1

I have learned reading only so my reading and listening levels are drastically different. I finally started to learn speaking and listening five weeks ago but I have been quite struggling with distinguishing the different yet similar sounds while hearing.

Example:

  • shen
  • xiang
  • xian
  • sheng
  • shan
  • shang

Or

  • zhang
  • zhen
  • zheng
  • zhan

Or

  • chuang
  • chuan
  • chang

Or

  • chen
  • chan
  • cheng
  • chang

Or

  • shi
  • xi

Not only these sounds, but Chinese also have 4 different sounds on each syllable, which is practically impossible for me to locate which sound points to which character and word.

Honestly, even when I hear them many times all of these sounds sound the same, and it feels practically impossible to differentiate these sounds correctly.

My question:

  • Can Chinese people distinguish these sounds correctly? For example if a person says xiàng, do Chinese correctly locate its word and accent?

  • Do foreigners who are fluent in Chinese understand these sounds correctly? Or do they solely rely on context to differentiate which sounds they are?

  • Being non-natives, how can I improve myself to differentiate them properly?

  • what do you think of the reason we call them different sounds? because they ARE different and native speakers are sensitive to these different sounds. maybe you should consider changing to a STANDARD Mandarin listening material with slower speed. – user19549 May 29 '18 at 1:05
4

This is a very good question, which I also run into while I was learning English.

My approach to this is to learn 最小的语言单位 (I defined it as a Minimum Language Unit, MLU). I invented that term here, lol. MLU is a minimum language unit that can express something in practice. For example, the single character 向 xiang 4 doesn't mean anything and it's only valid in the phrase like 方向. Put it in a sentence: 我找不到方向. Here I treat 我, 找不到,方向 as MLUs, because each denotes the minimum meaning of the language.

When you read/listen, try not to focus on each single character, but on MLUs, because a single character might be meaningless for comprehension.

This is also the way I do for English. For example, I'll catch you later, make sure you won't be ripped off, where I'll, catch you later, make sure, you won't be, ripped off are all considered as my MLUs. In this way, my reading level and my listening level are almost the same and they are much better than my writing. When I listen, I try to catch those MLUs instead of word for word. This also helps the speed for comprehension. When you hear something spoken out in your second language, usually you might have to take some time to digest internally. The shorter time you consume, the better listening you will have.

Another point, which is also very important, is the cadence. When you hear a native speaker speaks, he/she always follows some kind of rhythm and along with some tone emphasis(I am not sure how to describe it correctly, but hopefully it'll be clear). You should learn to capture that cadence as well. It would take you some time, but it wouldn't be very hard I think.

I personally had been very successful with this approach. My foreign colleagues, who are American native speakers, feel that they are free to communicate with me and easy to get their thoughts come through when we discuss technical issues. They don't have to slow down when they talk to me. I hope this approach could help you as well!

Good luck!

  • This can be the science theory to my answer : ) – Jacob May 29 '18 at 1:35
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Of course, Chinese can distinguish them. But we highly rely on context.

For example, if you say xiàng merely, I have no way to figure out it, 像? 向? 象? If you have accents, it could be 想, 香, 翔...

However, if you add more words, I will know it, the process is like unconscious pattern matching.

Consider this

Liu xiang xiang xiang hai zi yi yang xiang jia xiang de fang xiang fei xiang.

It does not include tone indicator, but almost all Chinese will know it without a problem, believe it or not. In fact, When Chinese use pinyin in practical, we do not add tones.

Here is process:

First I read Liu xiang, modern Chinese tend to use double characters to form word. That's why did not try to read Liu only.

Liu xiang match 刘翔 first in my mind, so I continue.

xiang xiang would be 想象 immediately, then even if you don't know 刘翔, you still know Liu xiang is a name, otherwise it doesn't make sense to be followed by 想象.

hai zi -> 孩子, yi yang -> 一样, then I realize xiang xiang should be 想像. the phrase is 想像孩子一样.

xiang jia? does not make sense , so I continue, xiang jiang xiang -> ? 家乡,

then de would be simply 的, fang xiang -> 方向, until here, I know the whole phrase should be 向家乡的方向, at last fei xiang -> 飞翔, no much sense, but this is best I can have.

The whole process will be completed in seconds unconsciously, btw, I read a pinyin word directly, do not need to read as l + iu = liu.

2

Depending on what region they live in, quite a lot of natives cannot distinguish them very clearly, not only when listening, but also when speaking and typing.

And that's why many Chinese input methods have the function 模糊音 like this: enter image description here

However, most time this is not a big deal in practice. There are already so many characters sharing exactly same sound after all, right? As dan said, focus on words. Words and phrases in context are what really matter, not single characters : )

  • I just recalled that I heard many people from Jiangsu can't distinguish -n and -ng. – Blaszard May 30 '18 at 19:13
  • @Blaszard, Many southern people can't, not only Jiangsu, and northern people can't distinguish z,c,s and zh,chi,shi, include myself, except frequently used one like 吃, 四, 十..., (I practiced those intentionally), I just don't know whether it is zh/ch/sh or z/c/s – Jacob Jun 4 '18 at 5:24
  • @Jacob northern people can't distinguish a,c,s and she,chi,Shi might be a wrong statement. I have an impression that they can distinguish them easily. – dan Jun 6 '18 at 1:34
1

Even native Chinese speakers sometimes have trouble distinguish similar sounding short phrases without enough context

For example:

Both 因緣 and 姻緣 are pronounced /Yīnyuán/ in Mandarin

If I only hear 'Yīnyuán' I cannot be sure it is '因緣', as in '因緣祭會'; or '姻緣', as in '姻緣天定'

漁火 /Yúhuǒ/ and 如火 /Rú huǒ/ are pronounced the same in Cantonese as /jyu4 fo2/

If I only hear 'jyu4 fo2' I cannot be sure it is '漁火', as in '漁火點點'; or '如火', as in '如火如荼'

The key is having enough context

Can Chinese people distinguish these sounds correctly? For example if a person says xiàng, do Chinese correctly locate its word and accent?

Do foreigners who are fluent in Chinese understand these sounds correctly? Or do they solely rely on context to differentiate which sounds they are?

Native Chinese and foreigners who are fluent in Chinese can distinguish the /ming/ and /Yì/ sound, but they won't be sure it is 明 or 名 ; 異 or 義

Being non-natives, how can I improve myself to differentiate them properly?

the answer is 'speak more and listen more'

Notice: common terms like 明白,知道,瞭解 can be distinguished easily because we use them so often, they would be the first things that come up in our mind when we hear the pinyin for them even with slight accent

  • I watched a science program on YouTube, the narrator had speech-impediment and read "Earth" as "Orrr" . But I could still understand he meant "Earth" because the full sentence was " The Orrr has a giant moon". – Tang Ho May 28 '18 at 21:28
  • Thanks for the answer but my question focuses on the similar, yet different sound like xiang and xian, not ming and yi (which I also distinguish). – Blaszard May 30 '18 at 19:16
1

Let's be realistic: if you've only spent five weeks learning speaking and listening it is all only going to be gobbledygook. It probably feels pretty frustrating and hopeless at this point. That’s normal.

I would opt to say that the key to your differentiating would be in the finals (韵母) & their combinations with initials (声母).

Taking your first example as a start:

Example:

shen xiang xian sheng shan shang

You have finals like: -en, -eng, -an, -ang which are never paired with initial x-. There is no: xen, xeng, xang- these just simply don’t exist. Likewise, -iang and -ian never pair with initial -sh.

A lot of time simply focusing on the final will more or less give you the whole picture.

1

If you have only been learning for 5 weeks, you probably just need to listen and practice more. Maybe you could get a textbook with a CD. Read the pinyin while you listen. You can also use electronic flashcards. Have the pinyin on one side, and the character + sound file on the other. Or you could try to write pinyin for characters that you hear, and use google to check. There are websites where you can do tone practice. Sometimes I listen to Chinese speaking, and don't worry about the meaning, but just listen for different sounds and tones. The more you listen, the better you will get.

1

Being non-natives, how can I improve myself to differentiate them properly?

I would recommend having a look at the Yoyo Chinese Pinyin Chart. There are plenty of Pinyin charts out there, but this one has videos covering the sounds which English speakers typically find difficult (look for the video icons next to some of the initials, finals, and syllables). It is very helpful for distinguishing sounds which appear to the unfamiliar ear to be similar.

If you have access to ChinesePod (or don't mind paying to get access), their Pinyin Program also does a good job of explaining the more difficult to distinguish sounds. This is how I originally overcame my difficulties in this area.

These aren't the only Pinyin resources, but I strongly recommend that you find and use at least one that includes explanations of the sounds, not just samples of the sounds. Once you understand how a word is pronounced (i.e. how to shape your tongue/mouth while saying it) and have practised it yourself, then you will be able to hear the differences much more easily.

Other than that, I would say just don't worry about it. Once you have studied enough Mandarin (with your knowledge of Pinyin sound explanations), it will become so second nature that you won't even think about it anymore.

Do foreigners who are fluent in Chinese understand these sounds correctly? Or do they solely rely on context to differentiate which sounds they are?

I am nowhere near fluent. I have just recently completed HSK3 and have commenced HSK4. I reached the point that I had little trouble differentiating any of the Pinyin sounds (at least the carefuly pronounced ones I come across in learning materials) by the time I was done with HSK1. I did however study a wide range of materials rather intensively, including books, audio CDs, ChinesePod, Memrise, Anki, etc. If you focus on absorbing as much material as you can, whilst making an extra effort to get your pronunciation right as you go, then you will eventually reach that point too.

Can Chinese people distinguish these sounds correctly? For example if a person says xiàng, do Chinese correctly locate its word and accent?

A Chinese person listening to someone with decent pronunciation will undoubtedly pick up the sound and the tone (which I assume is what you mean by accent). Even to me, something like xiang4 and shang4 sound completely different, as does xiang4 and xiang1. As for locating the word, if said in isolation and without a context, then no. This is because for any given syllable + tone combination there can be multiple characters. 相 and 向 for example can both be pronounced as xiang4 and you would not be able to tell them apart unless they were said as part of a larger construct.

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