To memorize or not to memorize tones

For those of you who are studying Mandarin Chinese: Do you recommend memorizing the tones along with the pinyin? Of course I know you need to master the tones in order to be understood, but my question is if one should deliberately try to memorize them, or rather acquiring them by lots of listening. What do you think?

For non-native speakers, being deliberately aware of the tones for every thing you learn will boost you a lot, initially.

Most native msm speakers can’t tell you, off the top of their head, what the tone of any one syllable is. They often need to stop, think it through, and often sound it out, before committing to an answer, and even then it is not always correct. They don’t conceptualise sounds with a “correct tone number” the same way many non-native students try to do. They just know it sounds right, or not, to them.

Native msm speakers get tones right about 90% of the time in conversational speech. But their emphasis on key words and key phrases is at a much higher percentage.

By the time they are 10 years old, native speakers have 40,000 hours of listening practice, and around 5,000 hours speaking practice - with multiple full time tutors giving them constant feedback on their pronunciation, as well as countless peers who are absolutely merciless on picking out pronunciation differences.

After 10 years of study, even the most dedicated of non-native learners will often have less than 10,000 hours listening practice (with good concentration) and less than a few thousand hours speaking – and they will have had very little, if any, meaningful pronunciation feedback on their speaking.

When non-natives try speaking a lot right away - like Benny or Zuckerberg - their mandarin tones end up pretty bad, and it takes a lot to overcome these initial blueprinting mistakes - no one really corrects them.

Listening a lot more, with strong attention, and, after a while, regularly recording yourself speaking natural, simple dialogues and comparing your recording to the original, can help a lot, ime.


Thanks a lot. I’ll continue to pay close attention to the tones when learning vocabulary until I get to a fairly high level. After that I’ll “let go” a bit and rely more on intuition and listening.

Imo pronunciation for all languages requires the learner to make periodic adjustments. For me, this is even more true for Mandarin.

I was really anal about tones in the beginning. About 3 months in I started to converse, and I let myself get a little sloppy with tones until I became a little more fluid. Then I recorded myself, and became very aware of my poor tones. I started reminding myself of the tones when I spoke, which slowed me down a little, but after some time doing this my tones got much better so I didn’t need to think about them any more.

I’ve simplified things for the sake of this post; I actually made several conscious adjustments along the way. And I think the learner who is making an effort to achieve good pronunciation in any language makes many conscious and subconscious adjustments; it’s sort of a never-ending process.

So I don’t think that ignoring pronunciation for a long period of time is a good strategy, especially in tonal languages like Mandarin. I also don’t think waiting a long time before beginning to speak is a good strategy. I think getting out there, trying to converse, and making many periodic adjustments is the most efficient and natural approach to developing good pronunciation.

Now since iaing brought up Benny, I’d like to point out that he had other pronunciation problems. First, he didn’t get a handle on pinyin before he started conversing. The first step in learning pronunciation should be to learn all the phonemes, then words, then sentences. He didn’t do any of these. With some languages these things aren’t as important, and you can get away with being sloppy, but not with Mandarin. So he took his really weak base and started talking. Regarding tones, he tried to get really anal about them in the beginning. He seemed to understand the basic formation of the 4 tones, and he really tried to remember them, but had great difficulty and he felt it slowed him down. So he made a well publicized adjustment, stopped worrying about tones, and began to speak a little more fluidly. Where he failed was not to adjust back to being anal again. His experiment was short in months but long in hours, and I feel he let his sloppy tone period last too long. In summary, poor mastery of basic pronunciation (pinyin) and insufficient adjustments gave him pretty bad pronunciation.

“In summary, poor mastery of basic pronunciation (pinyin) and insufficient adjustments gave him pretty bad pronunciation.”

So basically bad pronunciation that isn’t fixed equals bad pronunciation.

I’m no expert at mandarin chinese but I can’t imagine why this language would differ from any other language where you develop a natural sense of how the language sounds and its pronunciation through massive exposure to the target language. Tones are just different sounds, nothing more.


Do you speak any tonal languages?
You’re right about massive exposure being indispensable. And as long as you truly consider different tones to be distinct sounds, and understand that getting one wrong changes the meaning of the word that’s coming out of your mouth, you could certainly look at it that way. I’ve never heard of a westerner who didn’t work on tones specifically becoming reasonably good at pronunciation in a tonal language, but it’s theoretically possible.

I agree with your idea. In fact I feel it is the most pain-free approach to tones. Don’t focus on them at all. Learn words as single chunks through repeated encounters. That is what I’ve done. Thousands of hours of listening. I know what real chinese sounds like. I can hear the different accents. I can tell a native speaker from a very good learner. I know what many words and expressions sound like and I don’t care to know what tones they are. I just know when they are said wrong or said right. Just like listening to a familiar song played on a piano. one bad note I you know it is off.
After spending about 2 years mainly listening and building my comprehension, I am just now beginning to speak. I also use glossika mass sentences to help get my tongue loose. I can mimic what I hear quite well. The patience of not speaking too early is paying off. My Chinese intonation is effortlessly good. I know this because my chinese friend verifies it (and she knows I’m not interested in cheap praise), plus my hears know when I don’t quite sound right. I NEVER think of tones. I just have to recall what the word sounded like when I’ve heard it in the past and replicate it. Now I just have to learn to speak faster.
In my opinion, explicitly focusing on tones, is how you create a monster of it. You can beat the tone issue without the conscious obsession, but it will take time and lots of hours of listening.