Learning tones

What do you think is the best way to learn the tones in tonal languages like Mandarin? What have you done and what has been your experience?

My experience with Thai (a language with 5 tones) :
Learning the correct tones is obviously important if your goal is to speak at a high level of fluency, as these tones can change the meaning of the words.

But I’ve learnt 2 other very important factors :

  1. If you speak rather quickly and if you sentences are grammatically correct, there is no real need to pronounce each single word perfectly.
    In fact, if you speak quickly and emphasize the tone of last word only, there will be no real problem of communication.

  2. The length of the vowels is as important as the tones, maybe even more !
    For example : in Thai, “day” = “wan” and “sweet” = “waan”.
    The tones are different, but the length of the vowel “a” (like in “cat”) is different too !
    If you use the same neutral tone with these 2 words but emphasize the difference between the 2 “a”, you will be understood with no real problem.

If you aim for a basic fluency in Thai (which is enough to deal comfortably with any kind of situations), use these 2 “hacks” and you will be surprised of the result !
But if your goal is to “master” Thai and sound like a native speaker, there is no shortcut : you will have to learn AND pronounce each single word perfectly.

My two cents…

I find the tones in Chinese very important indeed but I also find them extremely difficult to discern in normal speech. Yes, context is important but only stressing the last tone isn’t good enough in my experience.

I found that it was only when I could understand a lot and listen a lot, that I started to get a sense of the rhythm of the language. I particularly found the XiangSheng comic dialogues, with their exaggerated intonation, useful in order to internalize the tones. The tones need to be learned in chunks of language, phrases, etc. as part of the music of the language. I did not find that focusing on them at the beginning was all that fruitful, although , of course we try to learn the tones as we learn the words. However, when we go to speak, and have to produce one word after another, if we try to remember the tone of each word it is very difficult. We have to go with the habits that we pick up.

I never found the Xiangsheng all that useful or interesting but that is of course personal. The news presenters on CCTV have the most clear use of tones that one could imagine, they almost overdo it.

I still have difficulties discerning tones and seem to rely a lot on context. Take for example food 食品 and video 视频. I find it difficult to hear the difference in normal speech and mostly infer the intended meaning by context.

  1. listening a lot to transcribed dialogues, and always trying to discern both the tones and sounds of words you don’t know (before reading the transcript).

  2. replaying audio dialogue sentences and speaking over the top at the same time.

  3. aichinese.com , practising full sentences.

"if we try to remember the tone of each word it is very difficult. "

I do not find it difficult to remember the tones of a word. Usually I know what tone it is. Sometimes when you speak at speed, it comes out wrong. I correct myself a lot. Speaking slower helps if you want to produce the tones without any mistakes.

I agree with Imirtseshem, the tones are not difficult. It just takes time and you get there at some point. It helps having a good ear though. You presumably can also detect minute differences when people speak. I found that helped me for tones.

I agree with Iaing and have done the same for 1 and 2.
I find that listening takes up some 80-90 percent for Chinese. I have come to the point that I like to point out when natives make tone mistakes, just to make sure my ear heard it correctly (for example listen to tv programmes and ask someone if I was right in what I heard). And yes they do make quite a few. Listen to Hujintao for example and spot the tone mistakes. It is much more fun to train the ear doing that! :slight_smile: . Such a relief that not even they get it right.

When I have a text and an audio file, I try to read, listen and repeat the same texts again and again.
Then I underscore or circle the characters whose tones are not clearly pronounced. After analyzing the underscored or circled one, I only listen to the part which are pronounced relatively fast with many right tones. Occasionally I slow down some parts with a software in order to listen to them again and again. Finally, I repeat each phrase or sentence just after listening to one.

You can watch the following video to know how I shadow a text.

(I made this video some years ago, but my tones still have some problem now. My tutors correct some mistakes every time.)

Despite of all the efforts, I cannot read aloud an only chinese character text at sight although I can listen and repeat or shadow random sentences approximately. I need to read and listen to variety of texts.

I found the tones of Thai to be easy to learn in isolation but it becomes much more difficult when trying to speak at a natural speed as it’s easy to stumble over them at first. I think that when starting to speak, speaking more slowly and concentrating on the tones is helpful, then over time you can speed up. I also agree that if you listen a lot this really helps you improve the tones a lot and allows you to speak much more naturally. Stu Jay Raj did a video on tones a week or two ago on his website which maybe helpful to some people.

Stu Jay Raj just made a video about how to learn tones, I do not speak a tonal language so I don’t know how helpful this is, but I enjoyed his explanation at any rate:

Those were some impressive examples of shadowing, dilemme!

I moved my head with every tone. Looked stupid and felt even more stupid. But worked for me.