Why Students Have a Hard Time with Tones in Mandarin

As with all other aspect of language learning, repetition is key to getting the tones right in Mandarin Chinese. Learning the tones of Mandarin has long been the bête noire of students trying to learn the language. This is especially true if their native language does not have tones. Students who are learning Mandarin Chinese do often make mistakes with tones at the beginning. Many times students think the root cause is that the students *can’t* pronounce tones properly. In reality, they have just not gotten enough input in Mandarin Chinese for the words that they are trying to say.

Repetition is the Key

While moving a piece of furniture over the weekend with my husband, I said to him “despacito” to get him to slow down. Then I quickly added”nobody in America will ever forget what that word means.”* Why do I think that no one in America will ever forget that despacito means slowly? Because the song Despacito was so ubiquitous during the summer of 2017 that we all heard the song over and over again. This repetition is key to language learning. We also heard the word with native-like pronunciation over and over.  I would bet real money that most English-speaking Americans can now pronounce despacito with a more native-like accent than any word they learned from a book in a high school Spanish class.

When students make mistakes with tones in Mandarin class, it is because they simply have not heard the word repeated enough. Some dictionaries (like my beloved Pleco) and other classroom materials show Chinese characters in different colors, one for each tone. This may be helpful to some students, but there is nothing like hearing the word over and over to really get it.

The Origin of Tone Problems

Most traditional beginner Chinese textbooks feature a vocabulary list that is 20-30 words long for each lesson. Add on top of that whatever other words the instructor chooses to include and the students are learning 50 or so new words in a three hours per week class. In contrast, a class based on giving the students comprehensible input will only use about five new words per hour of class. This ensures that the students will hear repetitions of the new words about 70 times per class. A really talented teacher can fit in 100+ repetitions of new words.

The reason that so many students of Mandarin do not pronounce words correctly is simply because they have not gotten enough aural input of the target words. The solution is to teach fewer words at a time and to make sure that the students hear the words over and over again.

Are Tones Really That Important?

All Mandarin Chinese teachers will affirm that tones are very important to Mandarin pronunciation. It is very common to point out that the tone of a word changes its meaning. While this is true, context clues will help a native speaker figure out what the student is saying if he/she uses the wrong tone for a few words. I used to work with an English fellow in Beijing who used almost no tones in his Chinese. He spoke Chinese fluently, just without tones. It definitely did not sound beautiful or native-like, but native-speakers (our colleagues) understood him. Often, students think that using the wrong tone is their only problem. In my experience, however, there is often a more holistic issue with pronunciation. It is more than just the tone that is “off” in some way. Students are usually trying to say words that they have not heard often enough, and this shows when their pronunciation (including tone, but not limited to tone). It is the combination of problems that makes it hard for their teachers or native speakers to understand them.

Relax and Listen, You Will Get It Eventually

Many teachers and textbooks put a lot of pressure on students to get tones right from the get go. “Mandarin Chinese has four tones” is one of the first things that instructors tell students. Tones are important. If students want native-like or close to native-like pronunciation, they need to get them right. Some of the emphasis that gets put on tones does seem to be overblown, however. Sure saying, “轻吻 qing1wen2” (soft kiss) instead of “请问qing3wen4” (excuse me) could be embarrassing. But with real-life communication with native speakers, however, students have a great deal of context to help them out.

Sometimes teachers get too caught up in helping students get their tone pronunciation correct, when they should be focusing on giving the students enough aural input. Through hearing the same words over and over, the words will naturally come out of students’ mouths with highly accurate pronunciation. As with other aspects of pronunciation, listening needs to come before we have high expectations for speaking.

photo of diagram of four Mandarin tones from textbooks
Has anyone ever learned the four tones by looking at a diagram in a book? No!

 

*Major caveat here is that the connection despacito=slowly should be clear to the listener. If a word is just nonsense inside a person’s head, it will never stick

Read more about pronunciation for Mandarin Chinese learners.

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