Saturday, March 31, 2007


The tones in Mandarin are considered one of the main problems for Westerners, who come to learn the language, and they have certainly caused me some problems. I think it is hard for someone who has grown up with a tonal language to understand the difficulties of those who have not.

I can say that I have made considerable progress. I try to do little things all the time to improve my feeling for the tones. Initially I was in the same boat as most beginners seem to be, I could hear the tonal difference of syllables but instantly forgot them (I am too used to this sort of audio information being used to carry emotional content in sentences, not changing the meaning of sounds). I also know for a fact that I am still a long way away from the natural ability of a native speaker.

Now I can usually discern tones in clearly spoken Chinese and can often reproduce tones myself. There are difficulties in sentences with some sounds and I have to spend a little time getting used to a new word (in isolation the word it usually easy but in a sentence it is often not so easy). I also have a few blind spots with common words, for example I can say ying1wen2 in isolation but often pronounce it ying2wen2 in the middle of a sentence.

Rather than going crazy over tones I tend to work on them a little all the time. I am constantly attentive to them, and try to do little things to improve. For example if using an online dictionary to check a word I think I have heard, I commit to adding the tone marks when I add enter pinyin (getting these wrong and wasting more time, tends to focus the mind). I sometime concentrate really hard on identifying the tones in Chinese I listen to, even if the words are obvious.

One day, I think I will achieve something close to the natural ability with tones that a native speaker has, I just don't know when. I don't think there is a magic bullet for most of us, just a gradual development. Initially you don't know enough words to get them mixed up anyway (it was quite a revelation when I first mistook lian4xi2 for lian2xi4 when the context was confusing, of course I was also focused on trying to understand the other words).

Some people equate musical ability with tonal language ability, I am not so sure, I can easily tune a guitar by ear, but only to itself, I don't have perfect pitch. I think a general continual attentiveness and time is all that is required. I think even a skilled musician will have problems the first time they encounter a tonal language. We are all different though, I would be interested to hear of other peoples experiences.

I was trying to think of something that may cause Chinese speakers a similar problem when they learn English. Maybe some of the more subtle sentence inflections, for example the hidden 'but'. When a statement is made in English with a slight inflection that tells a native speaker that the word 'but' should be added. "I like what you have done (but)." maybe the sentence that follows takes a non-native speaker by surprise in some cases if they take the first statement at face value?


Edwin said...

I can't speak for the native-Mandarin speakers, but I have heard many Cantonese speakers speaking bad English in my life. Their difficulty? I think there is a tendency for them to make English a tonal language!

Every syllable of an English word would be implicitly assigned a tone. Basically, there is no inflexion.

For example, the sentence 'the tone in Mandarin' will be pronounced as 'the6 tone1 in6 Man1-da1-rin1', where 6 is a low tone (in Cantonese) and 1 is the high tone equivalent to the 1st tone in Mandarin.

John said...

In the beggining I found trying to learn the tone for every individual word extreamly difficult. What I ended up doing instead of remembering numbers was to learn how to recognise tones when I heard a word spoken. Then I tried to repeat words exactly as I remebered hearing them spoken. I can say what tone is used most of the time, but it is not something I need to specifically think about before saying anything.

This has worked very well for me up unit I started to learn characters. Now I need to learn all the tone numbers in order to type in Chinese at anything close to a resonable speed.

Brendan Lawlor said...

Hiya Chris,
The thing that gets me about the tones was the third tone. I think both its symbol and its typical explanation (falling then rising) are not very accurate and create more confusion than there needs to be.

I have seen the third tone described as a 'slowly rising tone' and while this isn't satisfactory either, the combination of the two descriptions above makes things a little clearer. For me, it's all about the 'twistiness' of its sound.

Also, the 4th tone seems to be more defined by where it ends (down low) whereas the second tone is more defined by its starting point (down low too!).

All in all, the necessary simplification of the tone explanation doesn't serve us for very long before we run into trouble (a bit like Newtonian physics - wha?).

Chris said...

Edwin: that makes sense, I guess that also accounts for the old fashioned description of Chinese people often speaking English in a "sing song" voice.

John: I am currently trying to learn to forget the tone numbers also :), I think Matrix stylee: you have to end up at the point where "there is no spoon(sorry, tone)".

Brendon: bang on, I have heard someone explain to me how when they talk fast they usally only stress the tone on the first syallable of multi-toned words (unless the word is ambiguous). But they (as a native) can still hear the flavour of the unstress tone. The tonal landscape is indeed oversimplified in description.

xiaohang said...


Sorry for not replying your email recently,but I will do it soon.I found it very confusing when I was listening to some conversation. Even though I know what they are talking about, sometimes it's really hard to figure out some words whether they mean it negatively or positively.

E.g.:I emailed my friends there would be a paintballing event and asked him whether he would be interested in it.

He reply:Hell,yeah!

When I saw 'hell', I was very confused, was he very exciting or was there something wrong.

Talking about tone in Mandarin, it sometimes confused native speakers as well, because occasionally you see them written in one tone and pronounanced as other tone. We tried to remember the rules for excemption and applied them when encounter, it doesnot work everytime, but it will for most of the time

Chris said...

I get the feeling that in English we sometimes provide a lot of meaning with sentance inflection, it must be hard sometimes to tell whether English speakers are joking, or mean exactly what the words say (in China I think I would have to say kai wan xiao alot ;)).
"Hell yeah!" means positive agreement, you need to hear it before using it in spoken English though as it should be said in a certain way.
There is also "hell no!" "heavens no!" etc. I can explain later.
In the case of "hell yeah!" hell is just used to strengthen the yeah!.
I can explain more later, it is getting complicated ;)

You are correct though many English sentances are intended to mean exactly the opposite of what the words say. You probably won't get that very much if listening to the news on TV but if listening to English friends talking or talking to English friends it will happen every now and again.

Pbice said...

Hi, Chris,
This is a nice article! As a student Chinese language teacher, now I think I understand better about what kind of feeling of our students would have when they're frustrated in learning tones.

And by the way, I add this article into a Chinese social bookmarking website called Hemidemi. Hopefully you wouldn't mind.

Pbice said...

Brendan mentioned that, Tone 2 (rising) and Tone 3 (dipping-rising) are indistinguishable for non-native learners. Indeed, they have similar shape in pitch contour.

My suggestions are, first, Chinese people don't say full Tone 3 very often. Instead, we usually use the "half tone" (low tone, just as the first part of Tone 3, without the rising part) unless the Tone 3 is in the last position of a phrase/sentence. Therefore, I think foreign learners can use half Tone 3 more frequently.

Secondly, the fully Tone 3 last longer in the low part than Tone 2. This is the key feature how native speakers tell one from the other.

Hopefully these help!

Chris said...

Hi Pbice, of course I don't mind, I hope it helps. I think the key thing for someone teaching Chinese to Westerners is that even if you tell us how to do the tones many of us won't be able to reproduce them at first even if we try our hardest :).

The key thing is probably to watch whether your student is gradually getting better over time.

xiaohang said...

Hi.. thanks for the comment..actually,I do know the meaning of the conversation!
It's just that the whole thing (the conversation and the translation) was meant to be a joke! I've seen it on some very poorly translated DVD! I think it's very funny, but at the same time feeling pity!

Chris said...

I know what you are referring to, sorry, I take things on Chinese blogs too literally :). I think I will lay off comments for a while ;).

Just that I can't help myself sometimes.... fingers get all itchy and before I know it...

American Chinese said...

I also have difficulty to learn mandarin tones. I have to call some Chinese volunteers to practice. You also can try some.