Tenaciously Tackling Tones
This week’s post is all about those pesky Mandarin Chinese tones. This is the first half, the basics as it were, and next week’s article will be about how to master tones at higher level of thought.
The first thing that everybody tends to get wide-eyed about when it come to learning Mandarin is that it is a tonal language. Does it mean I have to sing? Does it mean I may be incapable of mastering Chinese tones if I am not a natural? How long does it take to master Mandarin Chinese tones?
Reasonable questions, but the first thing we’d like to you to recognize is that you already use tones to express meaning all the time. The difference is just the layer of the language in which the majority of the meaning is expressed through tones.
The layers of language might be something like:
Sounds (consonant or vowel)
Letter (or Character)
Word (or Character…in Chinese characters are kind of between letters and words in their function)
Sentences (basic grammar)
Stories (advanced grammar)
How to English Tones & Chinese Tones Compare?
In English, we use tones on the layer of the sentence, but in Chinese they use tones on the layers of the character & the word (and the sentence as well, but not nearly as often or consistently as the character and word).
This IS psychologically tricky. What it means is that you can’t just improvise with words to try to change the meaning on the sentence level. But that’s just it, its psychologically tricky, not impossible. You already use tones, so if you have that “I just can’t do it because I’m not musical/don’t have a knack for it” idea in your head, get rid of it immediately, because it’s actually wrong. You use tones all the time.
The above video is the highlight reel from this week’s Facebook & YouTube livestream that we do every week on Monday’s at 2 PM China time (sorry US & European folks, but hey, we live in China!). We address several of the issues that people have with starting to learn tones in this video.
Consider some of these general tips for mastering Chinese tones (also discussed in the above video):
- All Chinese tones exist in English. It’s just that we use tones in English for intonation and tones in Chinese for meaning.
- Teachers saying tones wrong because they aren’t saying them in a sentence (isolated)
- The graphs below are for practice, when actually speaking to people think more about imitation
- The color codes used in the graphs are the same as those used in Pleco
- A wrong Chinese tone is not an accent, it’s just wrong. Be determined from the start to get it right.
- Chinese has a wider pitch range than English- Much Like Singing
- Relax and don’t fret too much. Muscles need time to grow.
HOW TO PRONOUNCE EACH OF THE CHINESE TONES
When you ask a teacher about how to pronounce a specific character, they will probably over-emphasize pronunciation, making it sound different from real life. Ask your tutor to us the tones in a sentence for more natural results.
With uncertainty about your zombie status,
Luke & Phil
Any questions or comments? We’d love to hear from you and respond to your questions via one of our livestreams. Comment below and we’ll add your question to our question list.🧐