Chinese Corner

What About Tones?

How not to be tone deaf when speaking Mandarin – by Liz Carter


Many people are intimidated by the prospect of learning Chinese because it is a tonal language – the same syllable, pronounced differently, can mean a number of totally different things. Tackling Chinese may seem impossible, especially for the less than musically inclined, if perfect pitch is presumed to be a prerequisite.

However, tones are more of a speed bump than a brick wall. And the trouble with tones can best be tackled by breaking it down into three issues: whether it is feasible to learn tones; whether it is important; and how it can be done.

First, the issue of feasibility: Take the oft-cited example of ma in Mandarin – in first tone (high) it means “mother”; in second tone (rising) it means “hemp” or “numb”; in third tone (falling-rising) “horse”; and in forth tone (falling) “to scold”. This can seem very alien to English native learners of Chinese, but it’s less daunting when you consider that we are already using pitch variation to communicate and interpret meaning.

Take the following, in English:

“He likes you.” (That guy likes you)

“He likes you.” (That guy like likes you)

“He likes you?” (I didn’t think that guy liked you…)

“He likes you?” (I didn’t think anyone liked you…)

He likes you?” (That’s the guy who likes you? Yeesh…)

While these five phrases are grammatically identical, we can tell they are communicating emphasis, disbelief and other nuances through variation in pitch and stress. Ultimately, the challenge in learning to hear Chinese tones is not learning to hear pitch change, but learning where to hear pitch change – in each syllable.

That’s where we move from feasibility into the land of is it really worth it? Tones can seem, on the surface, to be an optional pursuit in the study of Mandarin. I am always tempted to say that correct tones are absolutely necessary, but to be honest, if you are fluent in all other respects, people will usually be able to tell what you mean from context. It’s a bit like my boyfriend’s refusal to properly learn English celebrity names. I know who he means when he says “Ryan Gasoline,” even if it makes me roll my eyes.

But without correct tones, you’re likely to sound childish, even if you’re discussing economic policy. To a native Chinese speaker, an incorrect tone sounds the same as a wrong word does to an English speaker. Think: “Waiter, may I have the mashed Potemkin and risked beef? I’d lake my beef medium roar.” And every so often, getting a tone wrong may not only lead to a failure to communicate meaning, it could also offend, as with the following:

水饺一碗多少钱? Shuǐjiǎo yīwǎn duōshǎo qián “How much for a bowl of dumplings?”

睡觉一晚多少钱? shuìjiào yīwǎn duōshǎo qián “How much to sleep with me for a night?”

In short, it is both feasible and important to learn tones. Finally, how? There are many online resources: YouTube videos and explainers are always helpful. If money’s no object, I’d suggest software that can map your tone production visually, as studies show it helps (also I tried this once at a Rosetta Stone kiosk in the mall and found it very cool). Recording yourself and comparing your pronunciation with native pronunciation will help you measure your progress and identify your weaknesses. However, one free and often “overlooked” resource is simply listening. It’s very rare to be explicitly corrected in the course of natural conversation, but if you listen carefully to a native speaker as you converse, you’ll notice a lot of interchanges like this:

“That mashed Potemkin I eated was amazeful!”

“Yeah, I think mashed potatoes are amazing too! I ate some last week!”

This is known as “embedded correction”. For many of you it may seem obvious, but it took me six months of living in Beijing and making stupid mistakes over and over again to realize that people were doing this all the time. I would go so far as to say the number one thing you can do to improve your Mandarin tones is to listen closely when a native speaker responds to you.

As for perfect pitch, studies show that not only is not necessary for the mastery of a tonal language, but mastering a tonal language can in fact help you develop it. Yet another reason to rise to the challenge – or like third tone, to fall and rise again. ∎