Secrets of Tones: Get Them Right or Get Embarrassed

While Mandarin seems intimidating for new learners, the grammar and syntax of Mandarin Chinese is surprisingly simple. What is most challenging for new Chinese learners has always been the speaking tones. Imagine knowing what you want to say exactly but not being able to communicate it. It’s a bit like trying to play basketball while wearing mittens.

Chinese tones

Not matter how well you self-study, you will NOT be understood in Mandarin Chinese unless you can speak in the proper tones. Chinese is simply not a language which you can learn on your own. No amount of time spent mastering Chinese will help a learner speak in tones that are understood. Below is a story narrated by my student Ryan in his own words about his thoughts and experience on the tones.

In English, your speaking tone might determine your emotional state and intention. In Chinese, your tone determines the meaning of your speech. If your speaking tones are off in even the slightest way, you will not be able to communicate basic thoughts. An example of this is the difference between “水饺 (Shuǐjiǎo) dumplings” and “睡觉 (Shuìjiào) sleep”- both determined by the tone of the two syllables!
Imagine walking into a restaurant in Beijing and declaring the following:

Wǒ xiǎng yào shuìjiào.
我      想    要    睡觉。
I want to sleep.

The absurdity of this statement would be embarrassing and possibly very uncomfortable! The waitress may direct you to a hotel, not a food menu! The tone of “水饺 (Shuǐjiǎo) dumplings” and “睡觉 (Shuìjiào) sleep” can easily be confused if the speaking tones aren’t understood.

Jokes aside, a new Chinese learner must immediately begin mastering the tones from the very beginning of the learning process. And, that means that studying with a native Mandarin teacher on an interactive basis is essential. Yes, you can immerse yourself in Mandarin Chinese with YouTube videos, books and podcasts, but you must have consistent feedback from a native teacher so that your tonal mistakes don’t fossilize.
By far the best way to assure that your speaking is understood is to work with a native-speaking Chinese teacher who is certified in teaching Chinese as a foreign language.
Anyone can hear Chinese tones. It’s a different challenge to be able to speak Chinese tones and be understood. I personally had success with an online teacher. I was based in Toronto, and my teacher was in Beijing. She made sure that any slight mispronunciation was corrected immediately. At times, it was brutal honesty, but in the end, it was the best choice for learning. My online teacher guided me along my journey learning Chinese and speaking in a clarity that would be understood in China. I still supplemented my online lessons with podcasts and apps, but the online lessons were always the basis from which I learned. My teacher corrected my tones so that I could be understood when speaking in Mandarin Chinese. I received daily feedback on my progress. No speaking error went unchallenged. Difficult as it was, my teacher gave me easy advice on how to remember tones and be understood- she gave each tone a specific color that I could visualize. She was my Chinese learning hack.
I am now based in Shenzhen and I have no problems being understood when speaking. I sometimes see foreign Chinese speakers struggling to be understood with basic Chinese just because they didn’t speak with correct tones. Even simple tasks such as getting to the train station or ordering a dish without mind-bending spices is a challenge if you don’t know the tones. And, most importantly, you want to eat dumplings, not sleep!
From Ryan’s story, you might get an idea of how the problem of mixing tones can be addressed successfully. If you are interested in joining Mandarin classes and mastering the Chinese tones with a certified native teacher, feel free to reach out to me to take a free online 1-to-1 Chinese class.

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