Translation:The cat is on the chair.
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Since I first asked this question 5 months ago, I just started to hear a small difference after doing the 下面 and 上面 exercises that come up later in the course.
下 makes a longer and more distinct "a" sound at the end like "aaah". Whereas the ending "a" sound in 上 is much shorter because of the nasal "ng" that follows. Also, when watching shows filmed in China, I hear an airy "h" sound being stressed for 上 (shang) in human speech.
Even with 上面 and 下面 it is still hard to tell the difference so I guess it's something that will just take practice.
I still can't hear the difference and I don't understand why a language would make two opposite things sound so similar. I mean, in sailing there used to be "larboard" and "starboard" but if you yelled that into the wind you might be misheard and crash! Hence, "port" and "starboard." To Chinese speakers ever get confused as to where the cat is???
You learn to hear the difference between sh and x. I promise there really is one. (I mean, I guess you could also learn to hear whether the "a" is nasalized or not, but for me that's harder than sh versus x.)
If you experimentally pronounce sh and s, you'll hear that s is higher pitched. sh is lower, especially the Chinese-style sh, where the tip of your tongue curls backwards (as if to say r) so that its underside is facing your teeth. That makes a bigger hollow between your tongue and your lips, which helps boost the low frequencies. (This is also why you round your lips if you want to shush someone extra strongly.)
x is in between, but to me it sounds closer to s than to (Chinese-style) sh. It's easier to recognize if you can pronounce it, which you do by making a medium-small hollow in your mouth that will boost the medium-high frequencies.
If you are one of the people who pronounces s with your tongue pointing to your bottom teeth, you're halfway there. You are already making air flow through a tiny slot between the blade of your tongue and the hard ridge behind your top teeth. The slot is so narrow that the airflow breaks into turbulence, which is the source of the sound.
To get to x, you just need to move the slot a tiny bit, from the hard ridge to the steep slope just behind it. Say s really loud, so that you can feel the position of the slot from the turbulent air shooting out of it. Then flex your tongue so that the spot just behind the slot rises toward the roof of your mouth, while everything from the slot forward to the tip drops.
For those of us who pronounce s with the tips of our tongues pointing to our top teeth, there are two ways to approach x. You can figure out how to pronounce the other s (you'll have to push your tongue forward as well as turning the tip down) and go from there, or you can start with the "noise slot" behind the target and slip it forward.
To do this, whisper the word "key" as slowly as you can. Not a stage whisper that comes from a nice open throat, but a menacing, hissing whisper that you can feel rushing down your tongue. Practice making it longer and louder. You'll find this requires you to keep your tongue closer and closer to the roof of your mouth and move the "eeee" further and further forward. Once you reach maximum hiss, stop saying the k, and what's left is Chinese x.
If you push this sound too far forward, it will actually turn into the tongue-down s, but that's OK, just back it off a tiny bit. And if you accidentally hit the roof of your mouth with your tongue, so that the airflow stops entirely, that's a happy accident; break contact, but remember how it feels and sounds (a little like baby talk, to be honest), because that's exactly the gesture you need for pinyin q and j.
Now you can play around saying "sh x s x sh x s" (with the tongue-curling Chinese sh) and hear the pitch go up and down. Also, the set x/q/j is exactly parallel to sh/ch/zh and s/c/z, so once you have x dialed in, you will pick up q and j (and their respective differences from ch and zh) really quickly.
You're right, and I think the shorter way to explain is just to say that with s - x - sh the placement of the tongue moves on a continuum from further forward to further back. Some Chinese speakers pronounce x very forward, so it sounds like s in their dialect.
Describing them in terms of their "pitch" is confusing because the pitch will vary between speakers. We can only hear pitch difference in a comparison of one person going through the sounds side by side, not by a sentence in isolation. What we can hear is a difference in timbre. The sh is not a lower pitch but rather, in metaphorical terms (timbre is so hard to describe), "darker." The real key comes with the vowel, since its with the vowel that we get most of timbre. The x is adjacent to i vowel. Therefore, xi will happen, shi will not (or rather, in shi the i will be a different vowel sound). If we hear "i" and unsure whether we're hearing x or sh, we learn to infer that x is the right sound.
There may be a problem here in that so many Chinese speakers do pronounce x more like s, whereas, I think, the Beijing-based Mandarin courses are not teaching that. This pronunciation is clearly sh for someone who pronounces x closer to s, but for those learning the Beijing dialect their ears want a much more retroflex sh to hear it as such.
Like, for one person, it goes [forward] s - - x - - sh [back] , while for another it is [forward] s - x - sh -- [back]. x and sh are distinguished for both, but in the case of the second speaker, both sounds are more forward (although still separated from each other).
I'm not convinced however (with respect for your knowledge) that the main issue here is that all these users cannot hear the difference between x and sh. One one hand what you say sounds likely, but on the other hand I put some stock in the many user (some of who also have significant experience) who say the audio is wrong.
I wonder if the i in zi, preceding shang, is having an influence of making the sh in shang pronounce with the tongue more forward (a "laziness" issue). What I'm personally hearing is too much "i" in shang, coupled with so little "ng".
In sum, I love your explanation and think it's correct in general. But I remain thinking that the pronunciation in this audio is too subtle in its distinction. It may be a totally normal pronunciation in fast speech (and which learners will have to cope with), but it's not a great example to help with the ideal distinction being taught.
I'd love more info from qualified sources on the difference between dialects. I only have the anecdotal/haphazard observation that Beijing speakers seems to put everything more "backwards" (tongue) as compared to, say, Shanghai speakers. Hoping to learn more.
The difference shows how simplified Chinese fails to show how the composition of the character delivers the meaning of the character. In traditional Chinese, 豸 means an animal with a long vertebrate. 犭is also about vertebrates, but specifically referring to those in the canine family. So if you take the simplified Chinese seriously, the cat must be a canine!
Yes, but it also shows the efficiency of the simplified writing system as it reduces the number of radicals needed to understand the language by making most vertebrates into dogs, thereby asserting the long-known fact that the Chinese language was actually created by ancient canines. True story.
The audio is just plain wrong on that one. I fiddled around with listening to the complete sentence and the "shang" and "xia" tiles repeatedly. All of them had the same female voice and the (supposedly) "shang" in the sentence did not sound like the "shang" in the tile. I thought perhaps the "ng" might be left of as an example of actual "ng" dropping that does occur in everyday speech, and listened for a difference in the quality of the "x" and "sh" sounds at the beginning of the syllables... I must say, I think it's just a case of the Duolingo people making an error. Please fix this.