This is one of the biggest problems facing language learners that impedes on their listening comprehension and fluency.

As mentioned earlier, having a large vocabulary or even reading comprehension will not take you to fluency and it may give you a false understanding of the fluent spoken language. This is primarily due to one thing that your teachers will never teach you, simply because they haven’t completely weighed the importance of one small, particular area of linguistics. And that is simply the phonemic vs. phonetic difference.

Students who only know the “phonemic” system will never reach fluency. Fluency requires “phonetic” ability in a language, and the ability to build a bridge from “phonemic” to “phonetic“. Without it, students bottleneck, get frustrated, even give up. It is a very serious problem.

You see, as we discover new languages out in the forests and mountain valleys, linguists are in the process of recording them and giving them writing systems for the first time, so they can write dictionaries and grammars to add to our knowledge of linguistics in general. One of their first of many jobs is to determine how many sounds the language has. Sometimes what we consider different sounds in our own language are actually considered the same sound in their language. True, on a computer graph, they appear as different sounds, however, in their language there is no point in creating two different letters for a sound that they consider as one. This is because you can say a word with either of the two sounds, and the native speaker still hears the same meaning. However, if he hears a different meaning then we need to consider these as two different sounds (with two different letters) in their language. It’s a binary testing process: take two sounds, put them in different words and test whether you get different meanings or not. In other words, we’re reducing the writing system down to the fewest symbols necessary to write the language. This is the phonemic system. And many existing languages that have old writing systems actually still use a phonemic system, but with the passing of centuries, many exceptions start to crop up. Let me use the moribund language Thao for example, spoken by no more than five aborigines next to Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan. In this example, we’re trying to determine how many vowels the language has. Linguists in the beginning realize it has no more than 5 vowels [a e i o u]. With a list of words, they determine the true phonemic count of vowels. The words recorded below are what we actually hear from a native speaker followed by the spellings that linguists gave them:

“head” > [punoq] > {punuq}
“bird” > [romfadh] > {rumfaz}
“five” > [rema] > {rima}
“six” > [katoro] > {katuru}
“ten” > [makthin] > {makthin}
“mountain” > [hudun] > {hudun}
“cloud” > [orom] > {urum}
“to wash” > [flhoq] > {flhuq}

As you can see, phonemically there are only three vowels /a i u/, but phonetically there are five vowels [a {i e} {u o}]. It is easier to write a language with fewer sounds using those perceived by native speakers as the same, even though they come out a little bit differently in spoken speech based on the position in the word. This phenomenon also occurs in English, Chinese, Arabic, well in fact, every language of the world. As a student, you must be acutely aware of the phonemic system that every teacher is required to teach, and the actual phonetic sounds that you will need to use in order to communicate fluently. In Arabic, you can’t pronounce /a/ the same after emphatic consonants, the vowel becomes higher and farther back in the mouth. But let’s turn our attention to the American English {t} to drive this point home, with each example followed by the foreign (Chinese) accent pronunciation:

“8” > [eʲʔ] ~ [eʲt̚] > {eight} > foreign accent: [etʰ]
“18” > [eʲʔtʰiːʲn] > {eighteen} > foreign accent: [etʰin]
“20” > [tʰʷɛːɾ̃iʲ] ~ [tʰʷɛːn͡niʲ] > {twenty} > foreign accent: [tʰʷɛntʰi]
“30” > [t̪⁼əːʴɾiʲ] > {thirty} > foreign accent: [θəʴtʰi]
“50” > [fɪft⁼iʲ] > {fifty} > foreign accent: [fɪftʰi]
“70” > [sɛːvɪːndiʲ] > {seventy} > foreign accent: [sɛvɛntʰi]
“80” > [eːʲɾiʲ] > {eighty} > foreign accent: [etʰi]

As we can see, the American English that is taught to Chinese students phonemically is that there is only one {t}, taught phonemically as /t/. But in reality, there are seven phonetic values [tʰ t⁼ t̚ ʔ d ɾ ɾ̃] that occur in different environments, not including changes that occur between words. Without any prior knowledge of the phonetic values of the American English {t}, all of these Chinese students end up speaking English with heavy accents primarily caused by consonants, with some lesser interference from vowels.

By understanding up front that every language has a written phonemic system that differs by some degree from the spoken phonetic system, every student of foreign languages will be able to mentally build a bridge between the two.

This very difference in phonemic and phonetic has caused millions of students to give up on learning foreign languages, simply because the system taught to them in school was so loosely connected to what they heard in fluent speech thereby causing too much frustration. The whole problem leads to frustration, inability to comprehend, low self-esteem, and even giving up.

On your mission to learn Chinese, you will also realize that what you hear in conversation or fast speech is going to differ quite a bit from the pinyin transcription. Your knowledge of that difference will help you build a bridge to phonetic fluency.