Improving one's tones

Discussion in 'Chinese Language' started by Z-Lo, Apr 5, 2012.

  1. Z-Lo

    Z-Lo 秀才

    Does anyone have advice on improving the recognition, retention, and thereby production of tones when studying Chinese?

    My tones are actually not that bad, but I want them to be perfect. I am in an "advanced" class, live in China, and speak pretty fluently. But I often catch myself making a tone mistake or even forgetting one of the tones in a word, sometimes even a relatively basic word.

    I imagine it is probably partly because I studied on my own a lot at first and also went through periods where I didn't study or use Chinese for a year or two at a time. For me, I find that the tones are the first thing to go if I am not completely confident with a word, even if I remember the pronunciation otherwise.

    I found the app Tone Test by Laokang, which I think is pretty good and helpful. But I'd like more suggestions.

    Thanks :p
  2. LongShiKong

    LongShiKong 举人

    Are you overly conscious of your tones when you speak with Chinese people or do you consciously or unconsiously tend to speak in a neutral tone when unsure?

    You need to hear the tones of vocab and expressions as native speakers use them to reinforce them in your mind but few Chinese speak slow and clear enough or use standard Mandarin pronunciation for that to happen. As I'd written elsewhere, even qualified Chinese teachers have difficulty distinguishing a neutral from a 3rd tone, or a 3rd from a 2nd tone (as I do too at times) but won't confuse a 1st or a 4th with any other tones. When I'm doing a flaschard session, I'll mark it wrong if I even get the tones wrong but konw the pronunciation and the meaning--my problem is I haven't listened to the dialogues yet from the books I'm using. I just finished (quickly reviewing) the ELEMENTARY SPOKEN CHINESE and now I'm on Lesson 1 of the INTERMEDIATE.

    I'd recommend getting and listening to as many dialogs at your level as possible--there's bound to be a fair amount of overlap in vocabulary. You know about Pleco's color representation for tones? Last summer, wishful thinking had me wonder if Google's new audio search would return media clips of specific spoken words or phrases.

    Incidentally, today I came across the expression 长学问 meaning 'to increase knowledge'. It's telling that 学问 is defined as both 'learning' and 'knowledge' and Chinese often mistakenly collocate 'learn' or 'study' with 'knowledge' whereas in English knowledge conveys a much more personal or experiential understanding. So, you've studied the tones but you haven't learned them yet or I'd argue you haven't personally experienced them yet. For me, sometimes all that's required is to put them into a sentence and express it to someone in a meaningful way..regardless of who it is--it sticks.
  3. Z-Lo

    Z-Lo 秀才

    I try to be conscious and deliberate with tones, but would not say I'm hyper-conscious in an way that that hinders me. I admit I occasionally resort to trying to get by with a neutral or random tone hoping no one will notice, or maybe try my luck with one of the two tones I think it might be. Or I have even repeated the word, going through all four tones as a joke, and to the amusement of the listener. But what can you do when you're in the middle of a conversation, know what you want to say, and know how to say it, except you can't remember, say, the second tone of the word?

    This is kind of the point: that identifying the tones is key to remembering and producing them correctly. I think just making a special effort to focus on and identify the tones when hearing native speakers will go a long way. One of the only tools I have found for training for this skill is the app I mentioned, LaoKang's Tone Test. I am hoping there are more.

    But I don't think the problem is with other people speaking too fast or not clear enough, but rather with my ability to concentrate and identify the tones as they are used in context.

    As I mentioned, I'm taking a "lower advanced" level language class at a university in China and I feel good about my tones compared to many of my classmates. Many students in the class have been studying Chinese for many years and some have even lived in China for several years. But it is striking how tones continue to dog so many even at that level. There are a lot of people who reach a high level, speak fluently, quickly, and with a pretty robust vocabulary, but either make a lot of tone mistakes, or in some cases, don't seem to get a single tone right (as if they are just continuing to speak in exactly the same intonation they would in their native language). Some people apparently feel that the tones are just too hard and decided to consciously ignore them right from the start (as an American friend of mine told me he did).

    I think this is a real problem and there must be a cure! (At least for those willing to make the effort.) The vast majority of Chinese are not accustomed to interacting with foreigners, and pronunciation and tone problems can be a real barrier to natural communication.

    I was thinking how I'd like to see a program in which you could listen at various speeds to words, phrases, sentences, and longer texts, and try and mark the tone only for each syllable. I don't know if this kind of thing already exists, nor do I know how to make it. But it would make a neat app.
  4. LongShiKong

    LongShiKong 举人

    Here's one thing I found helpful in the Elementary Hanyu Kouyu 2nd Edition (orange) coursebook. There's an exercise where you have to choose the one among a dozen or so bigrams that doesn't belong in the set--all the others follow the exact same tonal pattern.

    The problem learning Chinese is that apart from TV, few speakers speak clear enough to help reinforce those tones in your mind. It's akin to studying how to write the characters but the only ones your exposed to are adult handwritten ones which you can't make out.

    If you're not getting your message across, could it be more than your tones? Think of it this way. A non-native English speaker with attrocious (one thing--you choose: intonation/pronunciation/grammar/vocabulary) but otherwise good fluency, shouldn't have much of a problem getting a message across to someone of reasonable patience and intelligence.
  5. antony73

    antony73 Member

    As has been said, listen to Chinese, over and over and over again. Copy what is being said, over and over and over again. Just try to mimic it.

    It's getting that something into your subconscious that really makes all the difference. Only repetitive action can achieve this.

    I recommend the Pinyin chart on for a beginner. But that will only take you so far. Memorizing a Chinese text will help also.
  6. jlnr

    jlnr 进士

    I disagree, and would recommend against using Pinyin charts. It took my teachers years to make me unlearn the exaggerated pronunciation of the third tone.

    Instead of practising individual tones, I recommend practising each combination of two tones with a native speaker, 1-1, 1-2, 1-3 ... up to 4-4; there are only 16 combinations, and most words are two-character compounds anyway. It turns out there are only three combinations that I absolutely suck at.

    (Never mind, I just saw that the Laokang app is doing the same. That is awesome news - in my experience, most Chinese education is still stuck practising the four "ma"s.)

    As for remembering the tones - daily flashcards and reading them aloud works okay-ish for me.
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2014
  7. Any advice on how to use Pleco to learn tones?

    I have been neglecting tones for a long time, and now being extra careful when repeating my daily flashcards.
    Looks like by simply doing flashcards slower and paying extra attention on the tones, I am able to remember them. Since I still get a lot wrong, I won't mark "forgotten" a word where I fail a tone, however when at the end of the session I repeat the ~30 characters that I failed in the ~200 flashcards, at that stage I mark the flashcard "correct" only when I got the tone right.
  8. feng

    feng 榜眼

    I recommend spending as much time as you can listening to standard Chinese by a good speaker (TV, radio, etc) -- and my personal preference is to stay away from the oddity know as a Beijing accent. I wouldn't bother with producing (some call it speaking) the tones correctly when you are listening. If you insist on doing so, I suggest you still allot a majority of such time to listening only. The reason is that I am of the opinion that listening and producing at the same time or in rapid succession necessarily takes away from your focus on listening (multi-tasking is bs).

    For anyone reading the above but who is at a beginning or intermediate level, I would add some separate time just spent on producing. Make it a separate activity from listening, done with a sadistic, standard Chinese speaker as your coach. Useful for advanced learners as well, of course.

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