Correct Pronunciation and Stroke Order in Chinese

by Richard L Woodard

When learning Mandarin, it's common to hear people say "this word ought to be pronounced like this, but everyone says that". If you believe that dictionaries decide what's correct in a language, such a comment isn't strange, but if you think that dictionaries are there to describe how the language is actually used, there's something troubling with saying that a majority of speakers are wrong. Shouldn't the majority decide what's right?

Popular Language and Official Standards

The majority does decide how a language evolves, but official standards always lag behind. Research shows that most attempts at controlling the development of a spoken language are futile, so the main difference between various approaches lies in how quickly standards change. Some governments merely try to provide guidelines for clear communication, others are more prescriptive, telling you what you ought to say or write. The latter attitude is common in China.

The standard dictionary used in China is called 现代汉语词典 (it is, unfortunately, only available in paper form). This is the dictionary that students use to prepare for exams. If news anchors on public television deviate from the norm, they are penalized (reduced salary). If you sit an official exam, it doesn't matter if everyone you know pronounces 一模一样 "identical, exactly the same" as "yìmóyíyàng", it will still be wrong (it should be "yìmúyíyàng").

What's Right for You

Still, what's right and what's wrong depends on what your goals with learning Chinese are.

If you care about official exams or want a job as a teacher, it makes sense to focus on the official standard, but for most students, it matters little. Who says the government should decide how people pronounce their own native language? People say things the way they want, so language development is democratic in this sense.

Thus, listen to what people say around you. If you manage to sound like them, you're doing a very good job. If you want to communicate with people from all over China, it makes sense to not adapt too many local habits, but there's no reason to be hypercorrect either. Insisting that your native speaking friends are wrong about their own language isn't going to make you many friends. Being aware of the standard pronunciation is never a bad idea, though, you just don't need to adhere to it 100% if you don't have a special reason to do so.

Beyond Pronunciation

What I have said in this article so far mostly refers to pronunciation, but the same is of course true for other areas of learning Chinese, such as stroke order. There are many ways of writing the same character, but usually only one "correct" way. Does it matter if you use the "wrong" stroke order? No, not really, as long as it does its job.

However, this doesn't mean that you should make up your own stroke order! The stroke order is there for a reason; it makes handwriting easier, it's just that in some cases, there are several competing orders. The stroke order you find in most online dictionaries is good enough, albeit not always 100% officially correct.

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