Can’t stress enough: speak Chinese word by word, not character by character!

Posted by Grace Feng on May 21, 2012

Can't stress enough: speak Chinese word by word, not character by character!Some time ago I encountered a self-made Chinese speaker on the street. At that time my daughter just finished her drawing class and was chatting with her friends outside the house. A very friendly guy came up and say “ni hao” to the kids. Although my daughter and the other two girls were chatting in English, he thought it worth a “你好 nǐhǎo!” try to practice some Chinese with them.

His following Chinese came out okay since all the kids seemed understood and could keep conversation going. All the three kids are very good Chinese listeners, but struggle when they speak Chinese (they are all Canada born Chinese). The guy showed a few magic tricks to the kids while talking. After a little while he wrapped up his practice with lots of giggles from the girls.

When he was about to leave, he saw me standing under the shade of the tree with my friend carrying my daughter’s bag. He hold up his hand and said:”你好, 你的书. 包很. 漂. 亮 nǐhǎo, nǐ de shū. bāo hěn. piāo. liàng!” (Your bag looks very good!)

My friend was a bit confused cuz she didn’t understand what she heard (she’s a native Chinese speaker as well.” but I got it, so I replied:”谢谢! 你的书包也很酷! 你的中文说得不错 xièxie! nǐ de shūbāo yě hěn kù! nǐ de Zhōngwén shuō dé bùcuò! ” (Your bag is cool too! Your Chinese is very good!)

After a while the girls told me that he had not taken any Chinese classes before, he’s totally a self-made Chinese speaker. He learned Chinese through the Internet and trained his own spoken Chinese by imitating what he heard. At that moment, I’d say I was really impressed by how well he could do all through self learning. He got the tones closely right on all the words he said to me. The only reason that he got my friend confused was the rhythm on spitting out the characters are not quite right. He broke too long between and 包, 很 and 漂亮. That made the whole sentence sounds like something else since the unprepared ears will try to group the characters heard into different words than desired.

I just think it’s a point worth mention that when you’re building vocabulary, try to learn the way it is spoken as a word, not just as individual characters. Try to practice speaking them as a word or a compound word. You’ll notice the characters in a word actually sound slightly different than they are pronounced individually. Some characters will be pronounced lighter and shorter in a word. A third tone character might sound not a complete third tone in a word. Difference like this you really should know.

The slight difference in emphasis or tones might decide how close you are to ultimate fluency. That’s why I record each of my example recordings in two speeds for you to learn the difference. The first time is slow speed, character by character, the second time is normal speed, word by word. You can find these recordings from both Learn Chinese online lessons and Chinese idioms.


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