch between the tones accurately (no cheating). As you get better, just speed it up. This will train your mouth and your mind, and you’ll be speaking Chinese much quicker in no time if you keep practicing.

I suggest reading Pinyin to do this – we aren’t focusing on creating sentences or recognizing characters right now, just pronouncing tones.

Here are a couple sentences you can try:

我是学生,他也是学生吗?
wŏ shì xuésheng, tā yě shì xuésheng ma?
(I’m a student, is he also a student?)

你喜欢吃中国菜还是喜欢吃美国菜?
nǐ xǐhuan chī zhōngguócài háishì xǐhuan chī měiguócài?
(Do you like to eat Chinese food or American food?)

Please take note – this is a method for practicing. Real people don’t talk like this. Rhinoceros-headed aliens talk like this. Once you’ve achieved a good speed, move on to speaking like a real person. :)

There you have it – proof that watching Doctor Who can have real-world applications.

Have any other tips for practicing tones? Let us know in the comments!

  • http://collegeinfogeek.com/ Thomas Frank

    You could probably use a metronome to force the speed at which you pronounce each syllable. Honestly this technique would probably be good for a whole lot more than learning how to pronounce Chinese tones.

    I bet it’d work just as well for forcing myself to read hiragana faster – especially if I could have each character flash by one at a time with a speed reading app.

    • http://martinboeh.me/ Martin Boehme

      I didn’t even consider using this to help speed-reading. Looks like the Judoon can help with more than I thought!