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I think if your mother tongue is a non-tonal language then tones are very difficult to get used to. I have always tried my best to pronounce the tones for as long as I have been learning Chinese, but for a long time it seemed very unnatural. It was only after several years and lots of exposure to native speakers that I really began to get it. One day a friend pointed a few errors I was making with regards to tones and I think from that point on I finally began to understand what tones are.

I still make some mistakes with tones, but despite what your Chinese teacher might tell you, you can be understood even if your tones are not 100% accurate. Still I find on occassions people can't work out what I am saying and later when I go back and check the dictionary I find that I was using the wrong tone.

Also I think there are massive problems with the pedagogy of teaching Mandarin as a second language and the way tones are usually taught is very poor. I was taught the pronunciation of pinyin, then being taught the tones consisted of nothing more than saying ma1, ma2, ma3, ma4. This is proof that Mandarin is very poorly taught. It is actually very easy to pronounce the tones with a sound like ma, but how about other words like zhuan, zi, bang, etc.? Even more important is understanding how the tones work when words are connected in a sentence (and I am not just talking about the rules for tonal changes either). Again exposure to native speakers is important here. You should get used to and imitate the rhythms and intonation of their speech so tones become something natural (which is what they are) not something that you have to think about every time you speak.

A final point. Tones are pronounced much more accurately and clearly in China than they are in Taiwan. I have found my pronunciation has improved a lot since I have come to China from Taiwan.

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A final point. Tones are pronounced much more accurately and clearly in China than they are in Taiwan. I have found my pronunciation has improved a lot since I have come to China from Taiwan.

That is generally true. My take is that as a language "separates" from its land of origin, those who speak it tend to start to slur. Just look at the differences in pronounciation between American (or even Australian) and British English. Taiwan and the mainland have been "separeted" for over 50 years now, it wasn't until the recent decade that communication between the two sides started to increase.

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I think the trick to tones is to think of them in relation to ways you already use tones in English.

Tone 1 - uhmmmm? Like when you're confused.

Tone 2 - what? the tone at the end of a question

Tone 3 - oh? like when you're a little surprised

Tone 4 - oh! the tone of a statement

Anyway, it seems to work for me. Not that my tones are great, but at least they are starting to be recognisable!!!

Tony

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Tones are tough. I definitely agree with wix that the teaching of tones in mandarin is sorely lacking. But if it's any consolation, not even Chinese people have tones right in Mandarin. There are some places where people tend to switch the 2nd and 4th tones; and then there are other places, like Xinjiang, where Madarin is their 2nd (or 3rd) language. (may favorite was a breadseller whose bread was "bu2 gui2". And to a certain extent some Chinese people can understand you even if your tones aren't always correct. But on the other hand, some Chinese people wouldn't understand you at all...

The best way to improve is to have a bunch of Chinese friends who always correct you when you use poor tones. At first, you should get them to tell you which words you often use that are incorrect. Then as you make less mistakes on those words, they will start correcting words you use less often. It could take some time, but with practice it's an achievable goal.

Also, you should beware, I've noticed Chinese people (especially students)on campuses that teach Chinese to foreigners are often VERY good at figuring out what foreigners are saying even if the tones are wrong (probably because they hear so many mistakes in tones). That's why you might sometimes say, "I'm sure I use this word all the time with my friend, so why doesn't this random guy on the street understand me?"

One weird effect Chinese tones had on my speaking voice in Chinese is that I used to speak in Chinese about one octave higher than when I spoke in English. weird! Thankfully I know speak in the same octave in both english and chinese..

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I think the trick to tones is to think of them in relation to ways you already use tones in English.

Tone 1 - uhmmmm? Like when you're confused.

Tone 2 - what? the tone at the end of a question

Tone 3 - oh? like when you're a little surprised

Tone 4 - oh! the tone of a statement

Anyway' date=' it seems to work for me. Not that my tones are great, but at least they are starting to be recognisable!!!

Tony[/quote']

That's a very good tip, except I don't understand why you chose the "uhmmm?" for the first tone. The first tone is supposed to flat like aaah. When you go "uhmmm?" your voice actually goes up in the end, almost like the second tone. Just curious :-)

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But if it's any consolation, not even Chinese people have tones right in Mandarin. There are some places where people tend to switch the 2nd and 4th tones; and then there are other places, like Xinjiang, where Madarin is their 2nd (or 3rd) language. (may favorite was a breadseller whose bread was "bu2 gui2".

Just a brief history lesson.

Before 1911, China didn't have a true standarized "national (spoken) language". Although Mandarin was spoken by government officials (and parts of northern China) toward the later dynasties, it was probably rarely spoken in the south.

After 1911, the Nationalists overthrew the Qing Dynasty and established the Republic of China. Dr. Sun Yat-sen knew that China needed a standarized national language in order to stay united in the modern era. Also, with the new advances in technology (at that time) such as telephone, telegraph and faster transportation such as automobile and train, it is much easier to communicate within a large nation such as China. However, it took about 20 - 30 years for the Nationalists to create and promote standarized Mandarin (all the while inventing Zhuyin Fuhao and fighting off remaining warlords). Then the Communists took over and the rest is history.

So as you can see, although the Chinese "language" has been around for thousands of years, it wasn't until after the 1950's did things started calming down from the Chinese Civil War and people could concentrate on other things like spreading Mandarin and such.

My impression from my visits to the mainland is that the gap between Mandarin pronounciation tends to be less distinguishable among the youths than the older generation, thanks to standarized education. However, since most of these young people's families probably still either speak with an accent or even a complete different dialect, they are still somewhat influenced at home. It would probably take another generation or two before the whole nation could speak exact the same way. Although by saying there will be no accent is kind of optimistic because in other large nations such as the United States, there are still very distinct accents spoken in different regions.

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I got to be really lazy about the tones, since I learned most of my Chinese living in Kunming, where the southern accent runs thick. The Kunming local speech makes tones particularly hard to distinguish, and often switches them around anyhow (the hao in ni hao, for example, takes the fourth tone in the local language).

For me though, what worked best in terms of pronunciation was to stop overthinking the tones. Instead, when I learn a new word, I just try to mimic the pronunciation and speak as naturally as possible. If I'm constantly thinking, "first tone, third tone, ok, now second tone," I always screw it up. So instead, I just learn the way a word is said. The drawback is that I've picked up more of a southern accent than I would like, but at least I feel like my speech has a natural rythm to it, rather than a goofy up and down singsong cadence.

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  • 1 month later...

My suggestion to learning the tones is that you can try practicing on saying each chinese vowel(including combo vowels like ao ou ang en ing un) in all four tones everyday, until u think you get the hang of it. Yes just ma1 ma2 ma3 ma4 wouldn't get you too far, but since there's only a few vowels in chinese, its not hard to practice on all of them.

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I think it's more helpful to practice tone combinations rather than individual syllables. Mind you, my tones are still terrible (!) but this seems to help. Start with 1-1 combinations and go through all the words you know of that combination (fei1ji1, jin1tian1 etc), then go through each combination in turn. I always have problems with the third tone, especially when it's the first syllable in a word. You really need a native speaker to help you practice though, otherwise you might just be reinforcing the wrong pronounciation.

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I think it's more helpful to practice tone combinations rather than individual syllables. Mind you, my tones are still terrible (!) but this seems to help. Start with 1-1 combinations and go through all the words you know of that combination (fei1ji1, jin1tian1 etc), then go through each combination in turn. I always have problems with the third tone, especially when it's the first syllable in a word. You really need a native speaker to help you practice though, otherwise you might just be reinforcing the wrong pronounciation.

The learner needs to practice both. In addition, s/he should also practice tones in sentences, and in sentences with different emotions.

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I got to be really lazy about the tones' date=' since I learned most of my Chinese living in Kunming, where the southern accent runs thick. The Kunming local speech makes tones particularly hard to distinguish, and often switches them around anyhow (the [i']hao[/i] in ni hao, for example, takes the fourth tone in the local language).

For me though, what worked best in terms of pronunciation was to stop overthinking the tones. Instead, when I learn a new word, I just try to mimic the pronunciation and speak as naturally as possible. If I'm constantly thinking, "first tone, third tone, ok, now second tone," I always screw it up. So instead, I just learn the way a word is said. The drawback is that I've picked up more of a southern accent than I would like, but at least I feel like my speech has a natural rythm to it, rather than a goofy up and down singsong cadence.

Please do yourself and everybody who will listen to your spoken Chinese a favour: learn your Chinese with correct tones!

Don't think that you can rectify your tone problems later for that will cost you many times of the time that you need to get the tones right at the first times.

Don't think that speaking Chinese with messed up tones is not a serious problem. It is. Few people would not feel it is like a torture to have a conversation with somebody who gets his/her tones wrong all the time. It's like giving you an English book in which the vowel letters are all wrong vowel letters. I am sure you may still be able to figure out the meaning of the book if you try really hard, but you probably won't be able to go very far before feeling like doing some kind of donkeywork.

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I wasn't at all saying that tones aren't important, but rather, that I try to learn them by imitation rather than memorization of pinyin. I always try to remember how I heard the word spoken, rather than actively think it through. Of course, that doesn't work if you've never heard a particular word before, but its still the most effective way for me to remember the correct pronounciation. I agree tones are important, but I want to sound natural when I speak them, not sing-songy and stilted, which is how a lot of my classmates here in the US end up sounding because they've been taught to emphasize each and every tone. Spoken Chinese doesn't sound like that.

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I wasn't at all saying that tones aren't important, but rather, that I try to learn them by imitation rather than memorization of pinyin. I always try to remember how I heard the word spoken, rather than actively think it through. Of course, that doesn't work if you've never heard a particular word before, but its still the most effective way for me to remember the correct pronounciation. I agree tones are important, but I want to sound natural when I speak them, not sing-songy and stilted, which is how a lot of my classmates here in the US end up sounding because they've been taught to emphasize each and every tone. Spoken Chinese doesn't sound like that.

Working consciously with tones is a "special learning method" that may be useful when you are having problems with them. Native speakers can get them perfectly right without ever dealing with them consciously. If you can acquire correct tones in a similar way in which a native speaker would, then you don't need the "special learning method."

Don't worry too much about exaggerating what is correct and sounding unnatural at the begining. Many teachers think this is actually an effective way to learn. It is like stretch exercises, you should try the full ranges, which will give you flexibility of your body. Just keep this in mind: it is a very common problem that Chinese-as-a-Foreign-Language learners not to be able to produce the full range of the 4 tones.

However, if you exaggerate what is wrong, that's a different story. For example, father in Chinese should be ba4ba5, not ba4ba4.

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I used to pay little attention to the tones thinking that I would pick them up just like Tsunku. But then I discovered that what I had picked up was inaccurate. That was especially true with the words in the third tone because depending on their positions they may be changed to the second tone, and I could not be sure what their real tones were. My experience was that my tones got worse (and this affected my exam results). I now think that it is important to memorize the correct tone together with the pinyin.

Of course one speaking in all the wrong tones can still be understood to a certain extent. But it is a bit embarrassing.

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third tones only change before another third tone. like hen3 hao3 (very good) changed to hen2 hao3.

I'm not completely positive' date=' but I think the third tone might also change before a second tone. It basically becomes a shortened third tone. Can anyone confirm this??[/quote']

You are basically right. In other words, (a) falling-rising tone characters are pronounced with a semi-falling-rising tone when used immediately before characters of level, rising, falling, and neutral tones; (B) for words consisting of two falling-rising-tone characters, the first character is changed into a rising tone.

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"father in Chinese should be ba4ba5"

A fifth tone! Why not just leave out the number (like the diacritic is left out in the other system)?

Tones can't be that important to the Chinese otherwise they wouldn't be able to understand songs. It's not like changing vowel sounds Haizi. To do that in Chinese, you would ... change the vowel sounds.

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