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How to think about the tones in Mandarin

By Memrise Blog

If you are just starting to learn Chinese, you have probably heard quite a bit about the “tones.” You almost certainly been been told how difficult they are. You have probably been told that it will take you ages to be able to hear them correctly and even longer to be able to say them correctly. And you may well have heard horror stories of hapless students constantly offending people by using the wrong tone to pronounce a character and thereby saying something horrendously offensive instead of delightfully polite.

Most of this is, I am delighted to say, gross exaggeration or just utter rubbish.

First, let me tell you what I think is pretty difficult.

I think that reading the pinyin1 of a character, with the line above it indicating the tone, and pronouncing it correctly is difficult. Very difficult.

It seems to be virtually impossible to train ourselves to see the line as indicating a certain change in the voice, and not as an instruction on how to move your head. Don’t believe me? Try it.

Try reading, “xǐ shǒu jiān”. Read it out loud, and try to change the tone of your voice up and down according to the lines. The first and second syllables are pronounced with a “down-up” tone, and the third is pronounced with a “high level” tone.

Did you say the tones right? I don’t know, but if you are new to learning Chinese, then I’m afraid that I would expect not. But did your head bob up and down as you said it? Almost certainly.

The thing is that trying to think about making a sound and modulating the tone of your voice to go up and down is a process that we are utterly unused to doing. It doesn’t come naturally.

And it is worth noting that it doesn’t come naturally to the Chinese either. If you ask a Chinese person what tone a particular character should be pronounced with, they will almost always say the sound out loud a few times. They will actually listen to how they are saying it, and hear which tone it is. They will sometimes even get it wrong.

This is important. Pinyin breaks the pronunciation of a word into two components, the part that can be described by roman letters, and the part that can be described by the tone line.

But when a Chinese person stores the pronunciation of a word in their memory, they don’t separate the information that way. They simply store the whole noise that needs to be made, which includes the tone and the sound of the letters all bundled up together. That is why they can’t look up the tone in their brain in isolation. It just isn’t stored that way.

Pinyin is a very useful system – it allows Chinese people to type using a roman keyboard, for example, which is the fastest way of typing Chinese characters: you type the pinyin pronunciation and then select the character that you want from a list of all the characters that share that pinyin.

But our brains don’t work on a keyboard input system.

So how do the Chinese learn to recognise tones? Well the simple answer is, at least initially, that they don’t. When they start to learn to speak, as children, they don’t fuss themselves with which tone a word is pronounced with. They just copy the pronunciation that they hear. Try it for yourself. Take a look at the word page for “xǐ shǒu jiān“. Then click on the audio symbol. Try copying the pronunciation that you hear. Did you get it right? You probably got pretty damn close. And your head probably held rock steady as well.

I would recommend that when you start learning Chinese you focus on copying the sounds of the pronunciation, and don’t think about what tone they are supposed to be. Pretty quickly – after you have learnt a dozen or so words, you will begin to get a feel for how it feels to say each of the different sorts of sounds that occur in Chinese.

Once you have reached this stage, then it is a useful skill to learn which sorts of sounds are defined as which tones. Think of it as learning a system of categorization. You probably learnt to identify a cat and a lion long before you knew that they were categorized together as part of the same family. Similarly you can learn to pronounce a whole bunch of words in Chinese long before you worry yourself about what category of tone they fall into.

One of the most important reasons that you might want to learn to write the correct pinyin for each character is for the practical reason that your teacher may well require you to. To be fair, there is good reason that they may require you to learn it: it is useful for testing purposes. It is very difficult to test that someone is pronouncing something correctly without being there to hear them say every word. Most teachers don’t have time to do that for all of their students. So testing them on the correct pinyin is one way to make sure that they have the right knowledge: it doesn’t actually test their pronunciation, but it is as close as you can get.

In fact it is such a good way to do it, that we do it here on Memrise as well – although we use the system of number the tones rather than using the lines as this leads to less semantic confusion and reduced head-bobbing.

So think of “tones” (meaning the lines drawn above the pinyin) as a separate skill that you are learning to help you to do well in tests, rather than something that is directly helping you to learn. Then focus your main attention on trying to copy the correct pronunciation of each word that you learn. That is how the Chinese learn to say Chinese words correctly, and who are we to argue?