The University of Iowa

Tippie workshop helps faculty and staff learn to pronounce Chinese names properly

February 27th, 2013

By Tom Snee for Iowa Now

Students at Tippie
Chinese students at the University of Iowa may be used to hearing their names rendered into unrecognizable sounds by linguistically challenged faculty but it probably doesn't help them adjust to life in Iowa.

That's why the Tippie College of Business has begun offering a variety of programs focused on bridging the cultures, including a recent workshop to teach faculty and staff how to properly pronounce Chinese names. And not a moment too soon. This year, Tippie has 497 international students, 15 times more than the 34 international students enrolled in 2005; 412 of them are from China.

The workshops were attended by about 50 faculty, staff, and administrators and were conducted by Xi Ma, a program associate in the UI Confucius Institute in International Programs.

“When you see a Chinese name and you don’t understand Chinese, you have no idea how to pronounce the letters, even if they’re in English,” says Ma. For instance, x, which for those used to reading the Roman alphabet could be pronounced“eks”as in X-ray or even “z” as in xylophone is pronounced closer to “she” in Chinese. And “i” is pronounced “ee” in Chinese.

Ma says it's further complicated because Chinese is a much more tonal language than English, with four tones that don’t even exist in English. This is why, to Western ears, it has such a sing-song quality, and it makes pronunciation even more important in Chinese than in English. For instance, while you might expect Ma’s first name, Xi, to be pronounced “she,” the tone of the second syllable is much less drawn out, so the “ee” is pronounced with more of a half-count. Xi sounds more like “sheet,” only without the “t.”

“Tone is very important, and subtlety of pronunciation is important,” acknowledges Ma, who was trained as a Chinese-English translator and now works as a foreign language instructor. “It’s especially difficult with a person’s name because there’s nothing that tells you how to pronounce the tones, except to ask the person about his or her name in Chinese characters.”

In order to get those syllables and tones right, Westerners might have to twist their mouths into unfamiliar shapes.

To read the full article and hear Xi Ma demonstrate the correct pronunciation of 10 Chinese names, visit Iowa Now.