I heard it again just the other day:
“I want to learn some Chinese before I visit China, but I just don’t think I can learn a tone language.”
Not one day later, I read on a local Chinese school’s website, “Chinese is one of the most difficult languages for a westerner to learn.”
So what is it, exactly, that makes Chinese so hard for westerners? Their answer: Chinese is a tone language.
Tone seems to be the number one intimidating factor about Chinese for speakers of non-tone languages. But it doesn’t have to be. Sure, tone is hard. But so is learning to pronounce “c” or “q” correctly in English.
And memorizing characters is surely not for the faint of heart. If you were easily intimidated, you wouldn’t have started studying Chinese to begin with.
So while tone may be hard, it’s not impossible.
In this post, I’ll give you some pointers that will start you down the road to tones that are guaranteed to get you more than a few “你的汉语很好!” (Nǐ de hànyǔ hěn hǎo – Your Chinese is very good!).
Why Do I Need to Learn Chinese Tones, Anyway?
Language learners have a tendency to subconsciously rebel against learning language features that seem strange to them, especially things like tone that they can’t even hear. But, speakers of non-tone languages, I have a little secret to share with you: You’re in the minority on this one.
Over half of the world’s languages use tone to distinguish words. Here is a principle that will take you far in learning a new language—or in learning a new culture: Strange is going to become your new normal.
If you need a little more persuading, remember that if you ignore tones, you will be mispronouncing every single word. You might think you’re politely complimenting your mother-in-law on the food she ordered while in fact you’re swearing at her! Not a mistake you want to make? Read on.
There’s some good news for you, actually, as you’re learning: Chinese speakers tend to be extremely forgiving of foreign accents. This may be, in part, because there’s a large amount of diversity in the way Chinese people themselves pronounce tones, and so they’re used to hearing tones that differ from the standard Putonghua. Most Chinese people I’ve met are happy just to hear a foreigner try to speak their language, so don’t wait until your pronunciation is perfect to start trying.
Unfortunately, there’s also some bad news: Without context, Chinese people won’t understand you if your tones are wrong. While my friend may do just fine with her ten toneless Chinese phrases that she uses during her two-week trip to China (and I’ve heard foreigners carry on entire conversations in toneless Chinese without much detriment to their communication), there are some big spaces in between absolute beginner and fluent where correct pronunciation will be extremely helpful.
After all, when you’re first learning a language, you don’t have much context to offer people. And, in my experience, Chinese speakers are more likely to guess that you got your vowel—or even your consonant—wrong, than to guess that you were using the wrong tone.
If you’re trying to ask someone whether they like tea (chá) but you say “chā” by mistake, don’t be entirely surprised if you suddenly find yourself having a conversation about cars (chē) instead.
And even if you’re not too worried about whether someone can correctly point you to the pears (lí) in a store, instead of the plums (lǐ) or the chestnuts (lì), remember that this confusion turns into a bigger problem when you find yourself in a taxi and the driver can’t understand where you’re trying to go.
The best time to practice tones is when you start learning the language.
And then keep practicing until you get it right. Although it may feel like something disjointed to you, tone isn’t a separate feature of the language. It’s much harder to fix deeply ingrained habits than it is to make the right habits from the beginning. You can put off memorizing characters, but you’ll regret putting off tones.
So by now I hope you’re convinced that you need to learn tones. And I’m sure you already know that learning comes through hard practice. But just what kind of practice do you need?
3 Foolproof Steps to Practice Chinese Tones Like a Pro
1. Learn to Hear Tones
When you were a baby, you could hear the difference between māma (mother) and mà mā (swear at one’s mother). Or at least you could have, if you had been listening to some extraordinarily impolite person speak Mandarin.
But your brain has long since determined that this isn’t important information. Now, many years later, you need to retrain your brain to think of pitch as an important feature again. But how?
Capitalize on what you can hear
Many people characterize Chinese as sounding “sing-songy.” If you’re one of them, good news: You’re hearing tones!
The pitch moving up and down from word to word is what gives English speakers this impression. You can hear tones, so now you just have to figure out how to process them.
Think about how your native language uses pitch
You may not be a native speaker of a tone language, but all spoken languages use pitch to distinguish some sort of meaning. If you’re a native English speaker, the pitch of your voice conveys things like whether you’re asking a question or making a statement, as well as how sure you are of what you’re saying, and how you feel about it.
Try this: Say “yes” like you’re absolutely sure you mean it. Now say “Yes?” as if you’re not so sure. Can you hear the difference?
Now try doing the same thing, but instead of an English word, say it with a syllable like ma.
Now listen to a recording of a Chinese person saying mà and má. Do you hear a resemblance to what you just said?
Listen again to the Chinese tones and think about what they sound like to you.
Listen for aspects of tone besides pitch
If you’re having a tough time hearing tone, listen for things besides pitch. Do you hear creaky voice? (That “I just got out of bed and can’t quite get my voice working correctly yet” croaking sort of sound). Not all speakers have creaky third tones, but they’re pretty common.
Or try length. Was the syllable long and drawn out? Chances are good that was a third tone.
Really short? Probably a fourth tone at work. These length differences start to disappear in real speech, but they’re real enough in the “reading a vocabulary list” type of speech you’re likely to hear in a dictation test. Let them work for you.
Or pretend you’re listening for stress. That neutral tone? Think of it as an unstressed syllable and see whether you can hear it better.
Practice hearing tones on one syllable, then in combination
The first step to practicing your tone listening skills is, of course, to try to hear the four basic tones by themselves. There are numerous recordings available that will let you do this.
Aside from tone tests in class and the odd one-syllable vocabulary word, you won’t often encounter solitary tones. So I recommend that, as soon as possible, you move on to working on hearing tones in longer combinations—at least two syllables long.
Tones sound different in context than they do in isolation. The most dramatic example of this is third tone. Chinese language textbooks universally teach you that third tone is falling-rising. But—and this is really, really important—it’s only like that when you say it all by itself, or maybe at the end of a sentence.
Tone sandhi aside, in normal speech, third tone is more often just a low tone. If you spend too much time training yourself on one-syllable words, you may find yourself having a hard time hearing the difference between second and third tone in context. (I just might be speaking from experience on this one).
The best resources for this kind of listening practice—aside from a real, and very patient Chinese speaker, of course—are recordings of real people speaking words or sentences.
You’re not trying to learn to speak to a computer, so don’t learn to listen from a synthesized voice. Even tone-learning apps recorded by real people won’t help you learn what real speech sounds like if they rely on spliced-together syllables.
Listen to different people pronouncing tones
Everyone sounds a little different. The more people you practice listening to, the greater your chances are of understanding the next person you hear.
If you’re not in a place where Chinese is spoken, a great place to hear authentic material is on FluentU.
Use listening materials that force you to make a choice: Which tone was it that you just heard? This type of choosing, followed immediately by feedback, helps with learning.
Once you know where you consistently make mistakes, practice listening to those tones and then test yourself again. Eventually, I promise, your brain will begin to sort it out, and you’ll start hearing differences.
Some online resources for practicing tones
Unfortunately, I haven’t come across the absolute perfect online resource specifically made for learning tones. However, here are a few that at least meet the minimal requirement of having real people and real speech.
The Wiggle Worms is a really cute game aimed at helping kids to learn tones. This one only has the four tones in isolation, but if you have kids who are trying to learn pinyin (or if you’re a kid at heart), this one might be for you.
Sinosplice has a really useful set of recordings for the four tones in isolation, and then the four tones (plus neutral tone) in every possible combination. Use it when you want to listen to specific tones, or pairs of tones.
Pinyin Practice lets you quiz yourself on one or two tone combinations and keeps track of how many you have right and wrong. This is the best resource I’ve found for testing yourself, like I mentioned earlier.
Finally, Arch Chinese also lets you quiz yourself on the four tones in isolation. I mention it here just because this gives you another person to listen to, and because they also have a pinyin chart with audio that you can use for practice when you just want to choose the pairs of sounds you listen to.
2. Practice Pronouncing Tones
So you can hear the difference between all four Mandarin tones now, right? At least sort of, sometimes? The next trick is to figure out how to say them yourself. If you can already hear the tones, you should know what you’re aiming for.
Listen and repeat
Listening and repeating is a tried and true form of learning to say words in a new language. But how can you maximize its usefulness?
Speak slowly at first
When you’re first learning Chinese, you’re training yourself to make all sorts of new sounds. When you’re practicing on your own, slow things down so you can fit everything in. Once your mouth gets the hang of it, it won’t seem so impossible.
In addition to speaking slowly, use the full range of your voice. Pretend you’re a voice actor telling a story. Sing if you have to! Get your highs up high and your lows down low. You don’t want to sound like this forever, of course, but it may help you get going in the beginning.
Oh, but that neutral tone? Don’t exaggerate it at all. In fact, think anti-exaggeration. Aim for short and quick and in the middle, and you’ll probably get it right.
Work with a native speaker
If at all possible, find yourself a native Mandarin speaker who’s willing to give you honest feedback on your pronunciation. Ideally, find someone who can explain what it is that you’re doing wrong—someone who can tell you that your low tone wasn’t low enough or that your rising tone didn’t really rise far enough.
If you’re having a tough time knowing what to do, or you feel like you get everything wrong, try starting with some simple mimicking—he or she says a word, and you copy it. Sometimes, even though you think you can’t hear what people are doing, you can still mimic them correctly. And once you’ve got that down, you can work from there to build the correct habits.
But if you can’t find someone to work with, find recordings of a native Mandarin speaker instead. Then record yourself saying the same things and compare. (And put your hard work hearing tones to good use!)
If you’ve put in your time with your listening practice, you should be able to get some feel for whether or not you’re on the right track. Some useful beginning tone practice that you could use for this can be found right here at FluentU.
Practice until tone starts to come naturally
When do you decide you’ve spent enough time on tones? If you can put a sentence together without thinking the whole time about pronunciation—and get your pronunciation correct—you’re well on your way.
If you say a word with the wrong tone and realize it sounds wrong, you’re in good shape. Eventually, these things do start to come more naturally.
3. Memorize Tones
This final tip isn’t as obvious as it seems: Make sure that you memorize the correct tones for all the words you learn. If you use flashcards, don’t take a “close enough” approach—if the tone is wrong, you’re wrong, and you need to review it again.
Some people find it useful to color coordinate their flashcards according to the tone, and many programs for studying Chinese have this functionality built in.
If you’re more of a kinetic learner than a visual learner, maybe you’d find it helpful to use hand motions for the tones. Or if you’ve nailed the pronunciation, try saying the correct answer out loud instead of reviewing silently. Saying and hearing the correct pronunciation will help to reinforce it.
If you find all of this memorizing business frustrating, remember, the more time you put into learning tones early on in your Chinese learning efforts, the less time you’ll have to spend unlearning bad habits later on.
Your hard work will pay off in the end—and even before then, you just may find your pronunciation to be the envy of your classmates.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, I haven’t ever sworn at my Chinese mother-in-law. Or at least I don’t think I have.
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