To be fair, you are getting your point across to the other person. You are communicating. However, when she speaks, everything sounds natural and flowy; and when you speak, it sounds awkward and forced.
Well, when you learned your native language, you were completely immersed in the environment of the language. Now, as you go through your day, you are processing hundreds if not thousands of real-life contextual clues on what to say and how to say it. But when you are learning a second language, most textbooks and curriculum use artificial scenarios to show you what to say, but not necessarily the way people would say them in real life.
For example, every language textbook seems to have a chapter on nationalities where we are taught the sentence: “What is your nationality?”
Yes, if you say this, you’ll get the answer you are looking for, but you also sound like a customs agent! In real life, we are much more likely to say: “Hey, where are you from?”
There are many ways that this native speaker fluidity seeps into the way we speak Mandarin Chinese. One of the biggest strengths of the Yoyo Chinese courses is that they use unscripted dialogues filmed all over China, so instead of "controlled" speech, you hear a person speak naturally, and then Yangyang breaks down exactly what they said.
As a language learner, your main goal should simply be communication, and not worrying about sounding like a local. But there are a few things you can be aware of when you are speaking that will make you sound more natural, and less like a "textbook" Mandarin student. Here, we gathered five of the most effective tips on how you can sound more like a native speaker.
1. Use the Right Filler Words
Every language has its own filler words. In English, we tend to say “Umm…” In Japanese, they say “あのう” which sounds like “ano…”
In Chinese, we mostly say “嗯 (ēn)." Sometimes, it comes across more like a “mmm” closed mouth humming sound, which is something you will have to listen to and try to adapt into your own. If you can make this one simple switch, you already sound way more natural and fluent.
Other popular filler words include: 那个 (nèi ge), which means “That one…”, 我想想 (wǒ xiǎng xiǎng) – “Let me think…”, and 怎么说 (zěn me shuō) – “how do I say this…”
For a more complete coverage of filler words, check out this really useful blog post, all about Chinese filler words..
2. Place emphasis on the right words and syllables
Where does the emphasis fall in “Good morning.” In most cases, we say “Good MORN-ing!”
But sometimes, we can say “GOOD morning?” with a little inflection at the end, which comes across as more playful and fun.
But we would never say: “Good morn-ING!” which just sounds wrong.
The same thing goes in Chinese. Certain words are the ones that are commonly emphasized, and certain words have less emphasis. Take this for example:
"给我一张纸 (gěi wǒ yī zhāng zhǐ)" - “Give me a piece of paper.“
The words to emphasize are 给 (gěi)，一 (yī)，and 纸 (zhǐ), and the words to deemphasize are 我 (wǒ) and 张 (zhāng).
Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule for determining which words are the right ones to emphasize. The best thing to do is to watch Chinese movies and TV shows, and listen to as many native speakers as possible to create that immersive learning environment.
3. Be vigilant about tones
Although most Chinese characters come with a built-in tone when you learn them individually, in real-life dialogue, many of the tones are selectively dropped as part of a natural, fluent dialogue.
For example: If you say…
“我回来了! (wǒ huí lái le)” - “I’m back!”
Even though 来 (lái) has the second tone lái, in everyday speech you would drop the accent and deemphasize 来 (lái). Per point #2 above, we also emphasize the 回 (huí), so it will altogether sound like: “我回来了! (wǒ huí lái le)”.
Again, the best way to get better at this is to take the time to listen to native speakers and emulate the way they speak. You cannot learn this by reading, you have to listen and speak.
If you haven't checked it out already, the Dialogue Replay tool is an excellent way to compare native, real speed audio from the real world dialogue in the lesson to a slower, "textbook" pronunciation. It can really help you get used to how native speakers transform standard pronunciation into their everyday speech.
4. Learn and use a few Chinese idioms
Chinese native speakers start to learn 成语 (chéng yǔ) - Chinese idioms - at a young age and continue to do so in school and beyond. As a result, most people pepper their speech with a few idioms now and then.
If you are a native speaker of American English, certainly you’ve used idioms like “stuck between a rock and a hard place,” or “knocked one out of the park.” (That last one was a baseball reference).
Using idioms ties your speech to a specific cultural background, and learning a few popular Chinese idioms certainly makes you sound like you understand Chinese culture on a deeper level. One of my favorite Chinese idioms is the equivalent of the English “Speak of the devil.”
"说曹操曹操到 (shuō cáo cāo cáo cāo dào)" - "As soon as you speak of Caocao, he arrives."
曹操 (cáo cāo) was a famous general in Ancient China with a vast army of spies, so legend has it that you cannot speak of him without 曹操 (cáo cāo) showing up. Today, we use it in the same way as “speak of the devil.”
If you are able to add this and a few more Chinese idioms and phrases into your speech, it will make you sound much more authentic and fluent.
You can learn more fun 成语 (chéng yǔ) here.
5. Be careful about word choice
“Where is the toilet?” someone asks you. You know what they mean, but can’t help but grimace a little on the inside at the imagery.
A more comfortable way of asking the question is: “Where is the restroom?” or “Where is the bathroom?” You can see how word choice matters, and how certain words quickly give away the fact that you are definitely not from around here.
In Chinese, even though 厕所 (cè suǒ) is an acceptable word for bathroom, a more refined word for bathroom is 洗手间 (xǐ shǒu jiān). It’s important to distinguish between the words that you can use, and the words you should use.
To wrap up, even though I have said it multiple times, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of listening to real native-speakers! The ONLY WAY to get better at sounding more fluent and more native is by copying the way that native speakers talk. Listen to their word choice, where they place emphasis, where they drop tones.
You don't need to be in China either! You can do this through watching movies and TV shows, talking to as many native speakers as possible, and lastly, through our new Upper Intermediate Conversational Course, which uses real world dialogue footage filmed in China. The more you are able to immerse yourself, the faster your speech will sound like a native speaker’s.
Good luck and have fun practicing!