Blog

Backchaining : The best tool for difficult Chinese Pronuciation

Here’s another essential tool to add to your language toolbox: Backchaining. This tool focuses particularly on helping you with Chinese pronunciation, especially for working methodically through difficult to say words and phrases.

What is Backchaining and how does it help with our Chinese pronunciation?

Backchaining is a simple tool you can use to help pronounce difficult words, phrases and sentences. Despite it’s simplicity backchaining is highly effective.

The quickest way to explain backchaining is to show you an example. Let’s assume you are totally new to Chinese. We’ll use backchaining to show how we can start pronouncing Chinese words.

This is a highly simplified example to show the concept – don’t worry though as we can apply the tool of backchaining to much more complicated words, phrases, sentences, song lyrics and poems later.

Let’s imagine we are learning the Chinese word for “happy” : 快乐 kuàilè

The order we would say (and learn the word) is as follows:


e
le

ailè
uailè
kuailè
kuàilè

Listen to this recording as it makes the process much more obvious.

We are breaking the word up into its minimal sounds and adding them one at a time until we can chain all the sounds together fluently in a complete word.

As you add more and more sounds to those you already remember you can work up to the whole word.

Why do we go backwards?

There’s an alternative method called frontchaining which follows the same incremental addition process from the front of the word: k, kuai, kuài, kuàil, kuàile, kuàilè.

This is a valid method and much more common but backchaining is better. When working backwards you always start with the newest sound so there’s less chance of you forgetting it. When frontchaining, by the time you’ve completed the sounds you already know you may have forgotten the new sound you are meant to be adding.

Additionally working backwards in Chinese makes more sense because of tone change rules. Explaining why this is so in writing is really difficult but in short it’s better to work backwards because the directionality of tone change rules affects the first (of two) characters involved in the tone change.

I know how to pronounce words, what’s the use of backchaining for me?

Whilst I started with a word based backchaining example these very same principles can be applied to phrases, sentences or indeed multiple sentences. We simply change the minimum size unit that we are using as building blocks.

In the 快乐 example above we broke the word down into its minimum size pinyin components: k, u, ai, l, e.

In the case of a sentence like 我很高兴认识你 we could instead use the words as our minimum unit:


认识你
高兴认识你
很高兴认识你
我很高兴认识你

or alternatively use the individual characters:


识你
认识你
兴认识你
高兴认识你
很高兴认识你
我很高兴认识你

In this case if you can I’d recommend using the word example (ie. 高兴 rather than 高 + 兴 as separate characters).

If you have difficulty with a particular word then you can use the process we used with 快乐 above to get a grip of the word and then insert it into the sentence.

For more advanced speakers you can use backchaining for song lyrics, poetry or indeed anything that might be tricky to pronounce fluently. Backchaining provides a framework for practicing difficult to pronounce sounds, whether they are individual words or complete stanzas of Tang dynasty poetry.

Using Backchaining with your Speaking Partner

Ideally you can have your speaking partner (language exchange, tutor or teacher) help guide your backchaining. Need a speaking partner ? Get a free language exchange or paid tutor/teacher at iTalki.

You would simply have them work through the phrases you are trying to master backwards as in the examples above but with you listening and repeating after them. As you master each section they can add the next sound.

Combining backchaining and instantaneous feedback is an extremely powerful method to  to help you achieve fluent sounding Chinese much faster.