Tone Wars

It’s not that we don’t have tones in English. No. The tones are hard because English has tones, but we use tone for different reasons.

In English our tones are usually applied to the whole sentence but can also occur on only one word. We use tone to show emotion, attitude, type of sentence (question, statement), etc. As Teddi described it so well: If you asked me “Wanna get some Mexican food?” just think of all the ways I could say, “Fine.” A falling tone might mean I really wanted to or that I really didn’t depending on how high it started. A rising tone might say, “I want to, but…”

The biggest tone problem I’ve noticed for laowai learning Chinese is that we project our English tones onto Chinese sentences–especially the final word. The Chinese tone we know (or maybe don’t know) is correct for that word is fighting in our mind against the tone we WOULD put on the word if it were English. It just feels weird to end a question with a declarative sounding falling tone as we must do so many times in Chinese (duì bu duì 对不对?). We don’t feel right saying someone’s name with a rising tone as if we can’t remember whether it was her or not.

Unfortunately, to really speak Chinese means saying the tones properly, the way Chinese people say them. But the first step is admitting we have a problem, right? Ok, only 11 more steps to go.

4 Replies to “Tone Wars”

  1. Of course you would go to China to teach English and end up teaching Chinese to Americans! (or whoever reads your blog) I trust a post about mnemonic devices for tones is still pending.

  2. It’s also the biggest problem Chinese students of English have – Learning English tones, they tend to say every word the same speed and with a level tone (often ignoring tone and thinking vocab is more important). In a way mirroring what the stupid Laowai does.

    This has the effect of making the speaker sound unatached to what they are saying, worse still making the speaker seem permanently pissed off.
    When an Italian learns English it often sounds sexy because of the way they bring their speech patterns from Italian to English. When a Chinese person learns English it just sounds shite.
    Trying to explain that they will sound more fluent if they learn the tones is like trying to convince the Chinese not to slurp soup or clear their nose out with the aid of a hankerchief…. Not going to happen.

    Slurp, slurp, Chinese have tone, Engrish no tone, sluuuurp!

  3. Nedzer,

    I understand your frustration with this phenomenon, but I would like to submit that there is hope. One of my colleagues in Kunming did quite a lot of work with his students’ intonation and it seemed to help many of them. Your comment inspired me to try to find some intonation resources for students of English to add to my burgeoning English Tools website, but alas, I haven’t found any good ones yet.

  4. Mnemonic devices are useful when learning a new language particularly Chinese.

    The logical solution, then, is to use a mnemonic system not totally based on etymology. There are two approaches to this. One could take the “semi-etymological” approach to mnemonics by using the real Chinese meanings of the character components in mnemonic devices. For some characters, this is not hard to do at all. Your mnemonic may very well be very similar to the logic of the character etymology. In this case, etymology is your ally. For other characters, however, this proves quite ineffective.

    I think that this concept of devising a self-consistent mnemonic system for remembering Chinese characters is the holy grail of Chinese character pedagogy.

    Best regards,
    John from Mnemonic Devices – The Revision Guy

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