Better Mandarin Tones Diagram

perceptual tone contoursTrue Story from Yesterday

(names changed to save my face)

Me: So, are you and Jenny…you know…an “item” now?

Tommy: Oh yeah. You didn’t know that?

Me: I just heard from Edgar. How long has that been going on?

Tommy: Hmm…I guess since about May.

The moral of the story (of my life) is: I’m always the last to know.

New Tone Diagram

In keeping with the theme, I just recently saw this post from John Pasden (9 months behind everyone else is pretty good for me).

John has drawn a new tones diagram that’s supposed to be better than the standard tones diagram at showing what really happens when native Chinese speakers talk normally.

The Old Standard Diagram:

stardard tone diagram

John’s New Tone Diagram:

perceptual tone contours

The only thing new about this diagram is the 3rd tone but I immediately saw the sense to it.

The fact is: most of the time, native speakers just hit the bottom of the 3rd tone, exactly like this diagram shows.

This diagram is especially useful for showing what happens when tones appear in combination. And when don’t they?! I mean, how many of us have one-syllable conversations?! You’ll always be saying at least two syllables in a row, and that means two tones in a row.

Without mapping out all 20 combinations of two tones (4 x 5 because of that “neutral tone” which moves around), this diagram is good for a quick rule of thumb for where that 3rd tone is most of the time.

I’d like to post my diagrams for the 20 different combinations of two tones but since those appear in my book, I’ll have to check with my publisher to make sure I’m not violating something (although I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t sue myself).

Tones are the single biggest challenge to learning Mandarin and we laowai need better conceptual models than the traditional diagram and rules. Thanks John and Dr. Rongrong Liao of the Defense Language Institute for getting the ball rolling.

7 Replies to “Better Mandarin Tones Diagram”

  1. Although I could present more evidence to support your claim, I’m still going to argue that no one comes close to my out-of-touchness.

    Still, I’m glad you brought John’s third tone post up again. I think it’s pedagogically quite useful, if a bit controversial. I’ve heard knowledgeable people dismiss it as inaccurate, which it is, but so is every map of reality. The question is whether you’re going to speak better Zhonglish with this visual in mind than with the original in mind.

    My money’s on the former.

  2. Hi Albert,

    I found your blog by searching for online dictionary. I love your humor and your posts so I subscribed.
    John’s new None Diagram is very creative and I agree with it. Thanks for posting and I had to visit John’s site as well.
    I plan to buy your book. Do you offer affiliate program for your book? I can’t be an Amazon affiliate because I live in the area which is in Amazon’s “no” list…lol


  3. Hey Albert…

    You said:

    John has drawn a new tones diagram that’s supposed to be better than the standard tones diagram at showing what really happens when native Chinese speakers talk normally.

    Just a small correction… The tone diagram is not meant to reflect what really happens. We can use Praat to see that, and it’s empirical evidence that’s pretty hard to argue with. In this sense, as Beijing Sounds mentions, it is definitely inaccurate.

    I called the diagram perceptual because I feel that as a model for understanding tones and their contrasts, it may be more useful to the learner of Chinese. It’s working on the subjective level, though, not the objective one.

    Again, though, it’s not the result of research or anything. It’s just an idea I had, inspired by Dr. Liao.

  4. Yes, Praat is very cool indeed, but not as handy as a little diagram. I still stick to my claim that your new diagram is better than the old one at showing what really happens, because that 3rd tone is pretty low most of the time (when it’s not posing as a 2nd tone). We need a quick-n-easy way to explain the tones to beginners, and I say your new diagram is better than the traditional one.

  5. Albert,

    Yeah, that was my thinking… that it could be more helpful as a “quick-n-easy way to explain the tones to beginners.” It emphasizes simple contrasts. (Can anyone be sure that their second tones really start at “3”?? It’s kind of absurd, really.)

  6. I found this way of looking at the third tone quite useful, even though you would have to use something else for third tone combined with another third tone.

    The problem is that most students never really understand the third tone theoretically, especially if they only study Chinese in China or, as in my case, Taiwan. It’s very confusing to see a diagram of the normal sort, because that seems to be more or less unrelated to the way the third tone is actually used.

    I think both ways of showing the third tone have their flaws, but using more than one method at least helps me understand what I’m doing. Thanks.

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