The improbable character to the left is read “biáng” and makes up the name of a popular kind of noodle in Shaanxi, “biang-biang-mian.” I’m not going to get into discussions about whether this character is a recent invention to attract tourists, or whether it is truly several hundred years old, but rather about the sound itself. “Biang” is not a syllable found in standard Mandarin. What’s more, I found early on that many native speakers of the language can not even pronounce it properly, or only with great difficulty. A friend of mine, for example, tried with “bian” (pronounced “byenn”) or “liang” until he finally was able to string the sounds together.
What’s going on here? Why is this so hard to say? The individual sounds “b”, “y” and “ang” are all there. Can’t people just glue them together and produce the syllable?
No, not necessarily, unless you can easily produce words like “tlass” or “nging.” These two examples are both from English with small modifications that most native speakers would feel unusual. In the first, the c in “class” has been exchanged for a “t”, an initial that doesn’t exist in standard English, and in the second example “si” has been removed from “singing.” The latter example is a valid Cantonese syllable but many English-speakers have a hard time figuring out how to produce the sound “ng” in the beginning of a word, and so would have trouble pronouncing it properly. Why is this such an issue if all the sounds are in the language?
The truth is that the ability to pronounce combinations of sounds in a language, whether they be consonants, vowels, tones or something else, are all based on habits and training. Common sounds, even if they are complex consonant clusters, become second nature and we don’t think about them, but as soon as we encounter new combinations we are basically back to being children again. I’m sure most students of Mandarin have struggled with combinations like “chi” and “si”, not to speak of the tones. The tones are a particularly poignant example because these, too, are all sounds that exist in English, but being able to produce them at will and in the right combinations takes time and energy. Some people never make it.
And it’s not going to get easier in the future – with the rise of China and India, everyone ought to study common sounds in these languages.