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Tones. A huge issue people have when learning Chinese is the fact that it’s a tonal language.
Let’s start with the bad news. If you don’t get tones down well, it will be really hard for native Mandarin speakers to understand you.
Now for the good news. Getting tones right isn’t nearly as hard as you think. In fact, tones can be easy – if you adopt the right approach.
Let’s look at how to make Chinese tones simple.
Practice with Teachers
When I first arrived in Taiwan, I spoke what I saw written down in my phrasebook. It didn’t go down well. Locals had no idea what I was saying. Why? My tones were completely off.
You can’t get far in speaking Chinese without getting a hold on tones.
That said, you do not need to master Mandarin tones in a hurry. I discovered a loophole that allows you to ease into tones while you learn other aspects of Chinese. The secret? Speaking with teachers.
I’ve found that Chinese teachers are more imaginative than most native speakers and will be flexible with your early tonal mistakes. Plus, hiring a teacher is the perfect way to kickstart your mission to learn Chinese.
When you’re starting out, simply aim to get tones as good as you can. Don’t let yourself get paralysed by perfectionism. If you get about 3 out of 5 tones right in most sentences then your teacher will still be able to deduct from the context what you mean, even when you get a couple of the other tones wrong.
With time and practice, you’ll fix your tone problems and soon you’ll be ready for conversations with people not used to speaking with learners. When I travelled in China, I was the first foreigner that many Chinese people had ever spoken to, and we could converse fine. This was mostly because I eased myself in through conversations with patient teachers and language exchange partners.
How to Understand Chinese Tones
With that in mind, how do you actually get the tones right?
You might have heard of the phrase “tone-deaf” in reference to music. When it comes to learning tonal languages, this doesn’t apply. You are not tone-deaf in a way that would prevent you from saying words in Mandarin. Nobody is. You can say every single tone in Mandarin. How do I know this? Because we have tones in English, too.
You are used to using tones to convey emotions, not to distinguish completely different words. In English, tones subtly indicate mood rather than having an obvious effect on meaning. When you realize this and make the right associations you start to distinguish the tones in Chinese much more easily.
Tones in Mandarin have some parallels with the way we express emotion through intonation in English. Along those lines, I’ve found Kaiser’s Dude System a really helpful way to understand how each tone would sound in English examples.
To actually get the tones right, I suggest you listen to native content and try to mimic it as best as you can.
I realized early in my studies that distinguishing tones was going to be a major influencer in how well I could understand those speaking to me, which would subsequently affect my ability to create tones. Because of this, I decided to make tones the central focus for my first two weeks of study. I aimed to get them right most of the time, rather than mastering them. As a consequence, I made less progress in memorizing vocabulary, but those two weeks made a world of difference for the rest of my Chinese mission.
After I fixed my initial problems with tones, I found that I had greatest difficulty distinguishing the second and third tones. So I went off to watch more Youtube videos focused on these tones. I also asked my teachers for help until I had my comprehension down.
The first step, before you can say tones correctly, is to understand them correctly. You can train your ear to hear the different tones as best as you can using the following resources:
- Listen to the early podcasts in Chineseclass101 where each tone is explained in detail. Because this is an audio resource, it’s perfect for learning tones. No amount of reading about Mandarin will help you until you start hearing it.
- Watch this very detailed video by my friend (and native speaker) Yangyang on The Most Effective Way to Learn Chinese Tones.
- Use online tests and you’ll start to see which tones give you greatest difficulty. There are several tests available online including the Arch Chinese test and the Quick Mandarin test.
- Any time you come across a new word and want to be sure that you get its tones right, search for it using the Chinese characters on forvo.com.
How to Pronounce Chinese Tones
After you’ve got used to hearing and understanding Chinese tones, you’ll need to be able to produce the tones correctly. There are several things you can do to ensure this goes ahead in the best way possible.
First, take a recording of a native speaker, ideally saying a phrase you are likely to say often, and play it back slowly. For example, I recorded my teacher saying “I am Irish” (Wǒ shì ài'ěrlán rén). Play each word and try to repeat not just the pronunciation but the intonation. Then play two words and try to repeat them together. Keep increasing the wordcount until you have a whole sentence. Repeat this aloud as many times as you can, for several minutes if you have to.
Next, work with your teacher to prepare a short script about yourself, and have it ready in pinyin. Next time you get on Skype or see your teacher, try to read that script slowly while staying focused on the tones rather than the meaning of the sentences. Keep practising this one script and you will get to grips with its tones.
To make you feel better that you aren’t alone as a beginner, check out this video I recorded 2 weeks into learning Chinese. I spent several days on this one prepared script, to get the tones as right as I could. I then tried to memorize the script itself for a day straight so that I wasn’t reading it. It’s painful to watch, but if I can put a video like this online for the world to see, you can easily make a quick intro about yourself and practise those tones for your teacher.
It was only one script, but it skyrocketed my progress in being able to produce tones for all conversations. Give something similar a try for yourself.
This blog post is an extract from my language hacking guide Why Chinese is Easy. Pick up your own copy here!