Hearing these pronunciations clearly in the course of daily conversations is really just a matter of time and exposure. Eventually the language will slow down and you will be able to catch the nuances and small variations. Speaking these clearly is a matter of practice, practice, practice... and a really patient teacher, friend or spouse.
Just a couple of quick notes:
- The mechanics of producing these pronunciations are a little hazy to me and I advise not to obsess over them too much. The key is producing the sound. I offer the advice I received below but I think the best way to get a handle on these pronunciations is to practice with native Chinese speakers and then try to replicate the sound. You are likely to get a lot of advice. Take the advice, if it works you are set. If not, move on to some other method. You (and your mouth) will eventually figure it out.
- This is the advice I received on pronounciation. The first pronounciations of this set (ㄓ) is produced by pressing the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth just behind your front teeth. As you attempt to pronounce the sound your tongue will pull away from the roof of your mouth and the corners of your mouth will pull down and back (slightly). The next three pronunciations (ㄔ, ㄕ, ㄖ) are produced simlarly by curling your tongue further away from your teeth (but still against the roof of your mouth). As you pronounce, your tongue will pull away from the roof and the corners of your mouth will pull down and back (a little more with each pronounciation. The last of the four pronunciations (ㄖ) should feel and sounding as though it is coming from the very back of your throat. To my ears the last pronunciation has the distinct sound of "r".
- I have also noticed that the muscles at the back of throat become strained quite easily when trying to produce these sounds.
- The next three pronunciation (ㄗ, ㄘ, ㄙ) are a bit more straightforward and to my ears they sound like "zi" (short I sound), "ci" (soft c with short I sound) and "si" (short I sound).