5 Lies Teachers Tell You About Mandarin Tones
Mandarin tones are one of the classic “difficult parts” of the language. Despite
that, textbooks and teachers often do a bad job of teaching them. A big part of
this is that the focus is too often on teaching tones, rather than teaching how
to learn tones.
Note that this is in no way intended to be a bash of teachers, textbooks or
anything else. A lot of teachers do a very good job of teaching Chinese, and
more importantly teaching students how to learn Chinese.
The point of this article is to highlight some common obstacles to learning
Mandarin tones effectively. It’s about misconceptions that can hold you back,
and how to replace them with better approaches.
“You learn tones in the beginning, then move on”
Most courses recognise that pronunciation is pretty essential to learning a
language well, and begin with a pronunciation section. This is good, but it has
an unfortunate side effect. Because tones are covered in this initial period of
getting started with pronunciation, they’re often left to languish there.
What happens is that students learn enough about tones to know the basics and
have a vague idea of what they should be doing. But there’s an urge to get on
with learning “real stuff”, and tones quickly disappear from the picture.
Another factor is the awkwardness of constantly correcting students’ tones.
What really needs to happen is for there to be constant, unrelenting focus on
tones any time students are with the teacher. If you’re studying on your own,
you need to keep up this pressure on yourself using recordings and finding
native speakers to help you.
Tones need to be practised and perfected. Tones need to be memorised for every
word. But more importantly, tone mistakes need to be spotted and corrected, with
NO MERCY. And this needs to continue FOREVER.
This sounds extreme, but when you realise that bad tones are the norm even for
people who’ve been learning Chinese for years, it becomes apparent that
something different needs to be done.
It is totally possible to get very good, even flawless, Mandarin pronunciation,
including correct tones, but it needs real dedication and a willingness to put
in the long-term grind to get it right. It won’t be easy, but you can do it.
“The five tones sound like this: “
The next problematic approach to Mandarin tones is tied in with the “they’re for
beginners” problem above. It’s very common for teachers and Chinese learning
resources to focus on the tones in isolation and describe how each one sounds.
You do need to know how each tone sounds on its own, but it’s way less important
than most people think. Learning them in isolation won’t work long-term. More
detail on that in a second.
Firstly, there are the tone sandhi / tone change rules. These are a small set of rules that
cover how Mandarin tones change based on what other tones are around them. These
would be a bit of a nightmare to acquire if you focused on how each tone sounds
on its own according to your textbook or teacher.
Most courses do at least cover tone change rules and make students aware of
them. But quite often this boils down to an explanation and a little bit of
practice. Tone sandhi provide a massive hint at how you should be learning
tones, but it’s often not enough to nudge structured courses in the right
Mandarin tones also differ significantly according to enunciation, emotion and
people’s differing pronunciation and way of speaking. They can sound different
from one sentence to the next.
I’m not saying all this to put you off the task and make it seem impossible. I
know it’s already daunting enough in the early stages. But I wish I’d known
early on that focusing on each individual tone just isn’t that helpful beyond
the first hour of learning Chinese.
That brings me to the next lie.
“You learn tones by building up”
The approach I described above can be described as a ‘bottom up’ approach, or a
Lego approach. You try to isolate each component and practice them separately.
This approach is definitely an important part of learning Chinese. But a lot of
people focus exclusively on this approach when learning languages, and ignore
the other direction.
Top-down learning is at least as important as bottom-up learning. With top-down learning, you go straight for the jugular and attempt to perform the whole thing that you want to be able to do.
You’ll fuck it up at first, of course, but the benefit comes from giving your
brain the chance to learn all of the extra processes that go into performing the
When it comes to tones, I think that a top-down approach is massively more
effective than a bottom-up one. Trying to pronounce words correctly is much more
effective than isolating individual syllables. The Sinosplice tone pair drills are a good resource for
getting started on that.
You should also go beyond words, though, and try to imitate entire sentences. This
will be hard in the beginning, but keep going. It’s fine if you don’t even
understand the sentence you’re saying. Your goal here is to get used to
producing the sounds and making them as close as possible to a native speaker.
A big give-away that the top-down approach is effective is that it’s so bloody
hard in the beginning. It’s really painful to learn things top-down at first.
But when it comes to learning things long-term, I believe there’s some truth in
the saying ‘no pain no gain’.
My point in this section is not to say that you should run before you can walk.
You do of course need some basic grounding and an idea of how to distinguish
individual tones. But it’s important to dive into the more badass approaches as
soon as possible, and before you feel “ready”. (Hint: you’re never “ready” when
learning a language).
“Third tone is falling rising”
This is an oddly specific section amidst some loftier learning goals, but it’s a
necessary one. When you’re told that third tone is “falling rising” – that it
dips down then back up – that’s basically bullshit.
Mandarin’s third tone does do that when pronounced in isolation, but as we saw
above, tones rarely exist in isolation. The vast majority of the time, the third
tone does not do its jolly dip across a valley. It’s actually better described
as “low tone”: flat and low across a plain.
This makes it fit in better with the other tones, as shown in the second diagram
in this post. You’ve got the high and level first tone, and the low
and level third tone to complement each other. And the rising second tone and
falling fourth tone also make a matching set.
You should also read Olle Linge’s post on learning the third tone. Read all of his stuff in general, in fact.
“Learning tones is all about output”
As with the point about learning by building up, this one is a lie of omission.
Learning by building up is important, but it’s not the whole story. Similarly,
output is absolutely freaking essential to learning a language, but it’s not
the only thing you need a lot.
This is especially true when it comes to tones. You do need to be practising
your pronunciation like your life depends on it (maybe it will! 嘿嘿), but don’t
forget that input is also a 100% required part of your Chinese learning diet.
Think of output as healthy exercise and input as a healthy diet; you need both.
Getting loads of input is important because your brain needs to know what it’s
actually trying to achieve. Babies and little kids do a whole lotta listening
before they begin to speak, and they still sound like idiots. Get as much listening as possible, at all times.
“Teachers expect students to produce the tones before they can even hear the
difference between them (especially in combinations).”
The point of that quote isn’t that you need to spend ages isolating the tones
(please don’t do that), but that getting loads of listening is very important
for getting your tones right.
Bonus! Implicit lies about Mandarin tones
Whilst I don’t think any teachers or textbooks explicitly state the
misconceptions as described above, many certainly seem to lead learners on to
those conclusions. In this section, I want to mention a few ideas that often
form an unhelpful backdrop to learning Mandarin tones, even if they’re never
touched on directly.
(Other native speakers will understand your tones like I do)
This is a HUGE problem in language learning, especially in Chinese for
Europeans. Teachers and other people around the learner get used not just to
their particular way of speaking, but to the way learners speak in general. This
means that they often understand things the learner says which other native
speakers would not.
The result of this is obvious. Learners end up with an inaccurate sense of their
ability to communicate with native speakers. “The teacher / my friends / other
students always understand me, so I must be getting it right.”
It sounds harsh, but the sooner you recognise this reality, the sooner you can
avoid falling into this trap.
This attitude often ends up tying in with prejudice against “non-standard”
speakers and so on – some learners of Mandarin like to blame native speakers for
not understanding them, rather than looking at their own language abilities.
(Tones are a second-class citizen in pronunciation)
For various reasons, a lot of Chinese learning materials pass off the idea that
tones are not as important as vowels and consonants, or are something of a
If you ever see something related to learning Chinese giving pinyin without the
tones, then something is seriously wrong with that resource.
A lot of the time, the tone is actually more important than the vowel or
consonant in a given syllable. If you listen to non-standard speakers of
Mandarin, this quickly becomes apparent.
A common example is the pronunciation of 十 and 四. In non-standard Mandarin,
these are often best distinguished by tone rather than the consonant sound. In
other words, if you say “sí ge” (second tone), most native speakers will
hear that as 十个 and not 四个. It’s easy to assume the opposite if you’re used
to focusing on the vowels and consonants such as in a European language.
(There is only one kind of tone mistake)
Finally, one frustrating issue for learners is a lack of recognition that
there are several types of tone mistakes. Here’s a quick list of causes off the
top of my head:
There are probably more variations (edit: just saw this from Sinosplice). These are very different
types of mistakes, so it’s quite a frustrating experience for a learner to have
their mistake corrected in the wrong way (a mistaken correction, if you will).
If you know how to pronounce the tones, but thought a word had a different tone,
it feels patronising to be told how to pronounce the right one. On the other
hand, if you’re not very good at pronouncing tones yet, it’s not helpful to be
told “that should be third tone”.
There are two things that need to be done to tackle this:
Over to you! Do you think it’s true that these misconceptions are often promoted
in Mandarin learning? Do you think I’m totally wrong?
This content was originally published here.