Internalise the tones

A common mistake people make when learning Chinese is to treat tones as a separate part of the pronunciation.

For example they’d look at the characters 妈、麻、马 and 骂 and think of the pronunciation as:

    ma + 1st tone  
    ma + 2nd tone  
    ma + 3rd tone  
    ma + 4th tone  

This represents an incorrect mental model of the Chinese language that makes it difficult to learn and remember the tones.

By way of comparison, consider the English words: bat, bet, bit, bot and but.

You would never tell someone learning English that the pronunciation of these words was:

    bt + a  
    bt + e  
    bt + i  
    bt + o  
    bt + u  

And then tell people to learn them as the bt sound plus the 1st vowel or the bt sound plus the 2nd vowel and so on. That would be insane and would make it more difficult to remember the pronunciation.

And yet that is what many people do with Chinese by splitting the tone from the initial+final and thinking of it as ma + 1st tone or ma + 3rd tone.

If you do this, you are making life more difficult for yourself by using an incorrect mental model of Chinese pronunciation that requires more effort to remember.

The correct mental model is to see tones as an integral part of the pronunciation that can’t be separated from the sound.

Just like you wouldn’t confuse ma with na when remembering 马, you shouldn’t confuse and because you should see ā and ǎ as completely separate sounds, that are as distinct and clear in your mind as m and n.

This is how native Chinese speakers see their language. A native speaker doesn’t pay attention to the tone of the word, they just see the tones as separate sounds.

If you ask a native speaker the tone for “马” most of them won’t have an immediate response, rather they will say “马” and then “mā má mǎ mà” to see which sound matches the sound of “马” and then tell you that as the answer.

Native speakers don’t know the tones as separate parts of the pronunciation, they just know the complete, full sound, tone included, and this is what you should try to emulate.

For speakers of non-tonal languages, it can be difficult to treat the tones as unique sounds and so you need to expend effort to internalise the tones such that each of them are as distinct in your mind as if you had heard a different vowel or different consonant.

The way to do this is by mindfully listening to recordings of the tones over and over again, not paying any attention to meaning, and just paying attention to how the sounds are different, until you get to the point where you can “hear” and distinguish the different tones in your head without needing any audio prompt.

There will be some people who argue that they are not aural learners and they don’t have the ability to recall sounds like this, but this is almost certainly not true.

If I told you to think of the tune to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or the “Happy Birthday” song, you could almost certainly hear them in your head without needing any prompt.

If you think about why you can recall these sounds, it’s because you listened to those songs hundreds of times while growing up, to the point that you have completely internalised the sounds.

Likewise I’m sure you could think of your favourite character from a television show or movie and “hear” them speak lines in your head with varying emotion and inflection in their voice.

You can do that because you’ve invested hours and hours listening intently to what they had to say, playing back your favourite scenes in your mind over and over again, and now you are at the point where you have internalised their voice and speaking patterns.

This is what you need to do with the tones.

Listen intently, over and over again, for hours, focusing only on the sound rather than the meaning and playing the sounds back in your mind until you can recall them with ease.

No one is good at it at first, but it is something that can be trained.

Once you’ve done that, then remembering the tones is no more difficult than remembering the vowels or remembering the consonants, because you’ll remember the whole sound rather than a sound split in to multiple parts that you then have to try and put back together.

Although it takes effort to get to this point, spending time developing this ability pays off in the long run, and leaves you with a much simpler mental model of the language, with less to remember.

© Copyright 2021 Imron Alston