Six months ago I realised that if I wanted to reach a decent level of spoken Mandarin I would need to work on my tones. As is commonplace, I was shielded from this reality by polite friends and tutors who are used to hearing foreigners speak Chinese with poor tones and have come to expect it. They always told me what I wanted to hear: “Your tones are fine, stop worrying about it!”
Then, one day last summer a friend with a slightly more direct communication style than average delivered the crushing truth. My Mandarin sounded classically foreign, she told me, to the extent it was often hard to understand what I was saying. I reacted defensively but deep down I knew she was right.
By that point I’d been learning Chinese for four years and, like many foreigners, had a pretty relaxed attitude to tones. I had learned the basics; I knew there were four of them plus a neutral one and I’d made half hearted attempts to listen out for them. But I’d never given them focused attention or sought proper feedback from a tutor. I assumed I’d be able to pick them up naturally through lots of listening but the results were worse than I imagined.
Shortly before I decided to work on my tones I recorded a conversation in Mandarin with my language exchange partner. The recording took the form of a mock interview where he pretended to be a YouTube host asking me how I had learned Mandarin. I had no intention of ever publishing it but wanted to hear what I sounded like as I hadn’t recorded myself speaking Chinese before.
When I listened to the recording I could hear my speech was off but couldn’t pinpoint exactly why. Listening again six months later it is clear there are a large number of glaring tone errors (as well as awkward structure and word usage) which make it very cringing to listen to. After hundreds of hours of listening input and conversations with native speakers my Chinese wasn’t completely atonal but each sentence I uttered would usually contain at least one glaring error, often several.
For comparison, last week I recorded myself speaking with my tutor to document my progress over the past six months:
Both recordings were first takes and unscripted. My work is nowhere near complete but I’m pleased with my progress. In recent months I’ve gone from regularly butchering tones to becoming comfortable talking about familiar topics with largely correct tones.
One of my main motivations for writing this blog is the fact that there is relatively little advice for people in the same boat as I was: the large proportion of intermediate to advanced learners whose tones are as bad or worse than mine were. Most advice on tones is instead aimed at beginners and warns that students who didn’t take tones seriously from the start have committed an irredeemable sin.
The longer I went without addressing my tone issues the longer I felt there was no point in trying to do so since my bad habits were surely too deeply engrained. I began to self identify as a victim of what every serious language learner fears most: fossilisation.
Fortunately this was nonsense. Sure, focussing on tones at the start is the best option and will cause the least pain in the long run. But it’s equally true that anybody can learn tones at any point regardless of their level or how long they’ve been learning.
So how have I gone about correcting my wayward tones? My approach involves five main components:
The Roadmap to Improving Tones
1. Drilling Tones in Isolation & pairs
The first thing I did was make sure I was able to consistently hear and produce the tones correctly in isolation. Through practicing the four tones with native speakers I identified I had an issue with third tone. The third tone is often mistaught as a falling and rising tone when in fact, as the video in this link shows, in most cases it’s pronounced as a low tone.
Once I had ironed out these issues I familiarised myself with the 20 tone pair combinations. Chinese vocabulary usually consists of two characters so drilling tone pairs is more important than producing tones in isolation. Unfortunately many Chinese tutors fail to teach this crucial aspect of tone acquisition. I drilled these pairs on a daily basis with a native speaker to correct my mistakes until producing them accurately felt easy.
2. Vocabulary Memorisation
Using the flashcard feature on the dictionary app Pleco I began testing my memory of tones for known vocabulary. It turned out my lax attitude had led to a significant minority of vocabulary being mislearned or misremembered. However, after drilling flashcards daily for several weeks I was able to accurately recall the vast majority of the tones for my active vocabulary.
Through this daily flashcard drilling I also built a mental habit of categorising each vocabulary item into one of the 20 tone pair combinations. Using this technique to memorise tones for new vocabulary was tough at first but is no longer a challenge. At the time of writing, I can recall the tones for 80-90% of HSK6. To build and maintain new vocabulary I use space repetition software Hack Chinese. I no longer find memorising the tones harder than other elements of pronunciation, such as initials and finals.
3. Speaking Practice & Correction
Alongside the previous two steps I began searching for a tutor on Italki who could correct me when speaking at a natural pace. After trying out half a dozen I settled on one – an untrained community tutor who, refreshingly, did not seem obsessed with exam preparation and was willing to adapt her lessons to my needs. She was also unafraid to correct my mistakes.
When we first started working together her corrections were overwhelming in number. The most frequent mistakes involved common combinations of two or more third tones, for example “我也想…” (when two or more third tones are placed together all but the final one become second tone). These phrases were also the hardest to correct because I had developed bad habits from saying them incorrectly so many times over the years. However, through persistent correction I was able to replace them with new habits. Six months later most of my sentences don’t contain tone errors.
4. Focussed Reading and Listening
Alongside the steps above, I made sure that I paid closer attention to tones when reading and listening to Chinese. I would either read material aloud or make sure I was subvocalising the tones correctly for each tone pair. If I encountered a word which I didn’t know the tone pair for I would look it up and try to memorise it. Doing this significantly slowed down my reading at first but over time I regained and even surpassed my previous speed.
Directing my attention to tones when listening to videos and podcasts was also crucial. I made an effort to distinguish between tones which can sound similar to the untrained ear. For example fourth tone can sometimes sound like first tone and third tone can sound like second tone. Changing the YouTube speed setting to slow and listening repeatedly helped me redress these tonal misperceptions and refine my ear. Consequently I have developed the instinct to hear when my own tones are off and autocorrect them. This is arguably the most valuable skill to develop when acquiring tones.
The better I get at producing tones correctly the more I benefit from imitation techniques. I have used a variety of methods. One method is to pull out phrases I think are useful from TV dramas or Youtube videos and practice imitating them. I then write these down and collect them in a phrase bank to review with my tutor or Chinese friends. They read the phrase out loud with natural intonation and I try to copy them. They then give me feedback and correct any errors until my imitation is near native.
Another technique I’ve used is to ‘echo’ Chinese speakers while listening to podcasts. Each time I listen to a phrase I pause the audio, wait a couple of seconds and imitate it. This technique works best with highly comprehensible material as I can focus on pronouncing the sounds correctly rather than trying to understand the meaning. I also like to select material that is chatty and contains useful colloquial phrases rather than formal language.
Imitation is crucial because it not only trains us to pronounce tones correctly but to do so in a way that sounds natural rather than robotic.
Foreign speakers of Chinese have such a bad reputation when it comes to tones that a widespread internet slang term has emerged to parody us. The term 歪果仁 is pronounced like 外国人 (meaning foreigner) but with the wrong tones.
Over the years I’ve heard several Chinese people express the view that besides 大山 – a Canadian who became famous for perfoming traditional 相声 comedic dialogues on Chinese TV – no foreigner can master tones. This is nonesense, but it is understandable people believe it given the general prevalence of bad tones.
There are a number of reasons why we neglect working on tones. Two of the most common ones are: 1) learners who haven’t learned tones properly are unaware their tones are bad and 2) learners know their tones are bad but have given up hope they can do anything about it as they’ve been led to believe it’s impossibly difficult.
Some people aren’t sure whether their tones are good or not. If that describes you, the likelihood is you’re probably in category one. Unless you can hear for yourself when your tones or those of other people are off you will have little chance of producing them correctly when speaking.
Whichever category you are in, I hope this blog can provide you with a roadmap to get started improving your tones. Doing so will seem challenging at first and requires significant patience but achieving noticable results within a reasonable time frame is possible and worth the effort.
How about you? Do you find the content of this blog helpful? What have you found most challenging about tones? Let me know in the comments below.
*For my full roadmap on how to acquire Mandarin tones see this blog.
*For a full list of apps I recommend for learning Chinese check out this post.
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