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:
- the sounds (phonemes…I don’t know how to say “phonemes” in Chinese)
- 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:
- Give each tone a metaphor, character, or personality
- Make little mnemonic devices (what the Germans apparently call an “eselsbrücke” = “donkey bridge”)
- Record and memorize whole chunks together
- When in doubt, talk fast
Metaphor and Personality
The tones are usually referred to in this way:
- 1st tone (dì yī shēng 第一声) = high and level
- 2nd tone (dì èr shēng 第二声) = mid and rising
- 3rd tone (dì sān shēng 第三声) = falling quickly and then rising
- 4th tone (dì sì shēng 第四声) = falling
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 冰 = frozen = the smooth, level surface of a frozen pond
- bǐng 饼 = cake = my shortcake caved in and now looks just like the contour of the third tone
- bìng 病 = sick = I hate being sick, I’m mad when I say this word.
- tāng 汤 = soup = the top surface of the soup is flat
- táng 糖 = sugar = the more you eat the higher your sugar high rises
- tǎng 躺 = to lie down = imagine sinking into a really uncomfortable couch that droops in the middle
- tàng 烫 = hot, scalding = I burned myself and I’m so angry I shout “tàng!”
- zhōng 中 = middle = think of a teeter-totter with only one person sitting right in the middle; it will be balanced and level
- zhòng 重 = 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.
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.