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Kong Junrui

How could I get better at tones?

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atitarev
1. With the exception of the CCTV news broadcasters, I find that when natives speak quickly, most tones seem to disappear (this could also be due to the fact, however, that my ears aren't fully use to them yet?)

I think the latter is more likely to be true. I have the same impression taht tones are not pronounced when spoken quickly. They are! Try listening on the slow speed to a recording - I had a pinyinised (with tone marks) transcript and I could match the tones pronounced exactly to the tones in the text using a pen :). There are, of course, tone sandhis and neutral tones to remember. When speaking naturally, tones are not highlighted, which makes it a little bit harder for a foreign learner but they are pronounced, anyway.

Not so sure about songs, though.

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Kong Junrui

Oh man!

More than a year after I posted this I returned to these forums and found this topic again. I just thought I'd let you guys know that I'm indeed better at tones and Chinese in general now. I take the time to slow down my speech to get the tones in, and I sure think it works.

大家多谢!

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simonf

I've come up with a mnemonic that might be useful to someone else.

Associate tones with world regions. For me, 1 is Norhern Europe, 2 is East Asia, 3 is Mediterranean+Middle East, 4 is America. Then feel free to create further associations staying within the geographical bounds.

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Shi Tong

One note.

This is how I remembered my tones- I would recite the sounds to myself every step I took. I would hum in my head "mm1, mm2, mm3, mm4".

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Kev

1. You MUST practice minimal pairs with a good native speaker (sorry to ppl with southern accents, but I avoided you when learning). A "minimal pair" is two things which sound the same to a non-native speaker, but the two are actually different and convey different meanings. The aim is first to hear the difference, then reproduce the difference. Here's how a typical session works. The teacher shows the learner a card or piece of paper with the two written on it. The teacher says them at random and the student points to which one they hear. AFTER the student can hear the difference correctly, the student says them at random and the teacher has to point to what they hear. After the teacher can hear correctly what the student is trying to say, then you've probably made a good start. It takes patience and, if necessary the knowledge of how to place lips and tongue to make sounds which aren't usually made in your language. The minimal pair can also be a sentence which differs only slightly.

2. Listening/speaking practice. And remember, practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. So ten minutes spent working hard on one sentence again and again is much better than twenty minutes on 40 sentences. Here's how a good session goes. Listen to the item a few times. Your software must allow you to slow it down if you need to. If it's a sentence, you should break it up into smaller pieces and listen again and again. Then and only then, check the written copy to see you got it right. NOW it's time for you to speak. Listen once more then speak the item. Listen again to see if you think it sounds right (once you are a little advanced and you've mastered minimal pairs for the items in the sentence, this should be ok to do without the teacher). Listen and repeat the item again. If it's a sentence you might want to start with just the first few words. Repeat these, and each time through add the next word or phrase. Listen/speak. Listen/speak. Let me say again, ten minutes on one sentence can actually be very valuable. You can't run until you can walk.

Is it time for a PIN on Minimal Pairs? This technique has been THE most valuable tool in my learning to speak Chinese.

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sparrow

Pure Tone Practice

I just made this spreadsheet.

 

It randomizes all the tones and syllables, so you can get a new practice set every time you modify the spreadsheet. Print it out and you'll have tons of tones to practice. Note, because the words are randomized, they are not real words. It's just tone practice.

 

There's also a static version on the second page of the spreadsheet in case you want to practice the same ones over and over without having to print.

 

 

I recommend getting a Chinese friend or teacher to read the sheet aloud to you while you record it on your cellphone or computer. Ask them to leave a small pause after each "word" so you have time to repeat what they say when you play back the recording.

 

I figure this kind of practice is analogous to a soccer player who weight lifts and does sprint work to improve overall strength, power, and endurance.

 

Contextual Tone Practice

Go through your textbook dialogues. Over every character, mark the tone. Practice reading the dialogues with the correct tones. Follow along with a recording if your book comes with it, or ask a friend or teacher to help you make the recordings.

 

This is analogous to a soccer player drilling soccer maneuvers that will actually be used during the game.

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sparrow

@Kev: I think there should be a pin for that. You can send the mods a PM about it. Let me know and I will also send them a PM. It's really interesting information that will be really helpful for me in the future in terms of other languages, and maybe even Chinese still.

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Mr John

Epic thread,

 

I was just wondering if anyone else has tryed using the pronunciation and tone stuff put out by All Set Learning. Seems like it ticks a lot of boxes as far as this discussion is concerned. And no, I don't work for them... I wish!

 

Now I've just got to sort out these pesky pronunciation problems. I don't know about you guys but my "qu" is probably the worst of my collection of problems, it sounds kind of like the end of a sneeze at the moment...

 

Nothing worse than thinking you have finally nailed a sound only to discover you still sound like token foreigner.

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Manuel

Someone said on this thread that when native speakers speak fast some tones seem to "disappear", and then someone replied saying that they don't.

 

My impression is that they get attenuated. This is a phenomenon of all languages, I can't remember the technical word for it but it refers to phonetic tolerances built into every language, that allow speakers to deviate a certain amount from the prescribed "standard" pronunciation and still be understood. As long as the deviation falls within the "intelligible range", speakers are able to exaggerate or even deliberately distort certain pronunciations (e.g. in comedy) and still be able to convey their message

 

In normal speech, such deviations are involuntary and occur simply to minimize the amount of work our speech organs do when we speak. Put another way, speakers are lazy, and if they find an easier way to pronounce a word whilst still being understood, the natural tendency is towards the articulation that requires the least possible amount of effort. This is common in fast speech, owing to the fundamental laws of physics which tell as that moving objects faster takes more energy (the tongue in this case) so when we speak fast, speed being the fixed variable, the natural result is to reduce the distance travelled, thus keeping the energy consumption about the same, which results in slight yet acceptable variations of the original "standard" pronunciation. Native speakers know how far they can push this laziness before communication breaks down, and they instantly know when something they've said is unlikely to be understood (and repeat it). You've probably met people (perhaps from a different part of your country) who speak your mother tongue but you have trouble understanding, that's because their range and your range don't match, what your brain expects is not what they are giving you. Another classic example is speaking while brushing your teeth, when you say something, you hear yourself and you know it was not clear enough. What you've just said is a corrupted version of the intended message that is impossible to decode.

 

The same happens with tones in Mandarin: native speakers also get lazy, and glide over tones often organically interpolating a tone between two other adjacent tones like it's the most natural thing in the world. They can do this because they are so familiar with the entirety of their language that they know when and how much they are allowed to get "creative" whilst still remaining intelligible. Context also dictates the amount of freedom can afford. What tends to happen in Chinese is that the pitch range between the highest high (e.g. 1st tone) and the lowest low (e.g. the end of a 4th tone) gets squashed when speaking fast. When they want to emphasize parts of a sentence, they simply enlarge the range to increase the contrast between high and low pitch (more contrast = more emphasis). In English and many other languages, by contrast, high pitch is used to emphasize.

 

Not only tones are affected though, for example, you'll notice Chinese people often say "mǎ hàng" instead of "mǎ shàng" (马上) or "duō -r- qián" instead of "duō shao qián", etc. A bit like "gonna" vs "going to" in English.

 

In reply to the original question, my advice is to initially make a conscious to emphasize the pitch range, that is, increase the distance between the highest high and the lowest low, at least when practising at home. Learn the words by their sound, hear them in your head before you utter them. Learn to not rely on the visual confirmation of the tone marks, but on the actual sound of the words, in the same way you remember a melody. Emphasizing the difference between high and low pitch will make the "tune" or "melody" easier to remember. Chinese kids do this in schools. The "laziness" and reduction in pitch range will come to you naturally. The important thing is that you learn words by their sound not by their written look. If you can do that, you won't think of tones as being an "add-on", rather, it will become an integral part of the sound which you will view as a unit. That's how Chinese native speakers go about it, subconsciously.

 

There are some romanization methods (alternatives to pinyin) that don't use tone marks to denote tone. I don't think anybody uses as pinyin seems to be the universally accepted method, at least in mainland China. I did once look into such methods and I am convinced they could make it easier to learn tones, because each tone is written using different letters so they look different enough to be memorable, unlike tone marks which are just a tiny indistinct squiggle over a vowel. Keen students can use such methods or devise their own for their own private use (seems like pinyin is here to stay).

 

Sorry about the torrent of random thoughts. I find this topic quite fascinating. All I wanted to say is that speakers are allowed a certain degree of freedom and languages are, in practice, very organic. The key is not to speak standard, but to know where the limits are.

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Andrew78

Hi,

 

I think Manuel just nailed it, as a non-native English speaker I guess I can bring my two cents, and I can tell you this: often, though at least in reading I might be considered a C1 or even more (I have a gap between my listening skills and my reading skills) I still got problems to make out if someone tells me "I can't" or "I can", so I rely on the context: If someone says "Sorry I can't do it" even though they don't say the "t", or they speak very fast and I don't make out any difference, I can of course understand very easily and the association in my brain is very prompt.

Or like the terms "word" and "ward", I really still don't hear almost any difference when a native says them each one on its own, or maybe I hear something very very tiny, but of course it's impossibile not to be able to distinguish between these two words in normal conversation, since the context will be always quite different. So, I never paid attention to the prononciation of these 2 "wards" since there was no actual need. Or take for instance many native English speakers that may say "ho' " (without the "t", at least for me) or all the connected speech or contracions like "dunno", since you have context, you don't really need to make out these words.

 

My chinese teacher told me to listen naturally when she speaks and try to imitate her, avoiding thinking too much about each tone when I'm speaking, otherwise it'll be a huge and not rewarding job. I noticed that if you ask a native Chinese speaker the tone of some characters, sometimes they have to think a little bit, it's not immediate, they have just imitated their parents when they learned chinese, not really knowing they were making tones.

 

And what about the fact that almost no native English speaker would ever say "I askt her", making the "t" very clear,  I guess they say something like "I ast her", since it's not easy to let the words flow well in the first case.

 

So you already know that unlike what they teach you in Chinese textbooks, Chinese people almost never say the third tone entirely, but it's more like an half third tone, and they do that for the same reasons native English speakers won't say the above mentioned sentence in the way it is supposed to be pronounced.

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