Tips on how to learn – Chinese tones

Did it ever occur to you to see a person on YouTube or face-to-face who speaks Chinese surprisingly well? The first reaction you will probably feel is one of admiration and surprise. Admiration then gives way to doubt: how did they reach such an incredible level in the language?

Until a few years ago, Mandarin Chinese was surrounded by an aura of mystery. It was considered an exotic language, undoubtedly difficult to learn. Foreigners as well as the Chinese themselves thought that mastering Mandarin Chinese was indeed an impossible goal to reach. Then came  Dashan.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqMZ330kiqw&feature=channel_video_title]

In this short documentary, it is shown how Dashan shocks the audience by speaking flawless Chinese on a TV program watched by half a billion people. As a result, Dashan becomes an instant celebrity in China.

Many things have changed since that distant 1988, and the number of foreign students coming to terms with the Chinese language and living in China has grown dramatically over the last 20 years. It is no longer unusual to come across a “wairen” (foreigner) in Mainland China. Yet, many students keep having problems when it comes to speaking Chinese, and this is mainly due to an aspect often considered “dramatic” from a Westerner’s perspective: Chinese tones.

When it comes to speaking about tones, two things immediately to mind:

1)     Why are Chinese tones perceived as being so difficult?

2)     Is there a proper way to learn them?

 

The difficulty of learning Chinese tones

Let’s address the first issue. It is important to emphasize, once again, the following point:

Chinese is a tonal language. This doesn’t only mean that tones make up the words, but also that the meaning of the words themselves relies on their tones.

In non-tonal languages such as Italian or English, tones do exist. We are not aware of that simply because the meaning of the words does not depend on their variation. So, in theory, the same tones can be used to visually represent syllables that make up the words in non tonal languages.

The very first thing you’ll be confronted with when it comes to speaking Mandarin Chinese is the tones. The following charts show, in detail, the four “heights” of a syllable in Chinese.

One is generally told to look at the chart, listen to the corresponding sound and try to repeat it. It seems like a logical approach: one starts by the basic building blocks (the syllables) and then moves on to words (which can be mono-, bi- or trisyllabic) and finally to whole sentences. In engineering and computer jargon one  would speak of a “bottom-up” approach: one builds a wall starting with the base, brick after brick. Although techniques have been developed that seem to adopt a very successful approach among students (*see footnote), learning Chinese can’t be done using a simple algorithm. ‘A good start is half the battle’,  they say. Unfortunately, things are not as simple as they might seem. (If you want to learn more about this issue, my friend Vlad wrote an excellent article about this on his blog)

Now, imagine that you want to learn Italian, and that your teacher imposes the aforementioned bottom-up approach. So, one should start from the sound quality of syllables and then move on to words and sentences. After tedious explanations and charts, imagine practicing the following sentences:

Ma che hai fatto oggi? ==> Mā chē hā-ī fàt-to ŏg-gí?

Ma dove sei andato? ==> Mā dō-vē sē- ī ā-ndàtó?

Imagine the gigantic effort in trying to utter a whole sentence by looking at the tone of every single syllable. Things get even worse when it comes to thinking about a sentence, in that one should also remember every single tone!

And even if you are great at pronouncing the tones, the sentence would still sound ‘robotic’ to a native speaker. The reason for this is that a sentence is not the simple aggregation of individual sounds. When we talk all the single components follow the general intonation of the sentence, and a ‘tonal shift’ takes place  (you can find more information here). This “tonal shift” means that the pronunciation of the syllables making up a word change according to the positions occupied by that word in a sentence. In Italian (as in other languages), the same word has different tones if it is at the beginning or at the end of a sentence.

La pōlĕntá* è un cibo tipico dell’Italia del Nord.      (‘Polenta’ is a typical dish of NorthenItaly)

Mi piace la pōlènta.*    (I like ‘polenta’.)

As you can see, the word “polenta” at the beginning of the sentence sounds like a first-third-second tone, while it becomes a first-fourth-fifth (neutral) tone when at the end of a sentence.

It is obvious that this approach to learn Italian would be a disaster. None, fortunately, would dare adopt such an approach. Yet, even considering the big difference between Italian and Chinese, this IS the only approach adopted in the vast majority of Chinese courses, be it at university or in private schools. Now, is there an alternative to all this?

 

Some advice on how to learn Chinese tones.

Very often the combination of Chinese tones and characters causes a lot of students to give up too soon. Yet more than one and half billion Chinese, as well as a vast number of foreign students speak impeccable Chinese, showing that Chinese tones are not impossible to learn.

We often tend to see children as the best and fastest language learners, and attribute their success to a brain plasticity and flexibility that we adults no longer possess. One might quibble with the definition of “brain plasticity”, but a key factor in the learning process is often omitted: the way they acquire a foreign language is different from ours.

Children hear whole sentences. They don’t start with syllables. They simply hear chunks of a language and then identify the single components by themselves. As adults, we tend to think that we can figure out the structure of a language by analysing every single aspect of it, and we lose sight of the general, broader picture. As adults, we still have the capacity to hear, but we have partially lost our capacity to  listen.

In order to restore this capacity one needs patience and a bit of open-mindedness.

Only a few months after starting learning Chinese “the traditional way”, I realized how important it was to listen to whole sentences. This thought dawned on me when I first used a special software in which a native speaker utters a sentence, and you have to repeat it. The software program then compares both sentences and gives you a mark ranging from 1 (very poor) to 7 (perfect).

Even though this was a machine with all its flaws, the exercise was fun and interactive, and before I knew it, I had tried more than 300 hundred sentences this way. I was repeating sentences without even thinking about tones.

 

The bottom-up approach had suddenly turned into a top-down approach: one starts by uttering a whole, simple sentence and then moves downward towards its individual components.

Based on my experience I would suggest that one follow these simple steps:

1)   Read the introduction on phonetics: it is always helpful to know that Chinese is a tonal language anyway, and that it has 5 tones (4 + a neutral one). This will always be a good reference. Furthermore, at the early stage, one should learn immediately how to pronounce consonants, taking special care in differentiating retroflex consonants (such as zh, ch, shi) from normal ones (z, j, s), and aspirated (p, t) from non aspirated ones (b, d).

2)   Once you have a general understanding of Chinese phonetics, start considering very simple sentences. Listen to the sentences dozens of times, and repeat them with your eyes closed, without looking at the tones that make up the individual words.

3)   Then consider the individual words, and try to focus on them when they are “embedded” in the sentence. If necessary, write down a list of the words as long as you learn them.

4)   Move on to more complex sentences (main clause + relative clause/conditional clause, etc.)

In addition to the tones, it is important to point out that Chinese also has a general pitch (the way a sentence flows) which has to be taken into account. There is a very interesting video on YouTube by my friend Marco on this subject:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIoT2ijUp4Y&feature=channel_video_title]

Marco explains that Chinese introduces breaks in certain positions in a sentence. These breaks, which I represent by the symbol “/”, give one a sort of guideline on how to pronounce a Chinese sentence, other than the tones. It is part of the ‘Phonetic Analysis’, an approach to pronunciation and pitch which I use to teach languages to my students (via Skype and face to face)

1)   Finally, after having learned how to listen, you have to simply… start listening! Do this at least half an hour a day, preferably an hour, and when you are ready, try to spend even more time on this activity. It is key to speaking native-like Chinese. Starts with audio AND the corresponding script.

Quality at the beginning followed by quantity at a later stage is a great way to reach an excellent pronunciation!

 

Conclusions

The tones of Mandarin Chinese are undoubtedly a challenge, but they can be learned with the proper approach. The one I propose is simple: consider a whole sentence and listen to it, try to figure out how it sounds as a whole without focusing on the tones. You’ll find  that it is an efficient approach to acquiring tones in a natural way.

This article was writte by Luca Lampariello

(*) In 2006, Harold Goodman, author of three audio courses created an approach to color-code Mandarin tones. In addition to colors, each tone has also an accompanying gesture. For example, for the sound ā your thumb moves in a straight, lateral direction, index finger points upward for á, The index and middle fingers form a V sign to indicate the third tone (ǎ), and so on. This approach was tested with volunteer students in theUS and they seemed to recall tones very well. For more information, please refer to:

http://www.michelthomas.com/learn-mandarin-chinese.php

http://www.michelthomas.com/assets/downloads/TOTAL%20MANDARIN%20CHINESE.pdf

  • ihcahieh says:

    As always, you give valuable tips! Thanks for coming up with this article. I am learning Mandarin again and I agree that tones could really give you a headache, haha! Good thing I have that RFI app on my phone, they have live Mandarin news. Although I could not understand everything, at least I am getting used to the sounds. And it is always a happy feeling when you get to recognize a word from all the gibberish, lol. =)

  • Giff Ransom says:

    This is an interesting article, but I’m a little dissapointed that the piece of software you mentioned isn’t identified. I, for one, would like to try it out.

    • Luca says:

      I am pleased that you found the article interesting. As for the software program, it is called TELL ME MORE. The software recognition program is only one of the tools that make up the whole package, and I made a general reference to the recognition part itself to partly explain why I ended up adopting a different approach towards the acquisition of the Chinese tones

      TELL ME MORE is, halas, quite expensive, and to my humble opinion the speech recognition sotware is the only thing that is really effective and fun.

      I generally advice against buying it, whch is one of the reasons why I didn’t include the name of the software in the article.

      L

  • Solal says:

    Hey Luca great post once again! Thanks for accepting this interview, I’m preparing the questions right now 😉
    The best video about Chinese tones I’ve seen so far is this one
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-_P_H9gMmo
    I was so impressed by the clarity of it that I wrote a blog post about it although I don’t learn Mandarin!
    Like you, she says that we already use tones in our mother tongue for other purposes without even realizing it. She also mentions the fact that tones get modified when included in a whole word which backs your theory that learning syllables apart doesn’t make sense.
    I also found an interesting online free tool to test one’s ability to perceive the different pitches. You can read my take on this here 😉
    http://www.astuceslangues.com/les-tons-en-chinois-lexplication-ultime/

  • Idioma Chino says:

    Useful information like this one must be kept and maintained so I will put this one on my twitter list! Thanks for this wonderful post and hoping to post more of this!

  • shu says:

    This post is well written and very helpful. Thank you.
    For the tone teaching, I like to use body movement to enforce my students’ tone perfection. Make it a habit to recognize each new word’s tone and character’s meaning. Exaggerate and practice the tones, but don’t just concentrate on that single aspect. The sentence fluency is equally important. The sentences need to flow with ups and downs of tonal melody.
    Please visit my website for useful tools and info about learning Chinese, and enjoy the song singing there too. Thanks.

  • […] e cinese. Devo ancora finire di esplorare il blog, ma per adesso il mio articolo preferito è Tips on how to learn Chinese tones, dove Luca spiega perché un approccio top-down è più efficace di un approccio bottom-up (cioè […]

  • […] eleven language. I still have to finish exploring his blog but till now my favorite article is Tips on how to learn Chinese tones, where Luca explains why a top-down is more effective than a bottom-up approach (that is the way […]

  • Jerrod says:

    Hi Luca,

    I enjoyed this post but I’m a little confused on what exactly your suggestions are for approaching Mandarin. You mentioned Harold Goodman’s MT Chinese and overall your opinion of it seems to be pretty positive (I’m personally finding it great for getting a foothold in Chinese), but when you summed up your thoughts at the end you didn’t mention it. You seemed to advise a different approach altogether – learning whole sentences (incidentally, I prefer learning vocabulary in other languages in the context of whole sentences, not single words).

    Is your advice, therefore, to forgo purchasing MT Chinese altogether and instead go for programs where you learn whole sentences (I would assume an Assimil type course)? Sorry if I misinterpreted your advice!

    Thank you so much!
    Jerrod

    • Luca says:

      Hi Jerrod

      The two methods are compatible. I started learning tones by using five colours, and then quickly moved on to uttering whole sentences. I would personally go for ASSIMIL AND MT Chinese. Remember: it is not the book that makes the difference. It is the way you use it and your overall attitude towards learning.

      I wish you good luck with your adventure into Chinese 🙂

      Luca

  • Danielle says:

    I found a website which has been assisting me on my journey to learn Mandarin. It helped and is a free site. “Mike” provides video lessons with coinciding downloads. Thanks to him I got an A in my Chinese 111 class. He is easy to follow and understand.
    the site is http://www.chinesewithmike.com/ if you are learning Mandarin and just can’t grasp some tones, or patterns check out this site.

    Enjoy,
    Danielle

  • Hey Luca great post once again! Thanks for accepting this interview, I’m preparing the questions right now 😉
    The best video about Chinese tones I’ve seen so far is this one
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-_P_H9gMmo
    I was so impressed by the clarity of it that I wrote a blog post about it although I don’t learn Mandarin!
    Like you, she says that we already use tones in our mother tongue for other purposes without even realizing it. She also mentions the fact that tones get modified when included in a whole word which backs your theory that learning syllables apart doesn’t make sense.
    I also found an interesting online free tool to test one’s ability to perceive the different pitches. You can read my take on this here 😉
    http://www.astuceslangues.com/les-tons-en-chinois-lexplication-ultime/

  • Leslie J. says:

    Thanks for such an informative article! I’m trying to polish my pronunciation & start speaking better Chinese by its tones again as it’s been long time I haven’t done that much!

  • Paul says:

    Hey! Great text! I am a beginner teacher of Mandarin myself, and it was very helpful! Where do I find the software you mentioned:
    “This thought dawned on me when I first used a special software in which a native speaker utters a sentence, and you have to repeat it. The software program then compares both sentences and gives you a mark ranging from 1 (very poor) to 7 (perfect).”

  • […] it comes to language learning. Luca has learned Mandarin Chinese a few years ago, and he wrote a great post on his blog in late 2011 about how he thinks one should learn […]

  • 吃货网 says:

    如果您喜欢可以来到吃货网 ,访问我的网站哦!
    I come from china

  • Savannah says:

    Hi! I was learning Chinese in my high school for two years, but sadly we no longer have the Chinese program at my school anymore. But I was curious: When starting off with Chinese, does pronunciation and overall speaking start off slow and progressively get faster? This is what I seem to be having the most trouble with, tones and the pace of my speech.

    • admin says:

      Yes, it is absolutely normal. You have to repeat sentences as much as you can. Remember: don’t focus on the single tones but the overall phonetic structure of the sentence as I explain in the article. Good luck! Luca

  • Yvonne says:

    Luca, l’approacio di whole-sentence è un buon consiglio – quando insegno il mandarino, non mi piace usare i libri che insegnano il pronuncio con pagine di parole in isolamento. non c’è senso. Allora, non chiamiamo stranieri “wairen”, ma “waiguo ren” o “laowai” (soprannome). Il secondo link non funzione più. Vi auguro grande successo con il tuo apprendimento di lingue! jia you!!

  • Anonymous says:

    You are scientific in your teaching methods. I am truly impressed. If my teachers had all been like that, I would probably be reasonably adept at Chinese right now…

  • […] idiomas. Todavía tengo que terminar de explorar su blog, pero hasta ahora mi artículo favorito es Tips on how to learn Chinese tones donde Luca explica por qué un enfoque de arriba hacia abajo es más eficaz que un enfoque de abajo […]

  • Hugh Grigg says:

    Definitely agree about learning tones with full sentences. This isn’t just about tones, actually. Learning top-down, with big blocks first, is one of the most overlooked ways to learn a language effectively. Most of us do far too much ‘building block’ learning, and not enough top-down.

  • I moved to Beijing and only started learning Chinese 3 months ago. I just built a game with the help of my teacher (her voice) to practice the 4 Mandarin tones: http://fcolaco.com/tonegame for Android and iOS

  • Bruce says:

    It’s easy to learn Chinese. http://love-mandarin.com. I made this website to introduce English-learners to English-speaking people, and Chinese-learners to Chinese-speaking people! Add a Chinese as a contact, talk to him/her half an hour a day! just try!

  • SomeNewKid says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the bottom-up and top-down approaches. Having started with the bottom-up approach and found it limiting, I agree with your conclusion.

    You mention that “Chinese also has a general pitch,” and then link to a video by your friend Marco. Unfortunately, that video is no longer on YouTube.

    Do you know whether there is a proper name for how (in your words) “Chinese … breaks in certain positions in a sentence”? That might be enough to find a video similar to the one provided by Marco.

  • […] Essa é apenas uma característica da prosódia. Há ainda muitas outras. Você já deve conhecer o famoso "a sábia sabia que o sabiá sabia assobiar". É um exemplo bonitinho do acento, uma característica suprassegmental do português (suprassegmental porque a gente não consegue dividir em partes analisáveis). Há línguas que marcam seu ritmo de fala por picos de altura (e muitas vezes de alongamento). Essas línguas são chamadas de acentuais. Normalmente você vai ver nelas sílabas intercaladas do tipo forte-fraco e variações disso. Mas há outros jeitos de marcar isso – línguas bantu, coreano, chinês e muitas outras possuem um padrão rítmico tonal. Isso significa que essas línguas não fazem padrões de sílabas fortes e fracas, mas marcam diferenças de pitch ou altura melódica. […]

  • Robert says:

    I am a businessman who has stayed in china for four years. From an outsider to half-native people, i am familiar with all the places in Shenzhen right now. i can speak simple chinese, but it’s not enough for me.
    I emerged great interests in Chinese culture! So I took course in Hanbridge Mandarin school in Shenzhen. It gave me very good impression!!! The teachers here are nice and patient. I have learnt many things that I don’t know before. such as the story of Chinese spring festival, Mid-autumn festival…

  • […] language was the fact that Mandarin Chinese has tones (if you want to know what tones are, check my article on how to learn them more efficiently) while Italian is a non tonal language. This is a headache […]

  • […] still have to finish exploring his blog but up until now, my favorite article is Tips on how to learn Chinese tones, where Luca explains why a top-down approach is more effective than a bottom-up approach (that is, […]

  • GT says:

    Intersting article. I have never heard polenta pronounced as pōlĕntá though 🙂

  • Richard Spain says:

    I recently created a free web resource for learning Chinese tones based on minimal pairs, i.e. where you listen to two recordings that are identical except for the tones on one key phrase (a bit like in the English textbook “Ship or Sheep”). There are three kinds of tests, two based on differentiating tone pairs and one based on a single tone change in two otherwise identical sentences. I guess it is a partial application of this “top down” philosophy, certainly the sentence based questions are the ones that prove most challenging. There is also a speaking part which users of the website can use with their teacher. Anyone interested can check it out at http://www.maorma.net.

  • southtrini1 says:

    Hello Luca, I just wanted to let you know that you made a small error in the first sentence of this blog post. The word “occur” doesn’t appear to have been used in the correct context. “Did it ever occur to you?” usually means something like, “Did you ever think about…?” In this idiomatic expression “occur” doesn’t mean “to happen.” A better way to express your original idea, might be: “Did you ever happen to see a person on YouTube…?”

  • […] language was the fact that Mandarin Chinese has tones (if you want to know what tones are, check myarticle on how to learn them more efficiently) while Italian is a non tonal language. This is a headache […]

  • […] you’re learning a tonal language, then I recommend you take this top-down approach to learning tones, and avoid the headaches that bottom-up approaches can […]

  • Chinese says:

    Ciao Luca, leggo sempre con grande interesse il tuo blog. Inizierò presto il mio corso di cinese all’Università per i livelli 1 e 2 HSK e volevo portarmi avanti cercando di acquisire una pronuncia quanto più corretta. Tu hai indicato come imparare a riconoscere i toni ma ad esempio ho visto che il corso dell’ Assimil introduce direttamente alla lingua mentre io cercavo qualcosa di introduttivo per imparare molto bene i toni, la pronuncia e il pinyin, prima dell’ inizio del corso, che includesse delle coppie minime ad esempio o un sintetizzatore vocale come quello del software da te indicato. Avresti dei consigli circa i materiali da cui partire o come è possibile farlo al meglio. Ti ringrazio davvero.

  • Lodovico says:

    Ciao Luca e grazie per questi consigli utilissimi. Ne farò tesoro. Il video che consigli di “Marco” riguardo le pause all’interno delle frasi del cinese sembra non più disponibile. Avresti qualche altro link al video o qualche altro collegamento a questo canale di youtube? Sarei molto interessato. Grazie ancora

    • Ciao Lodovico, purtroppo Marco ha eliminato il canale e non sono pù in contatto con lui. Ho dei paper accademici che parlano di intonazione cinese, ma non sono così fribili ed immediatamente comprensibili come il video di Marco purtroppo.

  • Marion says:

    Hi there, I just found your article and loved it! I would like to ask you what software you’ve used that made you repeat sentences after a native and analyzed both to give a mark? It’s exactly what I’m looking for these days but it’s a struggle!

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