How to Learn Chinese Tones

Written by Dyami Millarson

I have always been interested in prosody as a topic within the field of phonetics which has always been one of my main linguistic interests, and that is why I found it particularly satisfying to learn the Chinese tones and perfect my ability to recognise and reproduce them over the years. I still recall how I started learning Chinese tones: I found a Chinese tone game on the BBC website. I still recommend this to people who have zero knowledge of Chinese tones. It is a helpful tool for absolute beginners. As I progressed more, I found a tone drill game on the website of ArchChinese. I still use that tool up to this day, because I find it quite convenient for perfecting my tones. My goal is to be able to pronounce Chinese exactly like a Chinese native speaker. That is why I keep using this tool. It takes a long time to perfect one’s Chinese tones, but if one keeps making an effort no matter how frustrated one may get at the start of the learning process, one’s endurance will pay off.

It is important to learn to recognise and reproduce the tones first. Some tones are easier to learn than others. For instance, I always find it quite easy to recognise the 4th and 1st tone, while I often confuse the 2nd tone for a 3rd tone. However, once one has nailed the pronunciation of the tones, it becomes important to recognise the tones in different words. One of the aspects that I always find daunting about Chinese is remembering the exact tones that are associated with specific words. Remembering the tones of words is no easy task! However, I try to do everything by endless repetition over a long period of time with various long intervals until I remember the information correctly. I feel that this is the most natural way to learn the tones of words. I may make many mistakes, but I do not care too much about this, because I will keep trying in order to be able to speak the Chinese language. I can already make some simple sentences. My progress is slow due to various factors, but I do witness that I am making gradual progress over the years. My Mandarin pronunciation is better than it used to be many years ago. My progress may, however, not be as fast as I would like it to be and I might choose to speed up the process by focusing my attention more exclusively on the acquisition of the Chinese spoken language.

One of my methods for learning language is to acquaint myself with the very basics of the pronunciation of a language years prior to actually learning the language. So, this enables me to recognise scores of languages based on pronunciation alone. However, I have not yet learned those languages, I have only acquainted myself with the sound of those languages; this is also the case with Chinese, because I learned the pronunciation of the language and never really bothered to learn the vocabulary and structure of the language for many years. I often compare the pronunciations of languages and I intuitively use different languages as references in order to understand how phonetics may work in human languages. This strategy helps me learn the pronunciation of new languages faster and faster. The more languages I have acquainted myself with on the level of pronunciation, the easier it is for me to learn the pronunciation of new languages. So, my understanding of Chinese phonetics is aided by my understanding of Frisian phonetics, for instance. When I hear a word like cún, I can hear a “breaking,” which means that the vowel u is diphthongised (i.e., broken into two parts). Ever since I noticed this, I have been fascinated with how “breaking” or “diphthongisation” works in Chinese, and I learned to appreciate certain phonetic details that enable me to sound much more like a native speaker.

8 comments

  1. For non-native speakers, recognizing Chinese tone is very difficult. It is hard to explain how different these tones are in English. So maybe you can speak slowly to feel the change of the tone. For the second tone, you can feel “up”(tone up). For the third tone, you can feel “winding”(from down to up)

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    • Thank you for the recommendations. It is hard to explain tones in general, it requires a lot of careful listening and paying attention to detail. There are many ways to describe tones. Your way of explaining the 3rd tone is novel to me, I know what you mean by “winding” because this detail of the third tone is what reminds me of the quacking sounds that frogs make when they are sitting in the water of the Frisian polders during summertime. This natural sound, that I am familiar with since my youth, is what helps me remember what the 3rd tone is like. The English language also employs tones in a manner that is called intonation, but because we use tones in a different way in European languages such as English from the way we use them in Chinese, it may at first not be so easy for native speakers of European languages to notice that they are also using the same or similar tones in their everyday speech. Only a few European languages employ tones more like Chinese, such as Limburgish [a language of the Southern Netherlands] and Swedish [a language of Scandinavia which is a large peninsula in the northernmost part of Europe].

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  2. I had absolutely no idea about all these different tones in the Chinese language. Would I find something similar in other languages? Thank you for this very interesting posting.
    Gwen

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chinese is a tone language because it distinguishes the meaning of syllables/words by using different tones. However, there are definitely other languages that employ tones. Good examples of this are Elfdalian in Scandinavia and Limburgish in the Netherlands. The tone system that these languages use is called pitch, because they have a fixed tone for certain words but they do not mark every single syllable with a different tone like in Chinese. Pitch accents work with rising and falling tones, and so this tonal system is much simpler than that of Chinese. Even in English we use tones, but we call that intonation because we use it to convey different emotions about statements we make and also to convey different sentence structures such as whether a sentence is a question or affirmation. The intonation of a sentence like “You are happy” (statement of fact) is different from “Are you happy?” (question). One uses tones for creating this effect, but we do not really think that much about it when we speak English, because we do not use tones in the same way as in tone language systems or pitch accent systems.
      – Dyami

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