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Kong Junrui

How could I get better at tones?

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Kong Junrui

Ever since my Chinese 1 class I haven't used tones to speak, and one year later I am regretting that. Whenever I hear a native Chinese speak in Chinese, I am amazed by the way they integrate tones. I am also embarresed to speak in Chinese in front of native Chinese people outside of my Chinese class because of my pronounciation and the fact I don't use tones.

I try to insert the tones into my sentences and words as best I can, but in a enviroment where no one else uses them (people who are new to Chinese as well), it feels very odd and unnatural.

Any tips or ideas? :wall

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kudra

...I am also embarresed to speak in Chinese in front of native Chinese people outside of my Chinese class because of my pronounciation and the fact I don't use tones.

I try to insert the tones into my sentences and words as best I can' date=' but in a enviroment where no one else uses them (people who are new to Chinese as well), it feels very odd and unnatural.

[/Quote']

I can sympathize with you. In my first class I was one of only 2 or possibly 3 people who worked hard on getting tones. Although the teaching was really outstanding, after a week the instructors stopped correcting peoples tones, because well, you'd never cover the material if all tones were corrected. Basically my study partner and I had to rely on each other for meticulous correction. I think I would have had the self discipline to be meticulous without my study partner, but I owe her a lot.

As for your feeling unnatural, although I consider that my study partner and I had the best pronunciation in the class by far, we probably spoke 2 or 3 times slower than everybody else. More on this later....

I am going to be brutally honest Kong Junrui. Is the point to taking your Chinese class to eventually be able to speak Chinese with Chinese people, or is it to feel comfortable with other non-native speakers in class? If the former, then you have a tough road unlearning some bad habits. But (I hope) you are still young so there is hope.

As I mentioned in a previous post

http://www.chinese-forums.com/showpost.php?p=47671&postcount=33

I am extremely skeptical about bad tone production in adult learners fixing itself with time.

In that thread you will also see that I am on the extreme end of the distribution about caring about tones, at least among the posters in that thread.

I only have my own experience to go by, but if you are serious about getting the tones right, or at least attempting to produce them like a native speaker, IMO you are going to have to slow down to the point where you never speak faster than you can speak getting every non-neutral tone correct.

This will definitely sound really odd in class with other students who don't care about tones. You've got to accept that. It might help if you told the teacher that from now on you were going to try to produce tones accurately, and would they please correct you in class whenever you produce an error. I am guessing they will be very happy to have a student who cares that much about getting it right.

I see from your profile you are in Texas. I am assuming you are in a class with mostly other non-native speakers in the US. As for your relationship with your classmates, probably you should treat as wasted time any time Chinese is being spoken in class when it's not you or a native speaker doing the talking. I'd try to ignore your classmates Chinese sounds as much as possible, unless you have a study partner who is working hard on tones with you in which case you are allowed to listen to him/her to offer corrections in the spirit of mutual encouragement. The part about ignoring or actively not listening to your other classmates seems harsh. In fact I am probably coming across as a conceited JERK. In my defense, I am trying to shock you out of complacency since in a class full of students who don't care that much you will need fortitude and a will of steel.:) On the other hand, why does such an attitude need defending?

If my experience was any indication, I see this as one of the big problems of the typical Chinese class format -- namely the amount of time spent listening to mispronounced Chinese with bad tones. I don't know any remedy for this except to hit the tapes/audio files to unlearn the bad stuff you heard coming out of your classmates mouths. Ask yourself, this week how many hours did I spend listening to mispronounced Chinese compared with native speaker Chinese? You have to do something to get the ratio in your favor. Kind of like LDL/HDL.

Thus ends my 2 cents worth.

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Kong Junrui
I can sympathize with you. In my first class I was one of only 2 or possibly 3 people who worked hard on getting tones. Although the teaching was really outstanding, after a week the instructors stopped correcting peoples tones, because well, you'd never cover the material if all tones were corrected.

I know what you mean. We barely go over tones in class. And I don't think we ever had a lesson particulerly dedicated to tones except when we learnt which tones were which.

I only have my own experience to go by, but if you are serious about getting the tones right, or at least attempting to produce them like a native speaker, IMO you are going to have to slow down to the point where you never speak faster than you can speak getting every non-neutral tone correct.

I guess so.

I'd try to ignore your classmates Chinese sounds as much as possible, unless you have a study partner who is working hard on tones with you in which case you are allowed to listen to him/her to offer corrections in the spirit of mutual encouragement. The part about ignoring or actively not listening to your other classmates seems harsh. In fact I am probably coming across as a conceited JERK. In my defence, I am trying to shock you out of complacency since in a class full of students who don't care that much you will need fortitude and a will of steel. On the other hand, why does such an attitude need defending?

You don't seem harsh at all; that's exactly what I need to do.

This reminds me of something. One of my friends in my Chinese class can speak Chinese what some of the other students might call "good." He speaks it rapidly, but has no tone whatsoever. He could be replaced by a robot with his voice and you wouldn't tell the difference. At first I was thinking "Wow, when did he get so good..." but now realize he hasn't.

Thanks for your tip. I'll try to do as much as you suggested. I'm just gonna have to go back and memorize as many tones as I don't know for words I do "know." There's only a few words that I do know the tones for, such as 你,我,他,她,知道,色,and my own name. I've got lots of work to do. :

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kudra

I'm just gonna have to go back and memorize as many tones as I don't know for words I do "know." There's only a few words that I do know the tones for, such as 你,我,他,她,知道,色,and my own name. I've got lots of work to do. :

[/Quote]

when you write pinyin as part of homework and tests, don't you get graded on the tones too? If not, then short of suing the school, you need to ask them to correct you on that part too.

Ideally it's not a separate question in your mind of what tone goes with a particular word. Basically if you spend enough time with the audio files/tapes to get your native-speaker/non-native speaker listening time ratio large enough (1.5, 2, 3 I have no idea) Then when you hear the word in your head, you will be hearing the version from a native speaker. (That of course assumes you hear the words in your head....)

I found that practicing with tapes enough to produce the tones and work towards natural rhythm, I ended up knowing the tones without having to memorize them separately. I don't know if this would work for everybody. But, it is certainly more fun than sitting quietly with a vocabulary list and trying to memorize what tone goes with each vocabulary word. The point is to train your vocal muscles, and let them train your memory of tones. Or something like that.... At least that's what I think happened with me, but the whole business is kind of mysterious.

Here is another way to think about it....

The US classroom setting ALLOWS you to slow down and perfect tones. Consider a beginners class in China, or a total immersion program like Middlebury summer Chinese. In those situations, I would guess the beginners are too busy trying to survive and get basic stuff done to worry about working on tones -- They just want to be understood. Of course you can be understood with poor tones. At Middlebury, do they refuse to pass the salt if your tones are off?

I have no data to support any of this, of course. Does anybody? If demand for Chinese instruction explodes in the US say in the next 10-50 years, surely someone is going to make a ton of money figuring this stuff out based on hard data, for different kinds of learners. Presumably the Defence Language Institute has it all worked out.

Back on topic Junrui, while you do have a lot of work ahead, recognize the positive side of your situation as an opportunity. Yeah, I know, sounds like a fortune cookie.

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roddy
Ever since my Chinese 1 class I haven't used tones to speak, and one year later I am regretting that

This is exactly what I've been working on lately - although it's damn near 5 years for me, not 1. I've been meaning to do a big write-up of what I've been doing and how effective it's been (too early to say really) and while I'm not going to do that now I'm going to ask you to all pm me and abuse me if I haven't done it by the end of the week.

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Desmond

I have to agree with Kudra 100%. As for myself, I'd have to say that we're quite similar in these ways:

- I started off learning Mandarin with a friend/study partner

- We were the most diligent students (obsessed, you could say) helping eachother to perfect our pronunciation and tones as much as possible

- I'm a strong advocate in not just learning words and grammar, but having a good pronunciation and handling of tones. Some of the professors in the department say "don't worry about tones" and some say to pay attention to them. My own personal experience in China: everything matters. It all adds up, and the better you are at any given aspect, the better of a communicator you will be, the better your message will be understood.

The thing with tones and pronunciation (mostly the latter) is that it can be learned in the beginning in one big chunk. Then every word entered into your mind will be memorized 'properly'. Unfortunately, with most people (busy lives, too much other work, just don't care enough, whatever) they don't learn this way, and so things are still being pronounced wrong, and tones are impossible to remember.

Fortunately, it can be worked on until eventual success! An example is a roommate I had while in China this summer. He had neglected a lot of tones and pronunciation, so he asked me to be an overbearing * and just ream him out each time he said something wrong. It was hard at first but he really did improve a lot!

The funny thing about tones, is that they can be memorized with the word to the point that they just seem natural. That's how a native speaker does it. An example is: the difference between been and bing. Say them out loud. The only difference between them is the 'n' and the 'ng' ending. How the heck do we remember which words end with 'n' and which with 'ng'? We just do, because we've heard them over and over! Same with tones, the sooner you start, the more natural it will be. So when I wanna say the word 帮 (bang1) then I naturally say it with the first tone.... with any other tone it wouldn't seem the right at all. It would seem just as wrong as if I said "ban1" instead.

So basically, you have to force yourself to always say the tone with the word. An example is the word 元. Most of the people in China (that I went with) just said it as "you-on", the english way of reading "yuan2". Then when it came time to say the word in a chinese sentence, they found it hard to say it the proper way, because 95% of the time they said it the improper way. I know it seems kinda anal (it really is! :mrgreen: ) But being anal is the only way to learn fast, and well!

Ignore your classmates! I do it all the time! :mrgreen: It's not like they ever listen to you when you're talking!

I wish you the best, and hope that you'll put lots of hard work into it and love the results!

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Desmond

Roddy, I'd love to hear how the experience has been for you, learning the tones after learning the words; please let me know if you do a write-up!:mrgreen:

Sorry if I seemed harsh in my post up there, or if I seemed conceited. I really should add in that my #1 favourite thing about the Chinese language is tones, so that really helped me out. On the opposite end, memorizing vocab is probably the lowest on my list, so that's definitely a harder area for me.... can't we just find a program to upload vocab straight into our brains? Please?!:wall

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maxham

I went through much the same thing....after 2 and a half years "studying" Chinese at university in Australia, I came here to China and found that noone could understand a word I said - literally!! and vice versa as I couldn't even really HEAR tones.....

I only wish Chinese-forums was around then - certainly would have given me a huge confidence boost to know that others were going through the same thing.

My saviour was a book and a set tapes called Drills and Quizzes in Mandarin Pronunciation (or something like that), and one of those little cassette players that allows you to repeat things over and over, record yourself and alternate the actual recording with your own voice, so you can really hear how you sound compared to the real thing.

I don't think I've ever seen one of the cassette players outside China, though I'm sure you must be able to get them.

Don't give up!!!!!! You'll get there......

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wai ming

I agree with the above posters - the only way to master tones is to learn them from the beginning, and to slow down! when you speak.

Once you've got the basic hang of tones (as in, you can distinguish each tone and pronounce tones correctly when saying one word in isolation), the next hardest thing is keeping the tones in when you speak in sentences. At least for me, I find that is the most difficult part, especially when I'm trying to have a normal conversation, thinking about what I'm going to say on the spot and speaking at normal speed.

I found that I could normally remember the pinyin for words, but not the tones. So I would take a passage, and write all the tone marks above or below the characters, except maybe for a few I was really confident with, like 我 你 他 etc. Then I'd read the passage out loud, time after time after time. Everytime I made a mistake, I'd immediately slow down and go back and correct it. When I got comfortable reading the passage slowly, I would gradually speed it up until I could read it at normal speed without making mistakes. I'd usually end up reading the passage more than 10 times in one session.

It definitely helps if you can listen to Chinese as much as you can, because you'll begin to remember what the words sound like, including the tones. But it's not just enough to listen, you have to practise speaking out loud.

加油!:)

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tyler

Another idea that has really helped me is to not only listen to recordings, but to replay them and try to speak along with the recording. You really need to try and force yourself to sound exactly like the speaker. Start with shorter stuff like words and short phrases and move up to sentences. Good luck!

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Ferno

my problem is that I can't hear tones for comprehension. If you play me a demonstration audio file of one syllable then I can usually get the tone, but in actual speech where you have word after word after word, I can't seem to proccess the tonal information. I can pick out any two-syllable words I know (ie shi jian) because tone doesn't usually matter for those, and for the rest I just assume its the most common tone meaning (ie always assume "wo" is third tone and means "I" . Even in Pimsleur with the perfect, slow, standard mandarin - I find myslef understanding what they say only through context because I know what the lesson(s) are about. I don't think I've ever heard a word and distinguished the meaning through the tone alone. And that's with Pimsleur, in the fast, colloquial speech of native speakers, a lot of the tones are just ignored anyway.

Will I ever be able to distinguish ma1/ma2/ma3/ma4/ma in regular speech as completely different syllables? Or is tone-sensitivity something that you can only learn as a child and I'll always have to rely on context alone?

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gougou

Ferno, I know just what you mean. Some time ago, I noticed I had exactly that problem. But I have lots of good news.

First of all, in most cases, tones are not necessary for understanding, as long as you have a context (listening to Chinese songs, for example, you will notice that you can understand a lot without having any tones to help you.) The more words you know, the easier it will be to know what belongs together in a sentence.

And, even better, I have the impression that tone recognition is getting better now for me, so it most likely is something that can be learned! I still can't hear all of the tones in a sentence, but for the words that I don't understand immediately, or don't know at all, I mostly remember what tone they were.

I suppose this is due to not having paid too much attention to tones during the first year or two of studying. I knew exactly which tone a character should be pronounced in, but when speaking, didn't make any use of that knowledge. Now that I am paying more attention to actually voicing the tones correctly, I feel that my overall understanding of tones is getting better.

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Ferno

that's good to hear :mrgreen:

im making sure I get all the tones the first time around.

What is your method of remembering them? Do you remember the numbers in your head when you make note of the tone of a word? ie "gong-one si-one" for "gong1 si1" or is your auditory memory able to just remember the correct tone sound?

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gougou

No, I don't memorize the numbers (at least I'm trying not to, sometimes it just happens.) I believe that to be what I did wrong the first time around - I could have told you the right number for every word, but there was no mental connection between the tone and the word.

So now when studying, I make sure to read out loud every new word several times. I don't have an auditory memory to speak of, so I exaggerate the tones a lot. This, and paying more careful attention to tones when speaking/reading, seem to create a certain awareness of tones. Well, at least that's what I'm hoping, still too early to really judge whether it's working or not.

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imron

I second what a previous poster said. Whatever you do, don't try and memorise the actual numbers of the tones. Instead of trying to remember like: 妈 = ma with tone 1, 麻 = ma with tone 2, 马 = ma with tone 3 and 骂 = ma with tone 4, try to think of each of them as separate sound units, as different as they would be if they were words with different spellings (i.e. ma and man). In order to be able to do this, you'll need to make sure that you're able to differentiate and pronouce all the tones correctly, so it's worth spending some time in getting that right first. Once you do this, then you'll be thinking how most Chinese think... i.e. you think of the sound, and from that you can work out the tone, rather than thinking of the tone before you can pronounce the sound.

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nipponman

I second this. I started in the beginning and learned it exactly the wrong way, e.g ma and tone1 instead of ma1. This doesn't help ones' chinese at all. I can distinguish between 1,2,3,4, but not between 3and5, in slow speech. It becomes much harder at a natural pace. Hopefully I will just wake up one day after alot of practice and get it. Doubt it though.

Happy trails

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trevelyan
The US classroom setting ALLOWS you to slow down and perfect tones. Consider a beginners class in China, or a total immersion program like Middlebury summer Chinese. In those situations, I would guess the beginners are too busy trying to survive and get basic stuff done to worry about working on tones -- They just want to be understood. Of course you can be understood with poor tones. At Middlebury, do they refuse to pass the salt if your tones are off?

I agree with the importance of learning the tones, but this is sheer nonsense. I've studied in two western countries as well as China and have yet to come across *anyone* educated in a Western classroom whose tones weren't awful on arrival in China. Unless someone is 华侨 the tones are just not going to come naturally. The notion of *perfecting* them while listening to language tapes is ludicrous.

This is *NOT* a critique of anyone posting here. If anyone needs to get slammed for the sorry state of Chinese language education, it is generally Western Universities which charge for language instruction, but do a dismal job at providing students with opportunities to come to China and get practical experience speaking the language they're forking over cash to learn.

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Desmond

Not that I'm totally disagreeing with your post, Trevelyan, but I know of three people in my class with a great grasp at tones before even having stepped foot in China (none speak another dialect nor are of Chinese heritage).

It just takes a lot of work in the beginning. Just like learning to use the "yu" sound in Chinese (or French or German for that matter, as that general sound is quite widespread). you can either see 元 and decide to say it as the english words "you" and "on" ("you-on") or you can force yourself to make the chinese "yu" sound (with practicing and coaching) and then practice over and over. It's hard work but can be done.

The same thing goes for tones. Sure they don't come naturally, but if you listen, pay attention, practice, try, then you can do them. I emphasize that because by 'listen' I don't mean try once for 10 min and get frustrated and say "I tried!!" Same goes for 'try'. I mean that this takes hours and hours of work, most of which can be tedious. But if you never take a bread, never let yourself say "you-on", never let yourself say a single word toneless, ever, then you can train yourself.

You're very right in that signing up for a Chinese course in a western university and giving you homework and a few hours of week of class isn't really much of a motivator. I have a friend right now who wants to learn Chinese. He also wants to finish his degree and do 4 other courses. Unfortunately he's skipped half of his Chinese classes because they're just so easy to skip.... in his mind, he's busy, and treating Chinese as just another class (where you can cram and rememeber most of what is needed). The problem is, all his is doing is merely memorizing words. Putting together sentences is still super difficult. Listening comprehension is also bad. Tones? ha! His thoughts are "well I don't have time to perfect those now, I'll do them later", along with pronunciation. So sadly, he's gonna fall in the same cycle as most people, getting trained wrong and then being faced with revamping everything in his mind when he eventually goes to China and realizes what he learned is crap.

If I could, I would have gotten him to learn one third of what he has learnt, but learn it right. He could have traded off some of the vocab he's learnt by learning the right pronunciation and tones, and then have a better base to learn more Chinese later on. But that's now how the education system here works! Take as many classes as possible and then do medicre on them!

But I believe you can change... as I've seen it happen in people. Everything depends on motivation, and if you have it, you can do a lot!

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kudra

The US classroom setting ALLOWS you to slow down and perfect tones

The notion of *perfecting* them while listening to language tapes is ludicrous

Perhaps I should define "ALLOWS". The US classroom setting was a Yale intensive summer language program, 1981. 3 hours of classroom in the morning, then 2-3 hours (voluntary) in the language lab from day 1 (it was airconditioned), then 1-2 hours for homework prep. The whole reason for taking the summer course was to see what was involved with a tonal language, not an interest in Chinese language, culture or history -- hence the motivation for the time in the language lab. Also I am convinced music (violin) background helped *not* in the sense that "Chinese is such a musical language, the tones you know!", but in being able to listen and really hear and correct what sounds I produced. I'm sure I couldn't speak at normal speed when I arrived in Taiwan in Fall 1982, but I don't think my ability to hear or produce tones made huge improvements then. I was able to gain proficiency with rhythm and speed of course. Unfortunately there are no before and after tapes.

My experience that summer in '81 is probably not possible during a regular semester. When I continued on with Chinese the next Fall ('81) in the US (I went to Taiwan in Fall 82 after graduating), it was infinitely harder and not as successful, what with finishing up the courses in my major(math) and other distribution odds and ends.

In any case, my anectdote is just that, a self reported 20 year old memory, a single data point of questionable utility. Perhaps we can assemble a data base of anectdotes of stuff that works and stuff that doesn't.

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Ferno

:cry: at what you guys said about not just remembering the #s :(

I have no auditory memory. How is it like for you guys? Do you just think about what you heard and then it's like you pressed "play" in the audio recorder in your head and you hear the sound? I can only remember things 100% by visualizing the pinyin + tone # in my head. If I never learned pinyin, I would invent my own English-alphabet romanization.

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