Why tones and I were not friends: how to improve your Chinese tones

You sit down in your first mandarin class and they show you something like this:

Pinyin Tone Chart

 

You practice the four different tones.  ā, á, ǎ, à.  You practice differentiating between your mother (妈: mā) and a horse (马: mǎ).  (Fair enough!  Though, I’ve often wondered how Chinese people whine to their mother.  My kids manage to make the sound ma into an entirely new tone altogether!)  You practice different pinyin drills, different tones together, the neutral tone.

Easy, right?

So, so, so wrong.

My hate-relationship with Chinese tones began way after I had begun learning Chinese.  I’d already lived in China for a couple of years, but after I started learning Chinese full time, for the first 6 months of being generally unintelligible, I’d still gotten away with being able to fudge my tones.  I was able to communicate, people would get my meaning, and just make allowances for it.  As someone who loved talking, I wasn’t going to let minor pronunciation problems stop me from communicating.

So I hacked away.  Well that’s not what I thought.  In my eyes, I forged ahead, building confidence in my ability to communicate, excited at how I grew to be able to babble on much like I did in English.  What with the new vocabulary I was learning, and the new grammar I was practicing, I felt armed to conquer the Chinese language.

That is, until I stopped to hear myself speak. To really hear myself speak.

After 2 years of absorbing the language and 6 months of seriously studying Chinese in Beijing (where, by the way, tones really matter), my husband and I made a video for some Mandarin speaking friends back at home, a video postcard if you will.  I wrote the whole script, even threw in a few jokes, and we sat down to record it.  I sat down and babbled away, whereas my husband wanted to do take after take after take until he was happy.  After editing it and sending it off, I felt as though we’d really made a lot of progress in six months.  When our friends (native Chinese speakers) received our video postcard they were really positive about our progress. But the feedback that kept coming back to us was how great my husband’s Chinese was.

I have to admit I was a bit cheesed off.  Thankfully my husband is not the sort to gloat — in fact, he was even indignant that he’d hadn’t done a thing but read my script out!  But after I calmed down (ok, it took a while!) I realised that there had to be some truth to what they were saying.  So I sat down to watch the video. Properly.

When I sat down to deliberately listen to my Mandarin, I realized they were right. My husband’s Mandarin, his spoken Mandarin, the Mandarin he needs to use every day in order to communicate, from what you could see in the video, was excellent. Mine, however, was more of an indistinguishable flow of words.  Not to say I couldn’t be understood, because I did throw in enough vocabulary and gestures and emphasis to give my meaning, but I could no longer ignore that my tones were absolutely everywhere and this was seriously debilitating my Chinese.

At that point I had a bit of a meltdown.  After all the hard work I’d put in, all the confidence I had in my language was gone.  For about a week I actually could not speak Chinese.  I’d open my mouth, completely panic at what was going to come out of my mouth, and just freeze up.  I spent a few days hating Chinese tones, or threatening to move down to 南方 (nánfāng: the South) where tones don’t matter so much, and generally just being infuriated by the insanity of this language.  But when the emotion subsided, I knew, I finally realized, that tones were something I could no longer ignore.

(Interestingly, it was a little hard to find things online on how to help my particular problem.  It’s not that I can’t say the tones.  I always could say single-syllable words very well when reading the pinyin with tone markers.  I could get through a vocab list with no problem.  My problem was more that I wasn’t remembering the tones of new words (or old words for that matter) and was just making them up or replacing them with English intonation when I spoke.)

So it was time to get back to basics.

It was slightly demoralizing to be going from book 4 of a series back to book 1 (I was learning from New Practical Chinese Reader at the time), but I did it.  Not in my classes, but for a period of time, my entire time of self-study was going back to the beginners book and not moving on until I had absolutely nailed the tones.  I upgraded my Skritter account to a paid subscription and changed the mode to Tones Only.  (In my opinion, as much as I love Pleco, doing this on Skritter was preferred to using Pleco for tones practice.  I think it has to do with the unlimited testing process (ie, keep going until you feel like a break with the same words coming up again and again, rather than having a list of words to work through only once)).  I sat down and wrote down every word in the vocab lists (even wǒ, hǎo, nǐ …) with the correct pinyin – including tone markers (can you believe I had hardly ever bothered to note down the tones when writing pinyin before!) because I started to realize that I hadn’t in my head associated even the most basic of words with their tones.  It really, truly, was back to basic, and it was a hard slog.

But it was totally worth it.

I learned the difference between

  • zhòngyào (重要: important) and zhōngyào (中药: Chinese medicine)
  • and yǎnjing (眼睛: eyes) and yǎnjìng (眼镜: glasses) (actually I still find those two really hard to say properly and 你戴眼睛吗? is just scary if you think about it), not to mention燕京 (Yānjīng: yes, the beer!)

And I learned that

  • you can’t go to the markets and ask for tù dòu (兔痘: rabbitpox, compare with tǔdòu 土豆: potato)
  • and 服务员 (fúwùyuán: waiter/service assistant) will get really confused if you ask for yī wàn mǐfàn (一万米饭: myriads of rice, read as yí wàn: note that 一 changes tone when you read with other words; compare with yī wǎn mǐfàn: 一碗米饭: a bowl of rice, read as yì wǎn)
一碗米饭 yī wǎn mǐfàn

一碗米饭 yī wǎn mǐfàn

 

Another helpful tip I found at lingomi.com,  which has a great table of 20 simple two-syllable words to build up your ‘tone muscle memory’.  After saying these words in sequence for just a short while, I felt that I could get my head around the differences, particularly anything involving the 2nd and 3nd tones, and especially 2+3 and 3+3.  This familiarization with tones helped me to hear the correct tones when listening, which has helped so much more in being able to replicate the correct tone when speaking.

By far, I’m still no expert.  The other day I still had to ask my 5-year old daughter how to say 裤子 (kùzi: trousers) correctly.  And it sometimes means I have to say a sentence (or particular words) twice over just to make sure I said it correctly (I sound like I have a strange kind of stutter).  But just accepting the fact tones really do matter was the biggest step I took to improving my Chinese.

And now Chinese tones and I are friends.

What about you? Are you friends with Chinese tones?  What’s been your Chinese tone journey?