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tooironic

The hardest tone in Chinese

Which (Mandarin) tone do you find the hardest to pronounce?  

25 members have voted

  1. 1. Which (Mandarin) tone do you find the hardest to pronounce?

    • 1st tone
      7
    • 2nd tone
      32
    • 3rd tone
      24
    • 4th tone
      12
    • All tones are equally hard
      4
    • Hard? Tones are easy!
      22


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Scoobyqueen

I find the most "positive sounding tone" and my personal favourite is the second tone. It just sounds very service oritented 行!, very positive (it reminds me of the Australian accent where statements sound like questions :wink:)

As people have pointed out it is the combination of tones that is sometimes tricky especially in mid sentence if you suddenly have two third tones where you end up having to correct yourself.

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muyongshi
I'm sure we are all very happy that you find the tones so easy that the discussion of other students who are trying to master the intricacies of 3rd tone 'cracks you up', but I think that is a rather offensive and patronising attitude. Fortunately, it is one which is rarely encountered here on the Forums. Most people are very helpful and understanding of student questions, difficulties, etc.

Wow! You could not have taken my meaning anymore wrong. You know what, I would just appreciate it if you reread my post and if you still think that it was written to be patronizing well then I am truly sorry. But I am not going to waste my breath to true and justify my meaning in that statement or when I made the comment about them being "relatively" easy. I think my first post said it fine.

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Scoobyqueen
You know what, I would just appreciate it if you reread my post

In fact anyone who regularly reads muyongshi's (extensive) contributions to the forums would probably not interpret his/her comments in this way.

In these forums, I think it is important to try to use a constructive tone and avoid sarcasms even if one occasionally feels "offended". Example below:

I'm sure we are all very happy that you find the tones so easy

It just helps avoid/clear up misunderstandings but then again maybe I am too sensitive in this regard.

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Madot

Sorry. I do appologise if I have misunderstood the post. It appeared to me that the phrase: "It cracked me up." meant that Muyongshi was laughing because we found a lot to discuss about what he thought was easy. But it's true that sarcasm is not useful and a more positive tone is always better. Thanks for the reminder. Muyongshi, I'm sorry if I've misread your intentions. :oops:

Mado

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889

No need to flail yourself, Madot.

I read it just that way too, especially with those "true form" quotation marks.

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wushijiao

As far as tones, I can see how all the analysis of tones can be a bit absurd and irrelevant. But, I have noticed that many foreigners severely mispronounce the 3rd tone by giving it much more up and down action, and giving it a much longer length than it would deserve. I think they're doing this because they're trying to mimic the chart that they read in the first chapter of their Chinese 101 book. So, from that point of view, it is good to try to get the chart right.

However, as I said, I was torn between voting for “all equally easy” and “all equally hard” because for years I was pretty bad with tones, and I spoke in what I like to term “the foreign neutral tone”.

At that time, I did attempt every few months to “get really hardcore about tones”, but, for real, this time, I swear. I'd then usually get a book and do drills or read sentences have my wife strictly correct me after every mistake. I always found that to be a fairly painful, confidence-killing, and boring process.

Then, over the two years, I’d say that I went from getting about 90% of the tones wrong to getting about 90% of the tones right, without barely any conscious work on my part. The key, I'm 99% sure of this, was getting hardcore about listening to about 1-2 hours per day of audio (on tapes and podcasts). Significantly, when I got an iPod and started listening to as much Chinese audio podcasts as I could find, that seemed to be the turning point between when my listening ability shot through the roof. Instead of listening for the pinyin, so to speak, (as I did in the past), I basically became able to listen for sentence stress, tones, and tone sandhi. But why is this? I think the answer lies in how the brain works and how it processes language. In the book “the Language Instinct” by Steven Pinker, he writes about the mind's amazing ability to process sound:

"The psychologists Robert Remez, Davd Pson, and their colleagues, braver men than am, published an article in Scence on "sine-wave speech". They synthesized three simultaneous wavering tones. Physcially, the sound was nothing like speech at all, but the tones followed the same contours as the bands in the sentence. "Where were you a year ago?" Volunteers described what they heard as "science fiction sounds" or "computer bleeps". A second group of volunteers was told that the sounds had been generated by a bad speech synthesizer. They were able to make out many of the words, and a quarter of them could write down the sentence perfectly. The brain can hear speech content in sounds that have only the remotest resemblance to speech" (p. 154 emphasis added).

“Real speech, somehow, is perceived an order of magnitude faster: ten to fifteen phonemes per second for casual speech, twenty to thrty per second for the man in the late night Veg-O-Matic ads, and as many as forty to fifty per second for artificially sped up speech. Given how the human auditory system works, this is almost unbelievable. When a sound like a click is repeated at a rate of twenty times a second or faster, we no longer hear it as a sequence of separate sounds but as a low buzz” (p. 157).

Pinker then goes on to talk about how companies have tried for over 40 years to make voice recognition software, but have encounter many problems because machines can't decode speech at the rate that the human brain does.

So, I think that it may be that one's ability to be good at tones (from a listening and speaking point of view) is directly related to the amount of time one has exposed oneself to real speech, giving your brain time to adapt and to the figure out how to process the rapid rate of phonemes coming in. How much time do you need? The book Outliers says that you generally need 10,000 hours of exposure to master a skill. I tend to think that that number is in the right ballpark for learning Chinese (in all its aspects, reading, writing, listening, speaking). Therefore, based on that research and my own experience, I'd say it's advisable to obtain a few thousand hours of listening practice to real, non-simplified Mandarin (since I suspect that slowed down stuff doesn't give you the exposure that you need to the speed and tone sandhi that your brain needs to experience before it can learn how to process the language).

Steve Kaufmann, a great learner of languages and a guy that generally has a pretty good accent in the languages he tries to pick up, also advises massive amounts of listening practice. He generally buys a few “Language 101 books”, listens to the audio many times over a few months, and then attempts to go straight to authentic material, while skipping graded stuff.

So, I would argue that once you've given your brain a few thousand hours of natural material, it will most likely figure out the grammar and things like tone and correct pronunciation. In other words, I don't think the process has anything to do with your personal talent or “having an ear” for tones. If you have the dedication and determination to do thousands of hours (which will hopefully be a fun and interesting experience if you choose materials that you are interested in), I'd be genuinely shocked if your pronunciation and tones didn't get pretty good.

So, I feel like I've written a lot, but if what I'm saying is true, then I think one could come up with a few conclusions.

1) There's absolutely no reason to feel bad if your tones aren't that good if you are relatively new to learning Chinese (or haven't done a lot of audio work). In fact, you should expect that they'll be bad.

2) Doing a lot of tone drills might be useful, but without a huge base of listening experience, one might even go so far as to state that drills might be kind of a waste of time. (Although, it'd be interesting to hear what other people say about that).

3) The best way to get good at tones (and sentence stress paterns and tone sandhi) is to do a lot of listening work to authentic materials (like podcasts, radio, TV (assuming you don't over-rely on subttles, and talking to real people, of course).

4) The process has almost nothing to do with intelligence and ability, but rather it's a function of how the brain works. Just as your brain is sending out all the signals to your organs that keep them running smoothly, it should naturally figure out tones if it's given a chance.

Edited by wushijiao

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trien27

There's a fifth tone, called a light tone, which is not used widely and so I guess they don't even show up at the poll above? by not having any indication in Pinyin, but in Zhuyin fuhao, it's indicated by a dot.

In Zhuyin,

First tone = no tone mark indication

Second, third & fourth tones has the same mark as Pinyin

5th or light tone is indicated by a dot on top of Zhuyin Fuhao.

In Pinyin,

First tone has a bar over the Pinyin

Second, third & fourth tones has the same marks as Zhuyin Fuhao

5th or light tone = no tone mark indication

I always get the fifth or light tone incorrect.

Edited by trien27
additional information

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YuehanHao

I am not really qualified to rate which tone I have the most problem pronouncing. I'm sure they are not all equally bad, but I dare not guess which is worst. However, I do think the biggest problems I have with tones relate to using them in normal speech, such as providing enough emphasis on the tones of certain characters, and perhaps not overemphasizing others in order to mimic the normal way of smooth and fluent speaking. I guess that just takes a lot of practice of listening and speaking, and I should work harder at it.

Sometimes now I am in a really bad habit of emphasizing the tones that I can remember and then softening the ones I am not sure about. It seems I can typically remember the letters of pinyin much more reliably than the tone marks. Maybe it's something to do with the way the brain's memory was allocated during the formative years of learning toneless languages.

约翰好

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leeyah

Other than the boring repetition of words, for getting those combinations of tones right in sentences & generally for getting used to emphasizing the tones, I think reciting poems may be a good drill. :)

I remember while I was still a student, our teachers asked that we learn Tang poems by heart & as a result even students who were unable to get their tones right by mechanical repetition of words, eventually managed to improve their pronunciation and had much better results after they learned to recite poems. Most students who couldn't make themselves understood before started to converse in pretty good Mandarin. & I'm not saying their tones suddenly became 'perfect', but significantly better.

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muyongshi
I think reciting poems may be a good drill.

While it may be a good drill I would very much doubt the practicality of it. I could see a person's tones getting good in terms of pronouncing the tones themselves since poems really emphasize the tones in their reciting but I doubt it would help in real life.

1) because poems are not spoken Chinese so it would be difficult to carry over 2) Poems include {well as long as they are recited correctly} so many alternative pronunciations. My teachers always emphasized this point that poems are not modern language and so they typically have a few things that are pronounced differently.

So, I could see this being good for helping people get the feel of tones and practice emphasizing them and getting comfortable with them but I don't see it affecting {directly} someones conversational chinese.

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shivasprogeny

I find that the second is hardest for me, especially the 3-2 combination.

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realmayo

I voted third tone.

889, I like the place names idea, I'll try it.

wushijiao, yours might be a very timely post, I know my tones are awful, and this is despite always believing tones are very important. I was considering spending time working out lots of tone drills or whatever, but if massive amounts of audio might be the biggest help for tones, then I'll definitely start with that instead: I was planning to start listening to lots anyway, I'd love it if it got me better tones. I unfortunately have this in thevery bad habit of often thinking of the pinyin (consonant, vowel) sounds first, and then adding the tone, before saying lots of words.

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realmayo

Also: I think my second tone improved when I stopped starting it from too deep down. By starting too low, it was either a big rush to get to the top, in which case it sounded more like a first tone, or if I slowed it down, all that time down low got it confused with a third tone.

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renzhe
I always get the fifth or light tone incorrect.

Thank you.

I thought I was the only one who was missing this option. There are so many ways to pronounce that one, and it often matters what tone it would have been if it weren't a neutral tone.

Other than that, I'd say third, just because of the complex sandhi (especially when you follow it with the neutral tone).

In general, I agree that tones in isolation are not that difficult. It's using them in smooth speech that's difficult, especially since Mandarin doesn't use absolute pitch, but contour pitch, and you have neutral tones sprinkled around that depend on the tones around them.

I completely agree that listening, listening, and repeating is the best way forward (after getting the grasp on the basics and knowing them in isolation). Just listen, repeat words and phrases exactly the way you hear them, until they are etched into your memory. I'm still working on it, but I'm told that I'm improving.

Steer away from the comfortable territory, though (read: string together complex sentences with rare words), and I either get everything wrong, or slow down to a crawl.

I was considering spending time working out lots of tone drills or whatever, but if massive amounts of audio might be the biggest help for tones, then I'll definitely start with that instead

This certainly helped me, but you know that I've watched huge amounts of stuff.

Try repeating important sentences as you hear them. Press pause, parrot, continue.

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wushijiao
wushijiao, yours might be a very timely post, I know my tones are awful, and this is despite always believing tones are very important. I was considering spending time working out lots of tone drills or whatever, but if massive amounts of audio might be the biggest help for tones, then I'll definitely start with that instead: I was planning to start listening to lots anyway, I'd love it if it got me better tones. I unfortunately have this in thevery bad habit of often thinking of the pinyin (consonant, vowel) sounds first, and then adding the tone, before saying lots of words.

Realmayo- I wouldn't discount the idea that tone drills can help, as leeyah and other have said. And I know that mimicking/parroting can be a useful drill, as renzhe said (I've used it a lot myself). But, I do think that these drills should be seen as an adjunct to massive audio (whether through podcasts, radio, talking, TV...etc), which is the key, in my opinion, in giving you the ability to know how words should be pronounced because you can recall from memory how the words and sentences sound- not how they should ideally look on a chart or what their tone marks are on your flashcard.

To give another analogy, I learned Spanish for more than ten years (junior high through college and beyond). My accent slowly got better in junior high and high school, but it was still a very much a "gringo" accent. When I studied abroad in Chile, (with a group of 40 other Americans), the people who integrated themselves as much into the community and the people who watched a lot of soap operas (telenovelas) quickly were able to hear how terrible the "gringo" accent sounded, and were able to make steps at correcting their accents.

Would it be reasonable for teachers of Spanish to expect that their 12-year-old students could go from not speaking Spanish to having a near native-speaker accent in a matter of a month? No, it would be absurd to think so. And yet, in Chinese, it seems that there is almost an idea floating out there that you should get the tones down in your first year of Chinese, or else you are screwed and you'll never learn them properly for the rest of your life. I'm saying that I think this attitude can be un-helpful because it is disheartening to many people who feel like failures for not getting the tones, and because it ignores the fact that a solid listening base is the basis of competent mimickery.

Also, there is another issue unique to Chinese is that if you learn a lot of new vocabulary via reading, it's quite easy to find yourself in a situation where you see a word, say, 措施, and you remember the meaning from when you looked it up in a dictionary, but you may not remember the pinyin or the tones. Or, more likely, you'll remember the pinyin, but not the tones. The situation a fairly natural. The solution isn't to stop reading, but to do a lot of audio work, so that you'll hear the word again and again.

Again, this is simply my opinion and others are free to disagree. And sorry if I sound like a broken record, but I hope that, as a person who basically gave up on ever speaking with tones, and then has managed to turn that situation round, hopefully I have an interesting point of view to contribute here.

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realmayo
but I hope that, as a person who basically gave up on ever speaking with tones, and then has managed to turn that situation round

Yes, that's why it's encouraging!

In terms of remembering which words have which tones (which I'm not saying is the same things as being good with tones) I've found my best bet is using audio in my flashcard program: basically, I use a SRS programme to learn new vocab, and for certain words, where I've got an audio file handy, I add that too, so the flashcard programme shows me the word, I do my best to remember the pronunciation and the translation, the programme then shows me the answer, and at the same time I hear the word being said.

It may not sound like much, but because this process is repeated plenty of times, I have started to "hear" in my head the correctly-toned word as soon as I'm shown the word, before I even see the answer. Is this a Pavlovian response? :conf I don't know if it will work on a bigger scale than I've got it going now, but seeing as I'm starting to use Chinesepod as a source of new vocab, it means I'll have the audio available for each word too, if I want it.

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renzhe
you can recall from memory how the words and sentences sound

YES!

And yet, in Chinese, it seems that there is almost an idea floating out there that you should get the tones down in your first year of Chinese, or else you are screwed and you'll never learn them properly for the rest of your life.

I've been somewhat guilty of this, but what is meant is that you should be able to hear the tones in isolation and reproduce them in isolation. To understand the concept and to be able to repeat a single word spoken to you including the tones.

This might not be strictly necessary, but I do think that if you can get this part down early on in your studies, it will make dealing with tones much easier in the future. Of course, getting all tones correct in a heated discussion including stress, neutral tones and tone sandhi is something that will take years to develop.

And I feel that the best way to develop it is through lots of listening, to the point where a word and its tones are simply a unit that fits together and can only be pronounced the proper way. At that point you stop thinking about tones, and simply sound them properly just like you sound the initials and finals properly.

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wushijiao
And I feel that the best way to develop it is through lots of listening, to the point where a word and its tones are simply a unit that fits together and can only be pronounced the proper way. At that point you stop thinking about tones, and simply sound them properly just like you sound the initials and finals properly.

That's another way of saying what I've been trying to say. :D

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chai2zhe2

I wanted to add my own experience... I've been living in Tianjin, China for a little over two years, just learning Chinese, nothing else. I can safely say I study pretty much everyday and make it a point to not hang out with too many foreigners. My Chinese tones and pronunciation are pretty good when compared with other foreigners and have few problems in daily life and intermediate conversation.

Recently I've had an amazing oppurtunity to be trained by a coach who has been training Tianjin's television and radio broadcasters in Putonghua for the past decade and has competed in Chinese recitals since he was 6 years old (his putonghua is as putonghua as it can get haha). Anyways, the first day of class with this teacher I realized my Chinese is still very far from perfect and so much more work is needed. Fortunately he shared with me some advice about learning putonghua, and part of it included what wushijiao said about listening. He said I should listen to atleast two hours of television each day, and even though I may not understand everything they are saying I will still get used to the tones, pronuciation, emphasis, and all the other following elements. Not only until my brain can clearly decipher these things until I myself will be able to mimic them properly. He also stressed the importance of your language environment and the need to listen to standard putonghua like CCTV1 news broadcasters. Chinese has an old saying 近朱者赤近墨者黑 with a rough translation being you are directly affected by the surroundings in which you live in. Well, living in Tianjin and having quite a few Tianjin friends who speak the local dialect, I have definitely recieved their influence. My 1st and 2nd tones aren't as high as they should be, and I sometimes have the habit of throwing a 4th tone where it doesn't belong.

Someone above me mentioned the method of reciting. And I can't agree more with this, that's exactly the method I am using with my teacher now. I've been studying 《匆匆》by 朱自清 and what I do everyday for two hours is recite to myself, listen to chinese recordings of the piece, as well as record and compare my voice to the chinese version. This may be a little extreme to others, but just in a weeks time I defintely have seen improvement. The most improvement being in my listening. You first have to be able to recognize where you make the mistake before you can go back to correct it, or else you will never be able to improve and forever repeat the same errors. Learnings of Chinese should get in the habit of reciting. If you memorize a piece, it is then so much easier to work on pronunciation with a teacher/tutor as to compared to pulling out a book and stuttering over ever other word because you aren't familiar with the material.

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taylor04

I don't have any problems with any individual tone, I've done enough practice with them. But what throws me up is when I'm reading aloud or in a conversation when I'm trying to get my tones all right and not thinking ahead, I'll say a third tone and then the next word is a third tone. I know if theres 2 3rd tones the first one is second and the second one is 3rd, but I usually don't know what I'm going to say that far in advance.

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