From all the people learning Chinese and reaching a relatively high level of proficiency only a few ever seem to truly master the Chinese tones. By that I mean they speak fully fluent and sound so “native” that it would fool native Chinese speakers. Why is that? Are Chinese tones just too damn hard or dont’t we try hard enough?
This question is not about perfectionism. It’s also not about sounding native for the sake of sounding native. No, it’s about mastering the tones, because Chinese is a tonal language and therefore tones really matter. Getting them wrong doesn’t only sound peculiar, it can cause you to say things you never intended. They deserve the same attention like the tenses in French or the cases in German.
I noticed that some of the best non-native Chinese speakers stress the importance of tones. People like Laoma Chris for example. Recently I watched an interview with him where he explains that at an early stage of his learning, let’s call it HSK 4, he started feeling more and more comfortable speaking Chinese, going out playing Mahjong with the Beijing locals. He felt pretty self-confident, until one of his Chinese teachers told him that despite of his fluency his tones were still a mess. That truth hurt him enough to refocus and pay special attention to tones and pronunciation for several months – practicing, reading, self-recording. Although it slowed him down and even made his tones worse in the beginning, eventually he was able not only to correct his pronunciation flaws but also to take his Chinese skills from mediocre “laowai hui shuo Zhongwen” to the next level.
Beyond sharing his personal learning journey, Chris also explains why so many learners – including myself – never get to that stage where tones are like cycling or swimming. You can produce them correctly without conscious effort. The reasons vary – but they all seem to be misconceptions about tones and their relevance, both on the side of learners and their teachers. Here they come!
01. Learn pinyin basics and never look back
Many learners cover pinyin – that is the official romanization system for Standard Mandarin Chinese – at the beginning and then move on. After all, pinyin is kind of a crutch, where as the real thing to learn are hanzi (Chinese characters). So what happens is that learners familiarize themselves with the four tones, the different tone combinations, initials and finals, until they feel they’ve seen it all and it’s time to focus on new challenges.
There’s nothing wrong with moving on, yet experience shows that Chinese tones and pronunciation require a continuous effort. Even weeks of intensive training don’t cut it. Apart from honest feedback from teachers or even dictionary apps like Hanbook, repetition is key.
02. I can cover up pronunciation deficiencies by speaking fast
To some extent this is true: speak fast and you’ll seem fluent or at least a quick communicator. In actual communication, people aren’t judging your pronunciation, but rather your overall performance and how quickly and adequately you respond to the other. I do think you’re more likely to get positive feedback when you’re fast, fluent but messing up the tones, than slow, precise and getting every tone right. It’ll just seem weird.
However, in the long run, you can’t hide the fact that you’re unsure of your tones. Instead of exhausting yourself by speaking at full speed, it might be more fruitful to work on weaknesses.
03. They understand me anyway
No, they don’t! Although Chinese speakers probably give you enough mianzi (face) to not say it in your face (unlike Dutch people). They might well be seriously confused, with only their professionally trained poker faces to hide that fact from you. We have to accept the nature of tonal languages: tone differentiates meaning. Different tone = different meaning.
To illustrate that: recently I learned the word for cheating on someone’s partner. It’s chūguǐ (出轨 – lit. go off the rails). But what I said instead was that the person chū guì le, meaning he “came out of the closet” (出柜). A minor differentiation in tone resulted in a completely different meaning.
04. My tones will improve naturally, once I reach a certain level of fluency
I wish it were true! The thing is that once you get to a level where you can communicate more freely on a broader range of topics, your conversation partners won’t necessarily point out your mistakes. They might be too polite, incapable or feel uncomfortable correcting you. After all, here’s a foreigner who’s obviously worked very hard to learn their impossible language. Let’s not hurt his feelings. This doesn’t imply your tones don’t become more accurate over time, but you have to put in conscious effort, keep listening for patterns, tone pairs and so on.
05. My tones are better than most of my classmates
I remember studying in Chinese in China with a classmate who could read Chinese texts much faster than I could (he practiced more fanatically). Yet his tones were completely off. Obviously, I thought he might be a quick reader, but his tones are horrible – I’m better than him (and most of the others)! Who doesn’t like to feel good about himself?
But this means lowering one’s standards, instead of looking up to more senior peers whose Chinese sounds much better. So I guess we should be careful to whom we compare ourselves, before we reach any conclusions about our language skills.
06. My Chinese teachers tells me my tones are alright (for a foreigner)
This is a funny one. I see two aspects to this.
One: not all Chinese teachers are trained in phonetics. Like I might be natively fluent in Dutch, but I couldn’t tell you how to move your tongue to produce the unique diphthong leeuw (lion) for example. In other words, even some experienced Chinese teachers lack training to give you the right feedback on your pronunciation.
Two: some Chinese teachers seem to think the Chinese language in general and the tones in particular are so exotic and complex in their nature, that non-native speakers and other barbarians can hardly ever master them. In their eyes, different standards apply to foreigners. Your tones are far from perfect, but you’re from a very distant country, so it’s okay. That’s their thinking. Imagine telling to a Spanish native speaker who’s learning German: “Oh, the ü-sound is notoriously difficult for Spanish speakers, so for you it’s acceptable to pronounce it incorrectly”. In this case, you might want to look for another teacher.
07. Mastering Chinese tones and intonation is impossible for non-native speakers
This is the same argument, but brought by the non-native learner. On YouTube and similar platforms you can find ample evidence to debunk this myth. Only recently the case of Will Hart went viral in the online Chinese learning community. Mastering Chinese tones isn’t impossible, although – to return to our starting point – those non-native speakers who speak Chinese with a 99,99 % native sound are few in number or so it seems at least.
Truly mastering Chinese tones and intonation – this is the point where your Chinese friends would say, if I’d close my eyes I’d think I’m listening to a Chinese person – requires special training and attention. Due to false strategies and misconceptions from both teachers and learners, Chinese pronunciation doesn’t get the systematic focus it deserves. It’s not untypical that Chinese pronunciation training only takes place at the very start and then gets neglected to the point where teachers might say “it’s too late”, it can’t be helped anymore. This, of course, is rubbish, yet correction requires discipline and focus.
Laoma Chris gives some very insightful and practical tips to work on your pronunciation. Here’s the interview in the September edition of my Chinese vocabulary notes.
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