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Studying Chinese (or any other language), it’s sometimes hard to assess the quality one’s own pronunciation. People in your surrounding might understand what you are saying, but how do you verify how good your tones are? In an ideal world, it would be easy, you could just ask a qualified teacher and given enough time it would be possible to figure out most of your pronunciation-related problems.

However, the world in which we live is far from ideal, at least in this regard. Teachers sometimes tend to be complacent (they give up correcting students when it’s apparent that they don’t learn after the fifth time) or have had others students who think it’s embarrassing to be corrected in class. I’m not trying to blame the teachers here, because this situation probably arises because students are different (I probably have loftier goals than most and have my own way of achieving them, for instance).

Therefore, as I have said earlier, it’s really up to you as a student to take responsibility for your own learning.

A brief introduction

What I am going to talk about in this post is an ingenious way of checking if your pronunciation is clear. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it’s perfectly correct, but it will take you a long way in that direction. I first heard of this idea from my class mate, Arnaud Laraie, and even though I have added and expanded his thinking, it was he who gave me the inspiration. Credit where credit is due!

This is what the method can achieve:

  1. Identify problems with closely related sounds
  2. Prove whether your tones are good or not

The second point needs some further explanation. Can’t you just ask someone if your tones are good or not? Of course you can, but most of the time you will get a misleading or even wrong answer. People don’t like pointing out the mistakes of others, especially if you’re a foreigner and a guest in their country. They might also have wildly different standards than you, so if you strive for a close-to-native-speaker level, they might just think that you are slightly better than the average foreigner, which is far from enough. In other words, don’t trust random people when they say your pronunciation is good!

The method consists of the following steps:

  1. Define a number of sounds you find difficult to distinguish
  2. Draw a diagram of them or just write them down in a list
  3. Read the various sounds and let a native speaker guess the word
  4. Repeat until you make sure that no chance is involved
  5. Reverse the game and have the native speaker reading if you want to improve basic listening ability

In this article, I will use the tones in Mandarin Chinese as an example, but there is no reason why this method could not be useful for other languages or other aspects of learning Chinese. I will write more about this towards the end of this text, but now over to the tones in Mandarin.

The five tones in Mandarin

In Mandarin, there are five tones, numbered one to four with a fifth tone called neutral. These are different changes in pitch for a given syllable that is essential to determine the meaning of a word. It is hard for us Westerners to understand and feel, but tones are typically more important than most people think.

For instance, if you’re in the lift going up to your apartment and you say the word “四樓“ (sì lóu, 4th floor) correctly, but with the wrong tones (let’s say you say sí lóu), the other person is most likely to hear 十樓 (shí lóu, 10th floor), because in their minds, the tone is more important than the difference between s/sh (which is even more true in southern dialects which don’t have as clear a difference between s and sh.

On the other hand, if you get the pronunciation slightly off (like switching sh and s, you say shì lóu instead of sì lóu), but get the tones right, you’re almost guaranteed to end up where you want to go. In other words, tones are something alien to us, but is of paramount importance when learning Chinese. Tone is also the perfect example to demonstrate this method of verifying clear pronunciation.

Getting started

From here on out, it’s assumed that you know how to pronounce the tones in Chinese independently and in theory, because I will deal with the real problem, which is tones in combination and in context. If you’re not clear about the tones in the first place, you can check this website.

This is a diagram showing all the possible tone combinations in Chinese. I used a table almost identical to this one when I tried this out with native speakers and it works very well.


This is a simple way of representing all the combinations of two syllables in Chinese. First look at the column to the left and select a tone, then combine it with any of the five available tones that can follow it.

Now comes the clever bit. Since native speakers tend to understand what people say even if they are pronouncing the tones incorrectly, you are now to choose a sound that has no specific meaning. There are many ways of doing this, pick one you like:

  • Use a single syllable in Mandarin (I used “ma”)
  • Use a word in your native language (“häst”)
  • Use a sound without meaning (such as “mm”)

Analyse those tones!

Now, start pronouncing the chosen word or sound using the different tones! Let’s say you chose option one above and that you are using the syllable ma to practice. Since we’re dealing with pairs of syllables here, we use the double ma + ma. The goal is to check if the tone combination you pronounce is the same as the one the native speaker thinks you want to pronounce. Follow these instructions:

  1. Select any of the twenty combinations at random.
  2. Add tones to your word (e.g. ma2ma3, ma4ma4, ma1ma3)
  3. Let your friend/teacher point on the combination she hears
  4. Repeat at least twice for all combinations
  5. Repeat using a different friend/teacher

Of course, if you want to monitor your pronunciation in detail, you need to do this in a systematic manner and make sure you cover all the tones. Write the combinations down before you start! After you’ve practised for a while so your friend/teacher is aware of how this works, you can also use reaction time to determine how good your pronunciation is.

  • If she points to the correct tone combination without the slightest hesitation, you can be quite sure your tones are good
  • If she points to the right tone, but hesitantly, then you might have a problem
  • If she points to the wrong tone, you obviously have a problem

The really clever part here is that there is no way your friend/teacher can cheat or try to make you feel better about your language skills. If you pronounce something incorrectly or unclearly, you will know. Of course, you can still cheat, but that would defy the purpose of this exercise in the first place, so don’t do it.

Wider usage

This is a very powerful way to identify and analyse pronunciation problems with the tones in Chinese. However, the same method can be used to teach and/or learn other sounds as well. Try these:

  • b/p
  • z/zh
  • j/q
  • -in/-ing
  • -an/-ang

Any sounds that are close to each other in pronunciation can be used, which means you can do this in English as well:

  • World
  • Word
  • Whirl
  • Were

A problem you should be aware of

A problem with this method is that it doesn’t actually test correct pronunciation, only clear pronunciation. For instance, the sounds might be wrong, but if the native speaker can tell which one is which anyway, in which case you don’t prove anything at all using this method. Let’s say that someone can’t distinguish “world” from “word” and starts pronouncing the “l” as a separate syllable. That would be extremely easy to recognise, but it doesn’t mean it’s right! If the native speakers becomes used to your way of speaking, this method loses it’s effectiveness.

Conclusion

I wish someone had introduced this method to me when I started studying Chinese, not after trying it out on my own after two years. I’ve spent an enormous amount of time and energy to correct my pronunciation and if would have known about my problems earlier, it would also have been a lot easier to correct them.

I’ve used this method several times and I’ve been able to confirm that my pronunciation and tones are quite good. I’ve also tried it on other students of Chinese to see if they also can find out where they go wrong, and most of the time they can. So, if you haven’t tried something similar, do you dare not to? How good are your tones, really?


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23 Responses to A smart method to discover problems with tones

  1. Thomas says:

    Hello,

    this is an excellent exercise! I will use it as soon as I can, including in reverse. Then maybe one day I will be able to consistently tell q from j…

    I’ve been learning Chinese for years, both at school and in southern China, and to this day, I haven’t found one person capable of explaining how to actually pronounce tones (except for this nonsense pitch-level diagram which everyone seems to be copying around).

    The most honest comment I’ve found was in a teacher’s manual, with instructions to “show it, but without too much explanation, as it may confuse the students”. I was wondering if you had come up with a theory on that problem.

    • Olle Linge says:

      Do you mean a theory on tone instruction in general or the last bit about the teacher’s manual? I think the tones can be quite easily and accurately described. The only problem is the third tone, but that is because textbooks make things too complicated. I believe that if you look at the third tone as an essentially low tone, most problems disappear.

  2. [...] Correct pronunciation of the third tone here is to start low and go down. Then read the following tone. I’ve lost count on the number of people I’ve heard going up on the first part, pronouncing America (美国) as méiguó. Don’t do it. If you’re not sure if your pronouncing this correctly, make sure to test it thoroughly with a native speaker and make sure they cannot cheat. [...]

  3. Judith says:

    Very interesting idea, I shall try it! Thanks!

  4. Jacob Gill says:

    @Learning the third tone – Hacking Chinese

    You hit on a key problem with non-native speakers and the problem with a third tone second tone pattern (like 美國). I hear the same problem with 場合 and a few others, where the third tone (initial tone) becomes second tone and the second tone becomes a third tone. Even if people know that the tones should be third second they still say it wrong.

    I for one think this phenomenon needs more research… cause I want to know how to fix it!

  5. Irina says:

    Is it just me or there is a problem with a picture/diagram? Thanks.

  6. [...] to improve your tones, you first need to know what problems you have. One way of doing it is using the method I have suggested in another article, which works very well even if you don’t have access to a qualified teacher (you just need [...]

  7. Rachel M. says:

    I see what you’re getting at here. I use this method for teaching English. I never thought about reversing it for self-study! Fortunately, Japanese doesn’t really have too many tones or phonemes that aren’t in English. But this is very good advise for Chinese students!

  8. Ocean says:

    Don’t you think we Westerners obsess with correct tones? Yes, they’re important but not as important as getting your point across, i.e., communicating. Even native Chinese speakers don’t get their tones correct 100% of the time. I’d like to take a contrarian view: don’t obsess because sometimes the results may be better than what we intended. Well, at least funnier.

    • Olle Linge says:

      To put it very briefly, I think you’re wrong. I think most people obsess way too little about tones. Obviously, I don’t know your case or the people around you, so I can’t comment on your particular situation, but in general, I think people should pay more attention to tones, not less. If we look at different kinds of pronunciation problems, tone errors are the ones most likely to cause communication problems. I’ve written about tones in several other articles, checking them might perhaps explain the reasoning behind what I say:

      Tones are more important than you think
      The importance of tones is inversely proportional to the predictability of what you say

      Of course, if your goal with learning Chinese is to sound funny, I don’t have much to add. :)

    • R Zhao says:

      I used to feel this way and I kinda understand your point. Anyways, if you want to sound natural, you can’t really obsess over the tones as they are taught, as Chinese people don’t even speak that way.

      However, in the past year I’ve tried to focus more on my tones and I think it has made me a more confident speaker. In the past, I could usually get my point across fine, but I think there is less confusion now since my pronunciation of tones is improving.

  9. [...] A smart method to discover problems with tones (or other similar sounds) at Hacking Chinese [...]

  10. JP says:

    Hi – What do you think of “Speak Good Chinese” program to evaluate the accuracy of your spoken tones?

    I found it through a comment on your site, actually.

    I’ve used it a bit, but my level isn’t good enough for me to really judge its accuracy. Have you tested it out enough to evaluate? With yourself, with native speakers, etc?

    I like the method you describe here, but the limitation is the patience of your native-speaker partner. If the program is a good judge, then it has the advantage of being both unbiased and truthful, plus never getting bored with you practicing for hours at a time :)

    • JP says:

      Sorry, didn’t include a link. The program is at:
      http://speakgoodchinese.org/

    • Olle Linge says:

      Hi! Sorry, haven’t tried it, but I’m not very optimistic. Most of the software I’ve tried (and I’ve tried quite a lot) have been either useless or seriously flawed in some way. Perhaps it’s unfair of me to be so negative about something i haven’t tried, but I will change my mind only when i find something that actually. works. :)

      • JP says:

        Thanks.

        I understand you. I tried 2 programs already which were hard to use and even at my beginner level pretty clearly flawed.

        The “Speak Good Chinese” software program (praat), I found it from the long-ago comment on your site and downloaded it. I’ve played with it 30 minutes each evening this week. It’s free and simple to use, which is nice, and seems to work better than what I’d tried. I wasn’t sure about its evaluation of my pitches, though, which is why I asked.. I just hope that the guidance it’s giving me in saying my tones is right or I’ll have some bad habits within a few more days lol :)

        • Olle Linge says:

          I just want to point out that Praat isn’t a “Speak Good Chinese” software, it’s mainly designed for linguists to analyse pronunciation of different kinds. Praat isn’t a program I recommend using regularly unless you know what you’re doing. It’s fairly easy to make mistakes with settings and make the pitch look weird and so on. If you’re worried, find a native speaker to check if your tones are right or not. I use Praat a lot, but it takes some time to learn how to use it.

  11. Hugh Grigg says:

    Very clever, Olle. This is a nice method because it builds the feature you need into the heart of the game, so you will get the honest feedback you want by necessity.

    I know exactly what you meant in the context, but taken out of context I think you would disagree with your own words here: “Since native speakers tend to understand what people say even if they are pronouncing the tones incorrectly…” Might be worth clarifying that one!

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