Master the Tones

To really speak Chinese, you have to master the tones. But, most laowai don’t.It’s a good idea to learn the tones as you are learning vocabulary.

The problem with learning Chinese vocab is there are really two things to remember for each word:

  1. the sounds (phonemes…I don’t know how to say “phonemes” in Chinese)
  2. the tones (shēngdiào 声调)

These two parts are totally disconnected. Much like learning irregular verbs in English, or the gender of words in German, the tones are completely arbitrary and, to us, random.

A friend found that his Chinese progress was really slow because he was trying to learn the tones from the get go. So he ditched them in attempts to master at least the phonemes for each new vocabulary word. It worked and he burned up the trail learning new words. But, he found people often didn’t understand him and it was quite difficult to add the tones back into the mix later. I still believe it’s best to integrate learning the tones from the very beginning.

Here are some strategies to master the tones:

  1. Give each tone a metaphor, character, or personality
  2. Make little mnemonic devices (what the Germans apparently call an “eselsbrücke” = “donkey bridge”)
  3. Record and memorize whole chunks together
  4. When in doubt, talk fast

Metaphor and Personality

The tones are usually referred to in this way:

  1. 1st tone (dì yī shēng 第一声) = high and level
  2. 2nd tone (dì èr shēng 第二声) = mid and rising
  3. 3rd tone (dì sān shēng 第三声) = falling quickly and then rising
  4. 4th tone (dì sì shēng 第四声) = falling
  5. 5th tone or zero tone (“qīng shēng 轻声” which means “light tone”) = neutral tone/no tone (but it should really be called the “secret tone” because it’s often still in there you just don’t know what it is)

Once you learn how to say each tone, then associate some emotion with each one. For example, here’s my own personification and characteristics for each tone:

  1. 1st tone = transcendent, helpful, simplicity.
    I love words that have the first tone because of their simplicity and how easy they are to sing out and pronounce correctly.
  2. 2nd tone = insecure, unsure, questioning.
    I sympathize with words that have the second tone because I’ve been unsure and insecure myself. I don’t blame them for sounding like questions.
  3. 3rd tone = mischievous, mean-spirited, illusive, like a bird you’re trying to watch but he dives into the water and pops up where you aren’t looking.
    I hate words with the third tone. They take more work and more time to pronounce. They change depending on the words near them. They seem to exist only to make my life more difficult.
  4. 4th tone = angry, demanding, impatient.
    I also like words that have the fourth tone because I can shout them out. These words give me a chance to vent. Usually, as a default, if I don’t know the tone of a word, I’ve found I’ll say it as a fourth tone involuntarily.
  5. 5th tone = secretive, deceptive, trying to trick me, won’t live up to his own identity.
    I pretend not to care about syllables with the 5th tone. I act aloof, while really wondering what’s under that mysterious exterior.

“Donkey bridges” (mnemonic devices)

Visual – think of pictures

  • sháozi 勺子= spoon
    To remember the tone I had to make a visual image of a spoon handle sticking out of a bowl of soup rising at the same angle the second tone rises.
  • fēijī 飞机= airplane
    This one was easy since I just imagined the plane needing to fly as high as possible for both syllables (high tone, high tone).

“Confusing cousins” – learn them in sets

  • bīng = frozen = the smooth, level surface of a frozen pond
  • bǐng = cake = my shortcake caved in and now looks just like the contour of the third tone
  • bìng = sick = I hate being sick, I’m mad when I say this word.
  • tāng = soup = the top surface of the soup is flat
  • táng = sugar = the more you eat the higher your sugar high rises
  • tǎng = to lie down = imagine sinking into a really uncomfortable couch that droops in the middle
  • tàng = hot, scalding = I burned myself and I’m so angry I shout “tàng!”
  • zhōng = middle = think of a teeter-totter with only one person sitting right in the middle; it will be balanced and level
  • zhòng = heavy = the fourth tone is so heavy it falls

Sets / group shapes

  • wénhuà dà gémìng 文化大革命= cultural revolution = 2-4, da, 2-4
  • wēixiào 微笑= smile = tones are shaped like a diving board (straight and then jumping off)
  • wéitāmìng 维他命= vitamin = tones look like a mountain /-\, or a little pile of pills
  • bàngōngshì 办公室= office = like a waterslide, drops quickly, levels out, drops again into the pool

To reinforce the visual images of tones, you might want to label your house.

Record and memorize whole chunks together

This trick requires a native-speaker informant who speaks good Mandarin and a tape recorder. I wrote a bunch of useful little phrases like:

Then, I recorded my Chinese friend saying them. I tried to mimic the rising and falling of the phrase as a whole without caring one fig for the tones of individual words. This works really well since these kinds of phrases seem to have fairly set intonation.

Teddi actually drew a “crenulated castle wall” diagram of each phrase to have a visual representation of the ups and downs of the utterance. Maybe I can persuade him to contribute one or two to this blog as samples.

When in doubt, talk fast

This is a last resort that I’m had to, well, resort to several times. The reason this works is the Chinese themselves seem flatten out fudge on tones of individual words in rapid speech. So, if I’m not sure of a particular word’s tone (and hopefully that’s not the most important word in my sentence), I just breeze over it and hit the tones I know nice and solid. It doesn’t always work, but it’s often better than slowly and methodically saying the wrong tone for a word when you’re not sure.

Good luck…

These are just examples. You can be as creative as you want as you make “donkey bridges” and think of tricks to beat the tones into your brain. Just get those little tones learned by hook or by crook.

See the tones. Be the tones. Make it happen.


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  1. 18 Responses to “Master the Tones”

  2. megan CHINA said:

    well worth the wait. thank you. and the bonus of German is great. I’ll add “donkey bridge” to “ear worm” (?) and continue to have high expectations of German imagery.

    Comment date: Dec 17, 2006

  3. Michele Kim UNITED STATES said:

    About the 5th tone — I just read today about the ‘rule’ – if the tone before the 5th tone is 3rd, then the 5th tone gets 4th. If the tone before is 1st, the 5th tone gets 2nd… example, ma1ma5 should be ma1ma2. So the 5th tone is always previous tone+1.

    Comment date: Aug 15, 2007

  4. Jim Mahler CHINA said:

    It’s helpful to say each new word aloud, at least ten times. The tone eventually becomes part of the word itself, in the same way that the vowel sounds in “set” and “sat” are just part of the word for English speakers.

    Mnemonic devices are good at first. In a conversation, however, you don’t have time to recall them — you have to just spit the word out. The goal is to make the word “sound natural” in your mind’s ear when the tone is correct, and “sound funny” when it isn’t.

    Sometimes it’s helpful to record your own voice saying the word, to see if you really sound like you think you do.

    Comment date: Sep 10, 2007

  5. Sharon ZY SINGAPORE said:

    I need to shoot a question. I read the article which is linked to this one mentioning some “finger approach” in learning/memorising tones in Chinese pronunciation. What’s the “finger approach” referring to? I m very interested in how to master Chinese 4 tones by using body motion or control gestures. Would like to discuss more on it. Do drop me a line, thanks!

    Comment date: Mar 6, 2008

  6. Albert CHINA said:

    Sharon ZY,

    I’ve also read some articles (or it may have been just one) that talked about the “finger approach” to learning the tones and didn’t explain what that was. But, I’m pretty sure it’s talking about moving your finger in the air to draw the shape of the tone as you say the word. The idea is that your voice will follow your finger up and down as you say the word. I think it’s designed for people who have difficulty hearing and especially producing the differences between the tones. I’ve also heard of stomping your foot to make the 4th tone. Besides those two, I don’t know of any other gestures associated with learning the tones.

    Comment date: Mar 7, 2008

  7. Momin CHINA said:

    I think the finger method works and is a good way to start out. Getting a grip on this totally new concept (for us English speakers) can be a little easier if we add a tactile or visual element to it. Just another form of donkey bridging I guess.

    Comment date: Mar 8, 2008

  8. Sharon ZY SINGAPORE said:

    Albert,

    Thanks for your reply. I agree all these control gestures are designed for beginners, which are good coz they do help to some extent. I m a native Chinese speaker and devoting my attention to developing some effective teaching method for non-Chinese speakers. I have been teaching foreigners Chinese for several years and the greatest thing is that I consistenly modify/improve my teaching method by learning from my students. To have a good start in learning Chinese, tones pronunciation is very key. I do hope we guys can discuss more on it and let more people here benefit. Thanks again!

    Comment date: Mar 9, 2008

  9. Albert CHINA said:

    Sharon ZY,

    I just heard from a friend last night about the idea to raise your eyebrows when saying the second tone. That’s another one I guess. It would be good to have all these in one place. Maybe I should do a post on gestures and tones just to see what everyone else knows about.

    Comment date: Mar 9, 2008

  10. Sharon ZY SINGAPORE said:

    Albert,Why not? I do like to pitch in! I m very happy to find this website and you guys here. I have an upcoming speech in one of the biggest government schools in Singapore to introduce Chinese tone prounuciation to all non-Chinese students there. I m eager to learn more from you! My email addr: xiaoyuesharon [at] gmail [dot] com

    Comment date: Mar 9, 2008

  11. Tobes CHINA said:

    Thanks for the tips – I also often bob my head in the direction of the tone, much like some people use their fingers. I don’t really do it on purpose, but it does help me remember the tone for a word. However, sometimes when I’m trying to use a word I can’t remember well in a conversation, I start bobbing my head…. must give the Chinese a giggle anyway.

    Comment date: Mar 24, 2008

  12. Jian Cheng UNITED STATES said:

    Check out this new Apple App ToneDetector. It may help you.

    English version
    http://itunes.apple.com/app/tonedetector/id495002820?mt=8
    How do you know if you pronounced a Mandarin tone correctly without human tutors? The first-ever tone detector app lets you make a judgement by yourself instantly. It is very intuitive for you to practice your tones.

    Chinese version (中文版本)
    http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/sheng-diao-jian-ce/id497899041?mt=8
    没有老师的指导,你怎么知道你的普通话声调正确?世界首创的声调检测应用,让你即刻作出自己的判断。此应用让你能非常直观地练习你的声调。

    Comment date: Apr 7, 2012

  1. 7 Trackback(s)

  2. Dec 13, 2006: Mandarin Tone Tricks | Sinosplice: Life in China UNITED STATES
  3. Apr 1, 2009: Shanghai Bob » Blog Archive » How to memorize Chinese tones UNITED STATES
  4. Sep 30, 2009: How To Speak Mandarin Chinese (And Be Confident About It) | Mandarin Lessons UNITED STATES
  5. Apr 7, 2011: What’s the Most Common Tone Combination in Mandarin? | Lingomi Blog
  6. Sep 4, 2012: Memorising the tones in Mandarin | Linguo... dead. Linguo IS dead UNITED STATES
  7. Feb 7, 2013: Some thoughts on Chinese Tones | memrise blog UNITED STATES
  8. Jul 28, 2013: How Many Tones Are Used in Mandarin Chinese? Are They Hard To Learn? UNITED STATES

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