The importance of tones is inversely proportional to the predictability of what you say

Despite repeated attempts to debunk the false idea that tones aren’t important in Chinese (see my own contribution here), there are still people out there who believe that tones aren’t that important when you speak Chinese and that native speakers don’t really care about tones anyway.

As I have already discussed in the above-mentioned article, this is wrong. In this article, I will look at why this misunderstanding appears in the first place and what it tells us about ourselves and how we learn Chinese. In general, my theory is as follows:

The importance of tones is inversely proportional to the predictability of what you say

The graph below shows what this statement means. The more predictable a statement is, the less important tones become. Therefore, if the listener can be very sure what you’re going to say before you say it, tones aren’t important for successful communication. However, as soon as you start talking about things that aren’t obvious, tones become very important indeed.

Example #1: Ordering beer

Perhaps I have a slightly negative picture of people who say that tones aren’t important and think that they are more likely than the rest of us to order beer. That’s not to say that it’s wrong to order beer in China, it just serves as a very good example here. No matter how bad your tones are and what other mistakes you make, the bartender is likely to understand what you say (just say something vaguely similar to 啤酒 and you’ll be okay). Let’s reverse this example. If you work in a bar and a foreigner comes in and asks for something which sounds like “doo bir”, I’m quite sure you will understand what he wants.

Importance of tones in relation to predictability of utterance

Example #2: Going by taxi

I’ve heard the second example from at least two people (they were both relatively new students of Chinese and hadn’t mastered tones very well). The scenario: They want to order a taxi to go to a friend’s home. When they tell the driver the name of the place they want to go to, he just shakes his head, confused. After a dozen tries, they give up and finally manage to find a written reference to the address. The driver immediately lights up and pronounces the name of the street, which sounds identical to what the foreigners just said. Only with different tones.

To a Westerner, this might be frustrating. Can’t the driver guess what they want to say? The only thing that was wrong was some of the tones! The answer is that no, he couldn’t, because tones are very important indeed (as important as vowels, according to some studies) when it comes to determining the meaning of an utterance. The driver had no way of predicting what they were going to say (there might be hundreds or thousands of possible addresses) and therefore, the message was lost because of bad tones. If they would have asked to go to the main train station or the airport, the situation would have been different and they would have gotten there regardless of tones.

Importance of tones in relation to complexity of utterance

Real conversations occur between these two extremes

Of all realistic situations we might find ourselves in, saying the name of an unknown, obscure place in a big city might come close to being the least predictable case of all (possibly along with names of people), but most conversations don’t really take place in this realm, because there is context to help the listener understand. On the other hand, most conversations aren’t like ordering beer either. If you only say things that the listener can guess before you say it, what’s the purpose of having the conversation in the first place?

In general, I think that the importance of tones increases in proportion with the complexity of what you’re saying. In particular, the number of words you use when you speak Chinese has an impact on how important tones are. If you only know 2000 words and have spoken with the same person for a while, the guess-what-the-foreigner-is-saying game becomes quite easy, because there are limits to what you can say. However, if you know 20 000 words, it becomes much harder.

The importance of tones also increases in proportion with the complexity of the message. If it requires mental effort to understand what you’re saying even if it would have been said perfectly by a native speaker, do you really want people to spend most of their energy trying to figure out what words you’re using? No, that’s not what we want. Instead, we want to limit as much as possible the distorting effect our pronunciation has on the message.

Tones are more important than most people think

I suppose this was just another way of saying that tones are important and a rather long-winded way at that. Don’t overlook tones. Don’t think you’ve mastered tones after studying for a semester or two, you most likely haven’t. I have argued against perfectionism many times (When perfectionism becomes an obstacle to progress), but this is an exception.

You don’t want to stop improving just because your teacher understands what you’re saying. She’s used to hearing foreigners speak Chinese, she knows roughly what you’re going to say. When you leave class and join the real world, bad tones will cause you loads of trouble. If you learn them properly from the start, this problem doesn’t necessarily go away entirely, but it is at least alleviated!

What does this mean?

In essence, it just means that you can’t say “people I talk with understand what I say, therefore my tones and pronunciation are correct”. Communication is a about a lot more than just tones and it’s obvious that it’s possible to communicate without them in some situations. That doesn’t mean that they are unimportant or that you should spend less time practising (regardless of your current level). My favourite way of analysing tone problems is with the simple guessing game I have described in this article, why don’t you try it out next time you have a native speaker around?

A final question to the reader

This is just a theory. I can back it up with experience and reasoning as I have done in this article, but I can’t prove that what I say is correct. What do you think? Why is it that some people maintain that tones aren’t that important? If you’re one of those people, what’s your counter-argument to what I’ve said here? Please leave a comment below!