Mandarin Chinese tones – sound only approach
By Vladimir Skultety M.A., B.A.
I would try to talk about and build on a concept I wrote about in my earlier posts – to try to develop a system, in which students would remember Mandarin words without consciously knowing what tones or tonal combinations are in them and pronounce them correctly using less effort.
As the topic is quite complex, I would first like to go back to 2 earlier articles I wrote about tones and develop the thought from there.
Post from 11.30.2011 (edited):
When I first came to
, I remember being tired after even a 10-15 minute Mandarin conversation. I was unable to use the words I had learned before effortlessly even after I’ve used them a hundred times in conversation practice. Each time I wanted to use these words I had to make at least some effort in recalling them and constantly think of the tones, which was very tiring. Taiwan
Then one time I mispronounced the word 比利時, a friend of mine corrected me, I pronounced it again correctly and since then somehow used the word effortlessly, without having to think about the tones in the word, without being tired trying to say the word itself and I started to wonder how it happened. I thought that maybe it was because I never saw the pinyin or characters for this word. I was familiar with it, because I’ve heard it before. When I mispronounced it, my friend corrected me and because of my friend‘s exaggerated pronunciation which was in contrast to my own, the word instantly sticked in my head. Up until now I don’t know and I don’t want to know what the tones in the word比利時 are. This was the first time I’ve ever learned a Chinese word so effortlessly and so quickly and I started to think, that this could support my theory that Chinese – at the beginner stages - should be learned using a sound-only approach.
In another post from 3.8.2011 I wrote (edited):
Tones are another problem mainly because of the way that they are explained and taught to us western students. Tones that can change the meaning of a syllable are something that we are not very used to. We do have tones in our western languages but they rarely change the meaning of a syllable, which is a permanent feature in Chinese. When it comes to tones, more then ever I hate myself for studying Chinese the way I did and the way I was instructed. There are 4 tones in Mandarin but I think it is a mistake to tell students this fact in the beginning of their studies. Chinese themselves do not know that they have 4 tones in their language and speak Mandarin perfectly well. I don’t understand why us, the students of Mandarin should know this.
Tones are very important of course, but the way they are explained to students is far too academic and not practical at all. Virtually in every Mandarin class today (the ones I have heard of at least) tones are explained and taught in a very scientific way, which might be suitable for some, but is very tiring and energy consuming in the long run. There is simply too much detail in these explanations and as my friend Luca Lampariello said, it is as if you’d try to learn Italian by learning the pronunciation and intonation of individual syllables first and tried to put them together into an entire sentence later.
A minimal necessary explanation in my opinion should be, that the pitch of Mandarin syllables is very important and that students should make their best effort in trying to produce them based on what they hear because they might not be understood otherwise. They should try and not look at tonal graphs, charts, numbers, explanations or ask about the number of tones. All of this information put together is too complex for the brain to process in the short amount of time it has and it is instead much more practical to concentrate on the simple sound and rely purely on aural memory.
Figure 1 is an image most of the students of Chinese are familiar with. Based on this tonal chart (and accompanying audio) students try to pronounce Mandarin tones – a task which is truly not that easy, because in a real situation, tones as Figure 2 shows are not as simplistic as they are in Figure 1. A number of things happen when students try to do this: First, they try to pronounce something they see. 10 different students might have 10 different opinions on what a direct ascending line from the 3rd position all the way into the 5th position sounds like. Of course the teacher pronounces the tone for the students to hear, but a side effect is that students associate this sound with an image (an image which is not a perfect notation of the sound itself) which will cause interference later. Figure 2 on the other hand represents a perfect notation of the four tones of Mandarin, but can you imagine trying to reproduce a tone based on what you see in Figure 2? Compare this effort to trying to imitate this following sound based on what you hear only:
Figures 1 and 2 both represent tones in single isolated syllables. Regular speech consists of many of these syllables which in addition change their isolated pitch under certain conditions and combinations so if a student tries to reproduce every syllable as he speaks thinking about tonal graphs, the process will become very tiring and the image interference will turn into a serious problem.
Students are also expected to get very close to the correct pronunciation on their first try. This is almost impossible, because you need to hear and not see the tone many times to realize what it approximately sounds like. Graphs might help you realize which tones are higher and which are lower, but are still only an approximate reference (which no one mentions) and big interference (which no one realizes). I still can remember half of our class tilting their heads up and getting slightly off of their chairs while trying to pronounce the 2nd tone. Talk about interference! Again – Chinese do not know that the 2nd tone is a rising tone, nor do they know that their language has tones whatsoever. They have to learn this at school, just like us westerners have to learn what is past participle, what is the Datvie case ect.
I also think that it is very confusing to extract the 4 Mandarin tones and talk about them in isolation rather then permanently merge them with a specific syllable and meaning. The reason for this is that among other things Mandarin is multiplied by four. A good example is the syllable Gei3. This syllable can only be pronounced in the third tone and only has one possible meaning - to give. So the only way you can hear or say the word to give in Mandarin is to pronounce the word Gei in a third tone, but you as a student of Mandarin do not know this. If you study Mandarin the traditional way, you are prepared for the fact, that the syllable Gei might have 4 tones and thus might have at least 4 different meanings, so when you hear this syllable in speech, you don't trust your ears and literally overhear a word that you know how to pronounce as the tone itself doesn't make it distinctive enough for you as a beginner/intermediate student. I say forget about the fact that there are 4 tones, but be aware that there are some syllables that can be pronounced high or low (I will explain later why) and based on this they can under some circumstances have completely different meanings.
When I started learning Mandarin I was constantly asking myself – is it really possible to speak a language this way? Every syllable can have 4 possible tones. How can anyone speak Mandarin and have in mind all this information and all possible combinations? All these different meanings that syllables with the same tone might have, the difficult pronunciation and on top of that 4 possible tones, which change in combination with other tones…and of course no one can speak effortlessly like that.
Our languages also have tones, but they rarely change the meaning of words. We use them naturally and don’t even notice that we are doing so. We are perfectly capable of learning tones as adults as well. Mike Campbell for instance has described a fairly complicated system of permanently present tones in American English, where some of them have the same features as Cantonese tones for instance (low rising, mid rising and so on). A lot of foreigners studying English do master these tones without even noticing. I don’t know who and why applied a scientific approach to learning Mandarin and why that person decided that it was the correct one, but he made things a lot more complicated and difficult than they already were. I also don’t know why everyone else including me has followed.
A very raw approach to building your own pronunciation table would be something along the lines of the following:
- Create your own similar 4x4+4 table and start filling it out with words which you definitely know and feel you pronounce correctly, but do not consciously know what the tones in them are.
- Learn how to pronounce every new word you learn using the model word in your pronunciation table. Say your model word for the 1st tone 1st tone combination is 先生and you want to learn the word 醫生 you will pronounce it based on your ‘safe’ pronunciation of 先生. Ideally you should have a conversation partner that would tell you that 醫生 is pronounced as 先生 (instead of the traditional “it’s two first tones” explanation). This way you could completely avoid consciously knowing what the tones in the word 醫生are. Getting your conversation partner to memorize your pronunciation table could be a challenge though.
- As you are slowly filling out your table, if you find a good candidate word, do not ask your conversation partner for the tone the word has, only ask him or her to pronounce it slowly, listen to it and try your best in pronouncing it. You have to train yourself to do so, because up until now you’ve probably been trying to pronounce words according to the tonal graphs that you had memorized during your first Mandarin lesson. If you don’t get the word right, return to it later or move on. It took me a very long time to fill in all 20 spaces for my pronunciation table, so there is no rush. The key is also letting your conversation partner know, how to correct you. If you struggle with a part of a syllable (initials or finals), he should let you move on with these and only tell you that you're not getting the tones right and say the word again. The 4 Mandarin tones, especially in disyllabic combinations are so 'outstanding' and unique that you will eventually understand what they sound like and learn how to reproduce them.
I don’t know how well this concept can work for others. For me it works fine, but unfortunately I came up with it too late. I know most of the words in Mandarin I need to know and what I do now is I try to re-learn my old vocabulary based on my safe pronunciation table model words, which is pretty hard - especially in the most basic combinations that we've learned during our first Mandarin lessons.
There are at least two main problems that arise as you are learning words using this system:
- you need to get the tones right in the beginning, otherwise you will not have a model word for your blank spot in the pronunciation table. You need to be corrected by a native speaker or a native like speaking foreigner until you realize what you're doing wrong.
- because the point is not to write down anything until you’ve completely filled out your table, remembering words for the table could be a challenge.
You experience both of these problems as you learn Chinese the traditional way as well, the difference now is, that you will only use your aural memory and not your visual one (you can't write anything down). After you’ve completely filled out your table, you could group new words that you learn into these 16+4 categories, or write model pronunciation words next to each new word you learn. This of course excludes bulk-learning of vocabulary as it would still be very overwhelming (writing your model pronunciation word next to every new Mandarin word you learn would be very time consuming), but bulk-learning vocabulary is pointless in my opinion with Chinese anyway.
My pronunciation table is composed of disyllabic words for a number of reasons, most notably because most words as well as most common expressions in Mandarin are made up of 2 syllables (我是, 我有, 不是, 不會 ect.) and because syllables in pairs (and their tones) are much easier to remember than syllables in isolation. I talked about this in an earlier article from 9.7.2011:
When it comes to tones, it helped me a lot that I was always trying to learn syllable pairs instead of single syllables. It is much easier to learn a syllable pair (basically most of Mandarin words are syllable pairs: 說話, 看書 ect.) rather than to learn isolated syllables like 我, 他, 去 on their own. Learning words this way, you have a relation of two sounds that are either in contrast or are the same and it is much easier to remember them rather than trying to remember the sound of a single syllable. Subsequently it is also much easier to isolate a syllable from a syllable pair and then use it in a different word remembering its sound (for instance you learn the sound of 說話, then isolate the 話 and use it in 普通話).
I feel that in a way, this pronunciation table is analogical to grammar tables of Italian or Slovak for instance. You learn the basic declinations of parlare and then decline all the following verbs that end in -are in the same way.
If there would be any students willing to test this concept and share their results or problems they encountered, it would be great. Maybe this concept could be turned into a real study tool that could help students get around the obstacle of Mandarin pronunciation and allow them to concentrate on the rest of the challenges that Mandarin poses.
Of course in that case, since the words I eventually used for my pronunciation table aren’t very practical, a more reasonable table could look something like this:
 I know the example I gave is overly simplistic and I used it only to make a point. There are several problems that arise as you try to pronounce (and remember) Mandarin syllables based on their sound only and I will try to address this further in this article.