How to Pronounce 熱 (rè)


My First Challenge

If you've read How to Start Learning Chinese you know that I decided to learn Chinese by following the method described in that article. I chose Scurfield & Song as my first introductory audio course. My plan is to go lesson by lesson and learn basic phrases by repeating them after the recordings contained therein, trying to sound as close to the native speaker as I can.

Who would've thought! I ran into my first challenge before I even started Lesson 1. I was listening to the course's first audio file, Introduction & Pronunciation guide, just as a kind of casual warm-up before Lesson 1. The intro mostly consists of various isolated Chinese syllables with some instructions in English as to how to pronounce them. I was able to say all of them more or less close to the original, except for this one:

熱 (rè)

This is how the native speaker on the recording says it:

This is how I sound on the first day:

And this is 4 days later, after some practice:

How I've Been Struggling with 熱 (rè)

Pronunciation Analysis

I quickly realised that my problem with was rather complex. My mispronunciation was due to three causes:

  • I mispronounced the initial consonant r.
  • I also couldn't hear and get the vowel e right.
  • Even when I managed to say r and e as separate sounds close to the original I still mispronounced them as a whole because the consonant interfered with the vowel.

The initial consonant r is not the same as the English r as in room. It sounds somewhat similar to g in genre but it's not identical to this one either. I'd say that the Chinese r is somewhere in between the two. Also, I've noticed that r is not quite homogeneous. It is more like g (genre) at the start and becomes more like r (room) towards the end, however this change is very slight.

The vowel e is also different from the English schwa ə (the first sound in again). Many courses identify the Chinese e with the schwa, which may loosely be accurate but still, it is not the same. The Chinese e has a little bit of a nasal compenent, as in the last vowel of Chopin.

Combining r and e into one syllable also turned out to be difficult. The problem is that r is palatalised wheras e is not. In the initial consonant, the tongue is slightly raised towards the palate, just like in the English g in genre. My tongue would remain in the same palatalised position after I had said r, and sure enough, the vowel e would "inherit" the undesirable quality.

I know that many of you folks won't have difficulty pronouncing this syllable, but in my case, it was beyond my control. I was telling my tongue: "Don't do that," but it wouldn't listen.

Anyway, after a few days of practice I managed to decouple r and e with regard to palatalisation and I believe my 熱 (rè) sounds much better now.

Tools & Tips

I use the free editor Audacity for practising Chinese phrases from my introductory course. This excellent software has a convenient loop playback feature, which allows you to focus on your pronunciation without such annoying distractions as manual rewinds and latency.

If you really struggle with the pronunciation of a phrase, word, or syllable try splitting it up into smaller parts and getting them right first, just like I did with 熱 (rè). Your audio course will likely lack those but you can always find them elsewhere on the Interent, just make sure they are by native speakers. Alternatively, you can ask a Chinese friend to record them for you.

Always try to work on the whole phrase first. Use my advice about splitting the whole into parts only as a last resort.