#14 Learning Tip: How can I differentiate between "a" and "aa"? (English/粵語)

Cantonese is rich with vowel sounds, but some of them can be difficult for non-native speakers. One of the biggest challenges in this realm is differentiating between the "a" and "aa" sounds (with the classic example being gai1 (雞, chicken) vs. gaai1 (街, street)). Luckily, Raymond has three great tips for how to create more distinction between how you pronounce the two. 


 Vocabulary 
1. 判斷 pun3 dyun6 (V/N) to judge, judgement
2. 口音 hau2 jam1 (N) accent
3. 標準 biu1 zeon2 (N) standard
4. 分別 fan1 bit6 (N) difference
5. 街市 gaai1 si5 (N) wet market
6. 圓滿 jyun4 mun5 (ADJ) perfect
7. 完整 jyun4 zing2 (ADJ) complete, whole
8. 控制 hung3 zai3 (V/N) to control, control
9. 嘴型 zeoi2 jing4 (N) shape of mouth
10. 考慮 haau2 leoi6 (V/N) to consider, consideration
11. 分開 fan1 hoi1 (V) to separate
12. 明顯 ming4 hin2 (ADJ) obvious
13. (條)脷 (tiu4) lei6 (M+N) the tongue
14. 舌頭 sit3 tau4 (N) tongue
15. 位置 wai6 zi3 (N) position
16. 分辨 fan1 bin6 (V) to distinguish, to tell apart
17. 張開 zoeng1 hoi1 (V) to open wide
18. 放鬆 fong3 sung1 (V) to relax
19. (道)氣 (dou6) hei3 (M+N) the air
20. 空氣 hung1 hei3 (N) air
21. 道理 dou6 lei5 (N) reason
22. 提醒 tai4 seng2 (V) to remind
23. 肌肉 gei1 juk6 (N) muscle
24. 下顎 haa6 ngok6 (N) lower jaw
25. 元音 jyun4 jam1 (N) vowel
26. 鬆緊 sung1 gan2 (N) tightness (lax and tense)
27. 保持 bou2 ci4 (V) to keep, to maintain
28. 留意 lau4 ji3 (V) to pay attention
29. 角度 gok3 dou6 (N) perspective
30. 收緊 sau1 gan2 (V) to tighten
31. 挑戰性 tiu1 zin3 sing3 (N) challenge
32. 界線 gaai3 sin3 (N) boundary
33. 擔心 daam1 sam1 (V) to worry
34. 表達 biu2 daat6 (N/V) expression, to express
35. 練習 lin6 zaap6 (V/N) to practice, practice
36. 咬字 ngaau5 zi6 (N) diction, enunciation
37. 主持人 zyu2 ci4 jan4 (N) host
38. 表演 biu2 jin2 (N/V) performance, to perform


ADJ - Adjective
M+N - Measure word + noun
N - Noun
V - Verb

Transcript

Cameron: Raymond, in recent episodes, we've talked about different sounds that challenge learners of Cantonese. Another sound that I think is particularly difficult is the “a” sound, specifically the difference between a short “a” [a in Jyutping] and a long “a” [aa in Jyutping], so I'm thinking of the difference between “chicken” and “street”. I hear that like that is one that people mix up all the time. So how do you explain to students, how to make those as two different sounds?


Raymond: 你呢個問題問得太好喇。噉呢,因爲我哋去講呢個粵語嘅發音嘅時候呢,我呢好多時點樣判斷1一個人佢講廣東話有冇所謂嘅口音2呢,即係係咪同標準3有少少唔一樣呢,我就係聽佢呢個嘅一個 “a” 同兩個 “a” 嗰個分別4呀。噉有啲人叫佢哋做長短音啦,頭先你講嗰兩個例子啦,係好經典嘅,如果一個a,好似 “gai” 呢,噉係“雞”。“食雞”,“雞肉”嘅“雞”啦。噉如果兩個 “a”, “gaai” 呢,噉就係“街”啦,“行街”啦,“街市”啦,噉呀“你去街市5買雞啦”,噉呢個兩個字呢意思好唔一樣。

(This is a very good question, because when we talk about Cantonese pronunciation, one of the ways we frequently judge whether or not someone has an accent is whether they differ a little bit from standards, and I listen for the difference between the single “a” and the double “a.” Some people refer to them as a long or short sound, and the examples you just mentioned are classics, with a single “a,” like in gai1, being “chicken,” like in “to eat chicken,” “chicken meat,” that “chicken.” If there are two “a”s, like in gaai1, that would be “street,” as in “to walk (on the street)”, “(street) market”, like “you go to the market to buy chicken” [a sentence that uses both gai1 and gaai1]. These two words have meanings that are quite different.)



係喇,我點樣解釋呢,首先呢好多人就會見到嗰個拼音,因爲一個 “a” 兩個 “a”,就諗一個長啲一個短啲囉。噉呢個就唔係一個最圓滿6完整7嘅解釋嚟嘅。因爲呢,發音我兩個字呢,我都可以發到好長,都可以發到好短嘅。你話“我鍾意食雞”同“我鍾意食雞...”噉呀,其實長短都可以控制8,但係都係一個 “a”。相反“我去行街”同“去行街...”噉你會見到其實係我個嘴型9唔一樣,就唔係淨係個長短。噉我就會同啲學生講呢,你就要考慮10三個方面去將呢個一個 “a” 同兩個 “a” 呢就發得唔一樣,比較要分開11一啲。噉呢三點呢,第一個呢就係我哋啱啱講,一個嘴係大啲,一個嘴係細啲嘅。你覺得邊個大啲,邊個細啲呀,一個 “a” 兩個 “a”?呢個應該明顯12啲係咪呀?

(Well, how do I explain this? First, many people look at the romanization, and because they see one “a” and two “a”s, they think that means one is long and one is short. This isn’t the perfect or most complete explanation, as when pronouncing two different characters, I can elongate the pronunciation just as I can shorten it a lot. “I like to eat chicken” and “I like to eat chicken” [gai1 pronounced with slightly different lengths by Raymond], you can control the length, but it’s still a single “a” [in terms of romanization]. Conversely, “I go to the market” and “I go for a walk,” you’ll see that my mouth shape isn’t the same, and that it’s not just a question of length. What I tell students is that you need to think about three aspects in order to produce the single “a” and double “a” differently, to make them relatively distinct. Now for these three aspects, the first one is what we were just talking about, one has the mouth large, the other has the mouth small. Which do you think is bigger and which do you think is smaller, the single “a” or the double “a?” This should be rather obvious, right?)


Cameron: Um, yeah, so which is… is my mouth bigger with the short “a” or the long “a”? I feel like my mouth gets bigger on the long “a”, so for street, for 街 (gaai1), definitely feels a bit wider.



Raymond: 係喇,噉呢個呢,你可以去想像你見到兩個 “a”,噉我因爲要發多啲 “a”,所以你個嘴大啲。噉呢個幫到你啦,發得清楚啲啦。我再講譬如“雞”同“街”你個嘴係好明顯一個大一個細嘅。噉另外一個分別呢,就係你嗰個,你條脷13呀,你個舌頭14嗰個位置15呀,係前啲定係後啲嘅,前後。你又分唔分辨16到邊個前啲邊個後啲呢?

(Yup, so this, you can imagine if you see two “a”s, since we need to pronounce more “a”, so your mouth will be larger. So this helped you, you pronounced it more clearly. I’ll say again that, for example, gai1 and gaai1, your mouth is clearly bigger with one and smaller with one. As for another distinction, that would be your tongue, its position, whether it is more to the front or the back. Can you distinguish for which one it is more toward the front and for which one it is more toward the back?)


Cameron: I feel like the double “a”, it feels like it's being created further back in my throat, and it also goes so that my tongue goes back with it.



Raymond:係,非常好喇。因爲你個嘴要張開17大啲嘅時候呢,噉你嗰個你條脷呢,就相對你要往後,或者甚至放鬆18啲嘅。噉相反呀如果係一個 “a” 呢,你個嘴細啲呢,你令嗰個氣呀,你道氣19空氣20出嚟啦,你嘅舌頭,你條脷啦就往前推少少,噉呢個幫到你個發音。最後呢個呢就,我覺得係最有道理21嘅。同埋呢個,我都係提醒22大家最多嘅,就係一個鬆啲,一個緊啲。即係呢,你嘅肌肉,你嘅面部肌肉23,一個係緊啲嘅,一個係鬆啲嘅。噉你又可唔以講下,你覺得邊個鬆啲,邊個緊啲呀?

(Yes, very good. Because when your mouth needs to open wide, it means your tongue will go back, or it will even relax a little. On the other hand, if it is a single “a,”, your mouth is smaller, and you let that air, when your breath comes through, your tongue goes forward a little, and this helps you pronounce the sound. Last comes what I think makes the most sense, and which I tell people the most, which is one is relaxed, and the other is tense. That is, your muscles, your facial muscles, one has them tensed, and the other has them relaxed. Can you say which one you think is relaxed and which one you think is tense?)


Cameron: Alright, so when are the muscles of my face tense more, for the single “a” or double “a”? Um, I need to actually do this to think about it. “Gai”, “gaai”, so I can, I feel like when I'm doing a lot, the double “a” my cheeks are pulling back, and almost like my dimples are pulling my lips up. So, though I feel like I'm using those muscles more, whereas“gai..”. Yeah, feels like it recruits more muscles to do the double “a”.


Raymond: 或者噉啦,其實我可能都未必冇話形容得好清楚咩肌肉,噉你有唔同嘅肌肉。我諗我主要指嘅係,你噉顎呀,下顎24嗰個位置,你係緊啲,定係鬆啲。係喇,控制你個顎嗰個位。

(Well, I might not have described it very clearly in terms of which muscles, since you have different muscles. What I think I am getting at is the jaw, the lower jaw’s position, is it tense or relaxed. So control your jaw position.)


Cameron: “Gai”,“gaai”, so if for the single “a” my bottom jaw is locked. It was like it can’t move. And so then I'm producing more sound to the front of my lips.


Raymond: 係,係喇。噉呢,我所謂呢個一個 “a” 呢緊啲呢,噉另外一個原因就係呢,你會快啲去發下一個音。即係呢,你會發少啲 “a”,即係 “gai”,噉你馬上跳去下一個元音25發多啲i就少啲 “a” 嘅。噉相反呀,如果有兩個 “a”, “gaai” 呢,噉你要發多啲 “i” 呢,噉你個嘴,你要保持 “aa” 嗰個嘴型,噉你嗰個顎呢,其實要開返啲,要放鬆啲嘅。“Gaai”, “gaai”, 同埋 “gai”, “gai”。呢個就係我所謂嘅鬆緊26。噉呀,我話緊啲,就係話你緊啲,快啲跳去下一個元音,鬆啲就係你保持27,我而家仲係發緊 “aa” 嗰個音發多啲。噉呢個就係三個要素我係提醒啲學生,就係大細,前後,同鬆緊,噉留意28多啲。噉同埋多數人呢,我又想問下你先,我未繼續解釋之前,你覺得一個 “a” 容易啲發定係兩個 “a” 容易啲發呀?

(Yes, yes. I refer to this single “a” as more tense, with one more reason being that you produce the single sound quicker. This is, you produce less “a”, as in gai, so you immediately jump over a vowel and produce more “i” and less “a.” Conversely, if there are two “a”s, as in gaai, you produce more “i,” and your mouth preserves the “aa” muth shape, so your jaw needs to open back up more and be more relaxed. Gaai, gaai, and gai, gai, this is what I refer to as “tightness.” So when I say more tense, it means you make your mouth more tense and quickly skip over a vowel, and to be relaxed is to preserve it, so now I produce more of an “aa” sound. So these are three principles that I tell students, which are the size of the mouth shape, whether the tongue is moree to the back or the front, and whether it is more tense or relaxed. Now most people–actually, I want to ask you first, I won’t explain more, which “a” do you think is easier to produce, the single “a” or the double “a”?)


Cameron: I don’t think of one is easier than the other, I think it's more just, I think it's easier to make some of the sounds between the two. I feel like what lies in between, but I think it's hard because oftentimes you might find vowel sounds that perfectly map onto our native tongue as the easiest, but one thing I often feel is, Cantonese vowel sounds, they are similar to English vowel sounds but they aren't always one hundred percent mapping on.


Raymond: 係呀都好好呀,即係聽到你譬如你講英文嘅人士用你嘅角度29去睇。因爲而家我諗落其實英文兩個都有嘅,譬如我用 “i-c-e”,嗰個係 ice 係咪?噉另外你嘅眼係 eyes,噉所以呢兩個元音英文一樣有嘅。噉但係呢有陣時我哋學生有講英文嘅啦,但係都好多學生講普通話嘅啦。噉喺普通話呢,當然有呢個 “a” 啦,噉但係呢,佢哋嗰個 “a” 呢,普通話嘅一個 “a”呢,其實係發係等於廣東話嘅兩個 “a” 嚟嘅。噉所以呢,多數人會發咗兩個 “a”。發兩個 “a”冇乜問題嘅,係發一個 “a” 反而就會發得唔夠,即係同兩個 “a“ 嗰個對比唔夠分開。

(Yes, that’s great hearing your perspective as an English speaker. Because I think that English has both of these sounds, like in “i-c-e” in ice, right? And another is your eyes, or “eyes,” so both of these vowel sounds are in English. But sometimes our students are English speakers, and sometimes they are Mandarin speakers. Now in Mandarin, you also have an “a,” but the “a” in Mandarin is actually like the double “a” in Cantonese. So many people can make the double “a”, they have no problem with it, but when they pronounce the single “a” they don’t pronounce it [clearly] enough, as in there isn’t enough of a differentiation between the single “a” and the double “a.”



所以呢例如頭先你話“我鍾意食雞肉”啦,噉呀,好多將嗰個 “a” 就發成兩個 “a” 啦,因爲可能佢亦都諗緊普通話嗰個一個 “a” 係兩個 “a”。“我鍾意食 gaai”,噉就嗰個 “a“ 太鬆呀有陣時,或者太後,太大。所以呢但係我亦都留意到好多學粵語嘅人,甚至講英文嘅人士呢亦都係嘅。即係見到一個 “a” 嗰個 “a” 唔夠唔夠細,唔夠前,唔夠緊。所以我多數提醒大家,你嗰個一個 “a”,你要將佢細啲,要收緊30啲。噉多數人係發咗兩個 “a” 嘅,或者兩個 “a” 發得冇噉難。因爲你放鬆,你可以發耐啲,噉呀冇乜問題。但係呢,發一個a呢,其實就你需要提醒自己,我要快啲發下一個元音呀。噉係“gai”唔係 “gaai” 呀噉樣。我去 “買米(mai)”,噉唔係 “買 maai” 噉後面嗰個米(mai),一個 “a” 難發啲嘅。

(So if as before you say, “I like eating chicken,” many students will pronounce that “a” as a double “a”, perhaps because they are still thinking of the “a” in Mandarin that is really the double “a.” “I like to eat street (gaai1),” that “a” is too relaxed sometimes or too far back, the mouth is too large. So this is something I know about a lot of students of Cantonese, even speakers of English have this. That is, they see a single “a” and that “a” is not small enough, to the front enough, or tense enough. So let me remind everyone, that single “a”, you need to make it smaller and more tense. Most people produce a double “a,” or they have no difficulty producing the double “a.” Since you can produce the sound longer when your mouth is relaxed, there’s no problem. But with the single “a,” you need to remind yourself that you need to more quickly produce a vowel, so it’s gai, not gaai. I go “buy rice (maai5 mai5),” not “buy buy (maai5 maai5),” as that mai5 [rice] on the end is harder to pronounce.)


Cameron: Yeah I also think it's challenging if you're speaking to people who have different accents of Cantonese because I've also heard some people where their short, or the single “a,” is also starting to become almost in “ei” or the “a” becomes like it is almost an “a” sound but it's not, it's like on this weird border area where it's moving in that direction. That I think, is another challenge keeping track of any regional sort of variability you might come across whoever you are speaking with.


Raymond: 係呀,我諗嗰個元音,個個挑戰性31呢,就係例如無論一個 “a” 兩個 “a” 噉樣呢,即係有一啲似,好似一條線呀,你好難去分清楚嗰個界線32係邊度。噉,不過大家又唔使太過擔心33嘅,即係如果你講得即係好似偏咗一邊嘅話,噉其實大家都聽得明嘅,不過只不過就好似我話,你可能有啲所謂口音噉樣啦。噉但係有口音唔一定會影響你嘅表達34,或者你嘅理解嘅。不過呢,如果你真係要練習35,我哋所謂廣東話嘅咬字36呀,譬如以後你要做一個,主持人37呀,或者呢,你要做表演38呀,噉樣你講嘢要講得好清楚嘅話,呢啲就要練習喇。

(Yup, I think that with that vowel, the challenge is whether it is a single “a” or a double “a,” they are still somewhat similar, on the same spectrum, it’s hard to clearly distinguish where the boundary is. But everyone shouldn’t worry too much, for as long as you speak such that the sound tilts toward one side, everyone can still understand you. But it’s just that you might have somewhat of an accent. But having an accent won’t necessarily influence your ability to express yourself, or your understanding. But if you really want to practice Cantonese enunciation, like if you want be a [radio] host or you want to be a performer, then you would need to speak clearly and would need to practice this.)


Cameron: Yeah, and I guess, yeah, we all have to be patient when we are practicing these sorts of things, and also no matter what sound you're making, if you're a visual learner, you can often find some really great videos on YouTube where people actually show--physically diagram–where some of these sounds are being made in the mouth. I know UBC actually has a great website for Cantonese, learning Cantonese, and it’s even something like phonetics that shows where some of those sounds are created, and we can put a link in the description. But that can go a long way to helping you make the sound, as if you can close your eyes and visualize the 3D model, where is the sound coming from in my head.


UBC Cantonese pronunciation modules


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