Have you been learning Chinese for a while, but you still feel intimidated to engage in a conversation with a native speaker? Are you feeling frustrated because you sound like a textbook when you speak Chinese? Or maybe you’ve opened your mouth and the right words are just not coming to mind?
We feel your struggles, and here are our tips to help you sound more natural without a lot of work.
1. Master the basics – the pronunciation and tones
It is a common myth that Chinese pronunciation and tones are confusing for many people who just started to learn Chinese. The ‘tricky initials’ and the jumping tones could make it even harder for Chinese learners to speak fluently.
Click here for our previous blog article: 4 Reasons Chinese is not as hard as you think to see how we bust the myth and share useful tips to master pronunciations and tones.
2. Use filler words like a native!
Just like all the other languages, there are a variety of filler words in Chinese. Not only can filler words help fill the silence, but they can also help maintain the conversation flow and make you sound more natural.
Common filler words in Chinese include 那个 nèi ge (like ‘uh……’), 就是 jiù shì (similar to ‘it’s like……’), 然后 rán hòu (then/ and then……), 呃 e/ 嗯 en (like ‘um/hm……’).
Using filler words appropriately will make you more comfortable when you need some time to think about what to say next and search for the right word. Of course, we should avoid over-using them as you may sound lacking preparation and confidence.
3. Stress the right word
Word emphasis exists in a lot of languages. We place emphasis on certain words in a sentence to express emotions or meanings.
However, it is a bit tricky in Chinese as it is a tonal language. Changing the tone of a word will lead to a change in the meaning. Therefore, the common ways to stress a syllable in Chinese are making the syllable longer, saying it louder, and pronouncing it extremely clearly.
Putting stress in the right word can make you sound more natural and less like a robot.
4. Pause at the right place
Take the sentence: 你今天吃饭了吗？
The right place to pause is: 你 – 今天 – 吃饭了 – 吗？You-today-ate-question?
If you’ve paused at the wrong place, and said 你今 – 天吃 – 饭- 了吗? It will be more difficult for someone to understand you.
Saying characters together that make up a word in Chinese, rather than pausing at random places will instantly improve your speaking skills and make you more understandable.
This also allows you to not feel like having to rush your speaking, as long as you are pausing at the right place, you can pause as long as you like, and it will still be easily understood (people may just think you are thinking!)
5. Pick up some useful idioms
Chinese idioms (成语 chéngyŭ) are frequently used in conversations with native speakers. These idioms are linked to Chinese history and values and some of them are from traditional fables. The meaning behind these fables is condensed into these 4-character idioms that we use nowadays.
Just like in English, it is common to use idioms like ‘kill two birds with one stone’. There is a similar idiom in Chinese too. We say ‘一箭双雕 yí jiàn shuāng diāo’, meaning ‘one arrow, two vultures’. Using idioms can spice up your speaking and show that you have a good understanding of Chinese culture.
6. Practice speaking and listening with native speakers
All in all, the above tips can help you speak Chinese more fluently and naturally. But the most important thing is to expose yourself more to a native Chinese-speaking environment. By listening to native speakers and learning from the practices, you will get there steadily – to speak Chinese like a pro!
If you are based in London, check out China Unbound’s Language Meetup 中英语交流 for our weekly language social meetup.
If it is not possible to practice with a native speaker, there are still a lot of learning resources that can help. Listening to authentic conversations is a good way to improve both your listening and speaking. We highly recommend Youku and Mango TV for Chinese dramas and TV shows. For podcasts, ChinesePod is a great option for learners of different levels.