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I am mainly wondering as to what causes me to hear the initial of 他 and 大 when spoken by a native chinese speaker as a clear T.

However, if a native speaker speaks 的 and 特, I clearly hear the initials as D and T respectively.

Now, I know about T being aspirated and D as not. And I am an english speaker for purposes of background, and that may just very well account for it.

I was previously told by a chinese native to just say the D as a clear D in 大 but it leaves me a bit disastified because it is not close to what it is I hear that natives speak.

Am I alone in this situation or can other english speakers relate? Or can native chinese who know English also relate?

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6 Answers 6

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The pinyin t is aspirated and d is neither aspirated nor voiced in Modern Standard Chinese.

I could see two main reasons for what you are hearing (not mutually exclusive) :

(A) No language has exact sounds (phones) that correspond to a given "letter" (phoneme), but rather a range of sounds (phones) are mapped to the same "letter" (phoneme). Essentially, the range of possible sounds are partitioned into different groups.

Now, the partitioning of the sounds varies between languages. That is, the region that is understood as d in Mandarin overlaps with, but does not equal the region in English that is understood as d. So, the natural variation of d in Mandarin can cross over the d/t boundary that your brain has, without crossing the d/t boundary of a native Mandarin speaker's brain. That is, to you they "sound" different, but to a native Mandarin speaker, they "sound" the same.

As an example in the reverse direction, think of nu and nü. These are very different sounds, but both are typically mapped to just nu by a native English speaker.

(B) What you are hearing is actually not strictly Modern Standard Chinese, but one of the probably hundreds of variations that exist naturally in China (think of all the different accents of English; there are even more in China because of topolects). Such variation makes it even more likely that the d/t boundary is crossed for your brain.

I would recommend pronouncing d and t as in Modern Standard Chinese for now as this will be the most clearly understood across China. Also, without having a solid new mapping for Standard Chinese in your brain, it will be very hard to make sure you are not deviating from Standard Chinese more than the local variety does, making you difficult to understand. Then, once you are fluent (or at least close to B2), you could localize your speech to whichever accent you prefer.

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Seen many questions elsewhere about why you cannot hear the same sound in 大 and 的. Speaking of pronunciation organs, tt's because when you pronouce /da/ the vowel 'a' makes your tounge shrink back a little bit, your mouth opens bigger, so the inside of your mouth expands, the 'a' sound causes 'd' to become thicker. The other way around, pronouncing /de/ your tounge is more relaxed, and beware do not put in too much aspiration it will make a /te/ (i.e. 特 [special]). So in short the vowels does make the consonant sound a bit different! Phonetically it is called regressive assimilation of sound. Click here because they explained way better than I did.

Back to the main question, 他 and 大 have the same vowel, so in both cases your tounge put the same position, but the difference is, the consonant in 他 is voiceless and aspirated, while that of 大 is voiced (which means your vocal cords must vibrate in other to make that sound).

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I guess it wasn't the case but -

According to 汉典, "大", while it is typically pronounced as "dà" or "dài", does have a pronunciation of "tài", the same as "太" and "泰" in ancient times/uses.

  • 大 [ㄊㄞˋ tài] <形> - 至高無上的。清·江沅《說文釋例·卷上·釋字例·大》:「古兄作『大』,不作『太』、『泰』。《易》之『大極』,《春秋》之『大子』、『大上』,《尚書》之『大誓』、『大王王季』,《史》、《漢》之『大上皇』、『大后』,後人皆讀為太。或徑改本書,作『太』及『泰』。」 通「太」、「泰」。

So, depending on the context of speaking, confusion may result if no clarification is made.

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In Traditional Chinese ,

, pronounce ㄉㄚˋ
The 「ㄉ」 is pronounce d

, pronounce ㄊㄚ
The 「ㄊ」 is pronounce t

You can check it by here

Press the speaker:
https://translate.google.com/?sl=zh-TW&tl=en&text=%E4%BB%96%E5%A4%A7&op=translate

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  • If you listen to any chinese native teacher teaching in english and hear them say 大 or 的, do you not hear one initial as a T and the other as a D?
    – user55570
    May 15 at 1:41
  • @user55570 Just like teaching English! Will the pronunciation taught by an American teacher or a British teacher be the same?
    – James
    May 15 at 2:50
  • I am not disputing that point but what I think is true is that most native teachers who enunciate clearly speak the same. And what is also true is that the D initial should sound the same regardless of the hanzi. Like 大 and 的 initials should sound the same because they both have the same pinyin initial D. But if you listen to many available examples of native teachers speaking it, one sounds like a clear T and the other sounds like D consistently. There are plenty of examples that can be looked but just a few to consider youtu.be/SYfoqSf2eQI and youtu.be/2A6dXLkPu9w
    – user55570
    May 15 at 9:20
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Chinese d, b, and g aren't as voiced as their English counterparts (and much less voiced then their counterparts in Romance languages). Conversely, Chinese t, p, and k are more aspirated than English t, p and k.

To visualise their difference, you could imagine placing them all on a continuum from more voiced to more aspirated (I'll add an easy, non-IPA shorthand within brackets to hint at their different degrees of voicing):

↑voiced & unaspirated

  • English D ("d")
  • Chinese D ("dt")
  • English T ("t")
  • Chinese T ("tt")

↓ unvoiced & aspirated

You can apply the same logic to B vs P and K vs G.

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  • If you listen to any chinese native teacher and hear them say 大 or 的, do you not hear one initial as a T and the other as a D? Like for example from here: youtube.com/watch?v=SYfoqSf2eQI and youtube.com/watch?v=2A6dXLkPu9w
    – user55570
    May 15 at 1:44
  • You may sometimes hear 的 or other words pronounced with a voiced D, but that's just an allophone, often resulting from juxtaposition with a particular final (or from the lack of one). It's really the D in 大 you want to aim at, which is similar to a French/Spanish/Italian T as well as to the T in the English word "stop" (as opposed to the T in the English word "top"). Can you hear the unaspirated T in "stop" (vs "top")? Can you hear it in the French word "tout" (vs English "two")? That's the canonical D in STANDARD Mandarin. Voiced Ds, however, are heard too sometimes, and are understandable.
    – Sanchuan
    May 15 at 13:28
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If you cannot speak the two sounds differently, then you cannot tell the difference of the two sounds when listening to other people speak them. On the other hand, if you speak the two sounds clearly then you would know that the other people may be not correct.

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  • I think you speak wisdom. But one question if I may - when you listen to a chinese friend speak 大 and 的, do you hear the same D initial in both cases?
    – user55570
    May 15 at 9:24
  • If someone really can't distinguish between these two sounds, it's best to go to the hospital to have their hearing checked.
    – James
    May 17 at 0:47

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