A few months ago it began to dawn on me that although my Chinese comprehension had improved a lot over the previous year, my accent had stagnated. I had always been aware that my pronunciation, whilst not terrible, contained errors. However, one of the reasons I didn’t address this was because Chinese friends and teachers would typically be very kind when I asked them for feedback:
“Your accent is fine, there is no big problem!”
“Your pronunciation is better than most foreigners, you don’t need to worry about it!”
I came to realise these sorts of comments were a polite way of glossing over the fact that my Mandarin sounded distinctly and classically foreign, to the point where it would occasionally impede communication. Although my pronunciation may have matched the standards that Chinese people expect to hear from learners, that is – to be blunt – not a very high bar. This is in large part because relatively few students have a strong mastery of tones. And to the native ear, tones matter a lot more than many people appreciate.
The standards by which we are judged tend to be set by famous Mandarin speaking westerners like Marc Zuckerberg and John Cena, neither of whom are strong role models for tones. On the rare instances when people like 大山 (Da Shan) emerge speaking with near perfect tones, this is usually put down to 天赋 (natural talent) and considered unattainable for ordinary people. Moreover, many Chinese speakers find English pronunciation exceptionally difficult and don’t feel in a position to judge others harshly. As one friend put it in a failed attempt to console me: “It’s fine, you just sound like me in English.”
After probing further, the feedback I received from trusted friends and tutors was that I had few problems pronouncing Chinese vowels and consonants correctly but frequently made tonal errors. This made sense. As a beginner I studied pinyin and the five tones like everyone else. But I never invested the required effort to properly master tones, hoping instead that I would gradually improve naturally through immersing in large amounts of listening content.
The results were unsatisfactory. Yes, in one to one conversations I could usually make myself understood but almost every sentence I uttered would contain at least one glaring error. Worse still, I often couldn’t hear it. In natural speech, the differences between a second tone and a third tone can appear pretty subtle to the untrained ear. But to native speakers they are world’s apart. This is similar to the way some Chinese people pronounce the word usually ‘yoo-shree’, often struggling to distinguish their pronunciation from that of a native English speaker. Our ears are finely tuned to distinguish specific vowel and consonant sounds which if mispronounced sound completely off. Many learners fail to realise the same is true in reverse with Chinese tones.
No longer under any illusions about my pronunciation skills I swallowed my pride and set out to do something about it.
The first thing I did was relearn all of the tones for all my vocabulary decks. I used the app Pleco which contains a flashcard function that tests your knowledge of tones. I found this a very worthwhile exercise because it turned out I had forgotten, misremembered or mis-learned a significant minority of tones for known words. Still, by combining flashcards with lots of listening it didn’t take too long before I was up to speed. At the time of writing I can recall the tones for almost all the vocabulary in HSK1-5 and around 20% of the vocabulary in HSK6.
However, just because I could remember tones when tested didn’t mean I could use them properly when speaking. The next thing I did was to make sure I was pronouncing tone pairs properly in isolation. With the help of a tutor I discovered I could pronounce most of the 20 tone pair combinations without problems, with the exception of those beginning with second tones and third tones. I discovered that my second tone sometimes wavered, sounding to the native ear like a third tone. My third tone often didn’t start low enough and rose too sharply, running the risk of being confused for a second tone. Despite some initial frustration, it didn’t take long to largely iron out these issues.
Once I was confident I could properly pronounce tones pair combinations in isolation and recall 90% of the tones for my active vocabulary I started working on whole sentences using a method inspired by the polyglot Laoma Chris. The technique involves choosing a native speaker who you want to sound like and repeatedly imitating their pronunciation of whole sentences. The speaker I chose to shadow was the controversial political YouTuber, 悉尼奶爸 (Sydney Daddy). Although I do not share his politics I find his voice pleasant to listen to and his accent is very clear.
Over the past few weeks I have been following the same routine. Every day I watch his videos and choose three sentences containing challenging tone combinations and phrases I might use myself. I then spend around half an hour imitating his pronunciation of each sentence as well as I can. Once I am reasonably confident with my attempt I spend another 30 minutes working with a native speaker friend who corrects my mistakes. I repeat each sentence over and over until my friend gives me a subjective score of at least 95% proximity to native pronunciation. I then revise sentences from previous days.
Below is a clip of me practicing the following sentence: 这样我们才能实现所有人，尽可能多的人，有一个好的生活.
This exercise felt extremely tiring in the beginning but after just a couple of weeks training I could already feel the benefits. Gradually, my tongue and brain are acquiring a stronger instinct for using Chinese tone combinations in natural speech. I’ve also found that the more I work on tones the more I appreciate their beauty and recognise their centrality to the Chinese language. Mistakes I previously made regularly have begun to feel intuitively wrong, often allowing me to correct myself before waiting for a native speaker to do so. My tutor taught me a Chinese proverb depicting my habit of self correcting before she’s has a chance to interject: 良马见鞭影而驰 (a good horse takes off on seeing the whip’s shadow.)
So many blogs I have read on this topic argue that people like me committed a cardinal sin by failing to appreciate the value of tones from the beginning, allowing our mistakes to ‘fossilise’ before attempting to correct them when it’s already too late. I believe arguments like these do more harm than good. They make intermediate and advanced learners with sub-par tones (a large proportion of all learners) feel it’s too late to do anything about it. My experience suggests this is groundless nonsense. As I’ve written elsewhere, in many respects the large amount of exposure I’ve had to Chinese makes attempting to nail tones now far easier than it would have been as a beginner. If you had asked me to imitate the example sentence above three years ago I would have been completely lost.
Whether or not the ideal is for people to nail Mandarin tones as beginners, the fact is that many learners reach decent levels of Chinese comprehension with little more than a flimsy grasp of pinyin and far from perfect tones. If there is one thing I hope intermediate learners can take from this post it is that it’s never too late to begin mastering tones and that the process of doing so, though requiring patience, is gratifying and rewarding.