You might not know this, but all of the recent iPhone/ iPad and iPod Touch models (with iOS 6+) have a Mandarin and Cantonese text-to-speech function built in.
Or to put it another way, you can highlight any section of text on the screen and have your device read aloud for you in standard Mandarin or Cantonese. You can get text read from any application, and you can even slow down the speech as you go so you can keep up and read along.
For Chinese, there are three voices built in, a standard Mandarin voice, a Mandarin voice with a Taiwanese accent and a Cantonese voice.
I know what you’re thinking: doesn’t the synthesized voice sound pretty bad, and isn’t it bad to learn from a computer voice?
Well, speech software has come a long way in the past few years, to the point where it doesn’t sound completely natural, but it’s not too bad! Because Mandarin is made up of a relatively small number of sounds and there aren’t many changes in the sounds, it’s something that speech software can reproduce fairly accurately.
Having said that, I would not recommend trying to learn to pronounce Chinese from this tool, and if you are not familiar with the sounds of Chinese at all then it’s probably not going to be so useful to you. The other issue is that while the pronunciation is generally good, the rhythm of the speech is not necessarily completely accurate, so for picking up the rhythm of the language, there really is no substitute for learning native speakers.
So what is the use of this feature?
1) It can help you to reinforce the tones of characters/words in your head – when you learn words or characters, you will usually be learning the tones of those characters at the same time, but it’s so easy to forget the tone of a character and often you need to reinforce this knowledge many times before it will stick.
Because the software is essentially a machine, it is almost impossible for it to make mistakes with tones, so you can paste a text in, read along with the characters and analyse the tones you hear. By listening and following along, you will be able to reinforce the ones you already know, spot some of the ones you remembered wrongly, and learn some of the ones you didn’t know.
2) It can help you to revise the pronunciations of characters – it’s not a good method to teach you on it’s own, but you will be able to revise characters you may have learned before, and pick up new ones in context.
3) It can help you to ‘join the dots’ – there may be words that you have heard and know but you don’t know the characters for them, or characters that you recognise, but you don’t know how they are pronounced. The ability to get a text read out to you is really useful in giving you an extra bit of support to help you connect the different areas of the language together 🙂
For a couple of suggestions of where to find texts to study from, then you could try dialogues and text from Chinese learning websites as a first stop.
If you’re an intermediate learner, you could try the news sites Sina, Tencent, and iFeng. Along the top of the screen you’ll see the different sections like domestic news, international news, photos, sports and so on. When you can understand these headings, it will be easier to find something to read that you are interested in.
Here’s how you switch the text-to-speech feature on:
Click on the Settings icon on your phone. Click General. Click Accessibility.
Click Speech. Flick the sliders next to ‘Speak Selection’ and ‘Speak Screen’ to the right to switch the functions on. You can also turn on ‘Highlight Content’ so you will know where the reading has got to and you don’t lose your place!
Click Voices and then Chinese. You will find the voice may be set to the standard Mandarin voice by default, but you can also select Chinese (Taiwan) if you prefer the Taiwanese accent, or Chinese (Hong Kong) if you want to hear Cantonese 🙂
Click the home button in the middle of the phone at the bottom to return from the settings to the home screen.
You can get text read from any application where you can select text. To try it out, press and hold in the middle of the text. You can then click and drag the blue dots to select a section of text. Then click ‘Speak’ to have the text read aloud at the speed in the settings.
To read a whole screen of text, simply swipe down the screen with two fingers from the top to the bottom. A box will also appear with controls to pause, go back go forward and slow the speech down (click on the tortoise) or speed up (click on the rabbit).
That’s about all there is to it. Give it a try!