Chinese Language Learning – Seeing actual tone contours with Audacity

I was trying to understand how the hell tones are actually pronounced in full sentences, at normal or fast speed. We all know that the tones we learn are exaggerated, and only make sense in single words, or in stressed words. Unless you talk like a robot, native speakers’ sentences contain unstressed parts, and the tones in those parts sound different than the tones we have learned: they sound “reduced”, fast, with a centralized pitch, and a very limited pitch range. In other words, to a learner it sounds like a lot of unstressed tones become neutral tones, more or less. In fact, lots of learners keep asking if native speakers actually pronounce the tones in fast speech (there are several questions here on Reddit).

I’m just a learner trying to go from “pronouncing single words” to “pronouncing full sentences”. My single words can sound pretty good, my full sentences don’t. If I try to pronounce all the tones correctly, full sentences sound very different from those I hear from native speakers. If I want to copy what I hear, I have to really reduce some tones to the point that I end up wondering: am I even still pronouncing it, or am I neutralizing it? So I wanted to find a way to actually see the tones, to check if perception matches reality, because we all know that’s now always the case in many situations (including in linguistics).

I was listening to these examples, taken from []( (great website with free lessons and audio recordings), and as usual I noticed some tones are not pronounced as I expected.

**wo3 zai4 zher4, ni3 ne?** (what tone is **zai4** here? Doesn’t sound like 4th to me)

**wo3 bu2 hui4 shuo1 han1 yu3, ni3 ne?** (that **bu2** doesn’t sound like a 2nd tone to me)

Audacity is free software that most of you probably already know. Is there a way to see pitch contours? I tried the spectrogram (settings: range 100-2000/4000; scale: logarithmic; window: rectangular). Here’s the result for those two sentences:


Result: if that spectrogram has any meaning at all, that **zai4** isn’t a falling tone, it doesn’t fall, it looks like a “high neutral tone”, a half-way between a neutral tone and a high tone, and that’s actually how it sounded to me. The **bu2** is actually rising though, but it’s not a very clear 2nd tone, it looks like an extremely reduced 2nd tone which almost becomes a neutral tone.

At this point what I’m asking is:

1. Is this a reliable way to check tones in audio files? Do you have any tips on how this could be improved in Audacity, or with any other common opensource software?
2. Are the reductions and pronunciation in those audio files expected from a native speaker, or are they uncommon or dialectal?
3. Do you think native speakers, teachers, and learners are aware of these reductions and neutralization of tones, or do you think most of us (except linguists) are instead convinced we hear the tones even when we actually don’t? Like, maybe you hear the 4th tone because you know there must be a 4th tone there, but it’s just a trick of your mind because the 4th tones isn’t really a 4th tone. I heard that this contrast between perception and reality happens in languages even for native speakers (and for non-native speakers it’s of course a nightmare).

View Reddit by professor_baloneyView Source


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