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A better way of learning Mandarin

Extending mnemonics: Tones and pronunciation

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Memory is a skill that can be practised, learnt and mastered. In order to learn how to read and write thousands of Chinese characters you don’t have to have what’s commonly called “a good memory”. Instead, you need to learn how to remember things and you need to practise using various methods to achieve this. Rote learning is not an option.

This is something I think is absolutely essential when learning Chinese and I have written about in many articles, so if you feel that you aren’t really sure what I’m talking about, please click here and return once you’ve read that article about the basics of mnemonics.

Extending mnemonics

As I’m sure most people who have tried mnemonics have noted, some things are much easier to remember than others. To understand why, we need to look closer at the methods.

In essence, most methods boil down to associating a new fact A with something we already know B in a unique manner which is easy to remember. A might then consist of many different parts and B might be fairly complex, but in essence, this is what holistic learning is about. We connect what we want to know with what we already know.

The problem is of course that concrete things are much easier to remember than abstract concepts, because the former is easily to visualise whereas the second is sometimes not. Before we go into details about Chinese, I want to give you an example of how I use mnemonics to learn things that are very abstract indeed. This is to show you that mnemonics can be used for almost anything, you just need to figure out how.

A general example: Memorising numbers

I can look at a phone number just once and remember it for at least a few months without ever using it. The process takes a few seconds and is effortless most of the time. Now, if you’re not into mnemonics, this sounds fantastic, but if you know a thing or two about remembering things, you probably just nod and think that you can also do that if you want to.

However, let’s assume for a moment that you didn’t just nod your head when reading the above paragraph. How can we use mnemonics to memorise something as abstract as phone numbers? The answer is infrastructure. Memorising random numbers very, very hard without a system, so we need to create some infrastructure in order to help us.

Designing a system, putting infrastructure in place

This is what it looks like in principle:

  1. Identify what needs to be memorised – This could be anything. In this case, I will talk about numbers first, but I will return to tones and pronunciation in Chinese later. The important thing is to analyse what it is you need to memorise.
  2. Create concrete substitutes for what you want to memorise  – A very basic strategy for numbers would be associating each number with a person or an object. One is Neo from the Matrix, two Tupac, three musketeers and so on. Naturally, it’s better if there’s a natural connection between the numbers and the people, as you can see in my examples. This helps the initial learning, but isn’t strictly necessary.
  3. Use the substitutes when you memorise – Assuming you want to memorise a number, use the people from step two instead of the numbers. Thus, if you want to remember the number 312 for some reason, picture the three musketeers using rapiers to fight Neo, but that the scene suddenly shifts to a musical where Neo and Tupac sings a romantic ballad together. Of course, if you’re going to memorise large numbers, doing this with numbers 0-9 won’t be enough. I have the numbers 0-99, which allows me to memorise Taiwanese phone numbers with only four persons/objects, which only takes a few seconds. My own number is toffee, toffee, ruby, carpet, for instance. I’m not going to explain how I arrived at that, though, because this article is meant to be about learning Chinese.

The need for infrastructure

This example with numbers was just that, an example. A similar system can be designed for almost anything. However, you need to be sure that you’re going to use the system often, otherwise it might not be worth it. Numbers are good as examples, because it’s never a bad idea to be able to memorise phone numbers, pin codes, logins and serial numbers. The point is that in some cases, we need to add infrastructure before we can make full use of the power of mnemonics. I’m now going to give you two examples of how this can be applied to learning Chinese, first tones, then pronunciation.

Using mnemonics to learn tones

I have received this question many times and the only reason I haven’t written about it earlier is that I don’t use mnemonics to learn tones very often. It’s not very hard to do, though, so let’s have a look. As I see it, there are two steps.

  1. Create a concrete substitute for each tone
  2. Create a concrete substitute for each tone combination

The first step can be done in any number of ways. I prefer to use substitutes that aren’t active objects (such as people), but rather provide background information. For instance, you can use the colours used for tones in many programs. First tone -> red > fire, second tone -> yellow -> light, third tone -> green -> plants, fourth tone -> blue -> water. Whenever you want to remember the tone of a character, include the above backgrounds into the mnemonic. Everything in the story is burning when it’s the first tone, shining bright when it’s the second, taking place in the deep jungle when it’s the third and under water when it’s the fourth.

As I said, I don’t use this frequently. If I were to use such a system for tones for every word I learnt, I would add more infrastructure. For instance, I would create one substitute for each tone combination (at least for disyllabic words). I haven’t done this, but since the general principle should be understood by now, I think you’ll be fine on your own.

Using mnemonics to remember pronunciation

Even though it’s possible to devise a system to memorise all syllables in Mandarin (it’s actually quite easy, just create substitutes for all initials, medials and finals), I don’t think it’s worth it. Instead, I think it’s smarter to create mnemonics only for those syllables we have problems. Few people mix up the initials sh- and p-, but z- and zh- are trickier. Create infrastructure only when you need it!

Again, there are many ways of doing this. For instance, associate z- with a word you’re 100% sure starts with z-, such as 子 which means “son” or “child”. Then associate zh- with something else, like 蜘蛛, “spider”. Whenever you need to distinguish between these two, incorporate either a boy infant or a spider into the story.

Interference and how to handle it

Some readers might ask themselves if this won’t interfere with their ordinary mnemonics. If you have memorised 美 (beautiful) as a fifty-foot sheep, won’t it cause trouble if you also add djungle background to remember that it’s the third tone? If you have memorised 政 (politics) as beating people to correct their behaviour, won’t putting the entire scene under water make things confused? Perhaps you’ll invent a new characters which has a tree 木 beside 美 or water 氵 next to 政?

Not really. There are two ways to get around this. One is to always include the tone substitute in the same way. If fourth tone means that everything takes place under water, that is very different from using water of any other kind. If first tone means that everything is on fire, fire can still be included in other ways (candles, bonfires, torches). I usually include the tone substitute in the same way each time, usually modifying the scene itself. The other way is to make sure you have clear pictures of your substitutes. If you think of the third tone as a jungle, you won’t confuse this with 木 if you have picture of an oak for that character component.

Mnemonics are individual

Although you can get inspiration from other people, you can’t borrow their systems directly and expect them to work as well for you as they do for their original creators. You might not like the way I handle tones or my example for how to separate z- and zh-.

This is not a problem. I know these methods work for me, only you know what works for you. It might require some practise before it gives results and perhaps some consolation can be found in the fact that it the more you practise, the better you will become. Remembering things really is a skill that you can practise and get good at!

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  1. Simon says:

    I am trying to create a mnemonic system for the pin-yin syllables. I hope this will help me remember words more easily. For example the pinyin syllable, ta = tar (the black stuff on the road. (not for pronunciation,just to give a me a clue)

    However, for certain syllables, I am having trouble coming up with good images, especially where there is no approximate English sound.

    Any suggestions?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Since you’ll have to learn all the sounds in Chinese fairly soon anyway, I think you might as well go with words in Chinese, just be sure to pick common ones. Like I said in the article, you could use 蜘蛛 (spider) for zh 氣球 (balloon) for q. I think it will just be confusing if you try to achieve this using English words.

  2. John H says:

    “Learning Chinese Characters” by Alison Matthews and Laurence Matthews has a mnemonic system for remembering the 800 most common (HSL level A) characters and their pinyin. It is quite effective.

  3. Ben Winters says:

    Before reading this post, I came up with a similar framework approach to tones and pronunciation. I took the pronunciation part a bit further than this article, so I thought I would share the details here. I hope it’s useful.

    For the tones, I associate them with a season/location for the mnemonic. There are 4 main tones and 4 seasons, so:

    1 = Spring = Meadow full of flowers
    2 = Summer = Beach
    3 = Autumn = Forest with colorful leaves
    4 = Winter = Snowy mountain
    5-neutral = None = Moon

    For the pronunciation, I remembered reading an article about how to memorize a deck of cards and one of the most successful techniques is to make a list of 52 celebrities, because our brains are hardwired to remember people more easily than objects or concepts.

    So I made a list of celebrities/characters to link to the first letter of each Chinese character/word:

    Initial Consonant Celebrity
    – Invisible Man (The Invisible Man)
    b Brad Pitt
    p Peter Griffin (Family Guy)
    m Matt Damon
    f Frank Underwood (House of Cards)
    d Drew Carey
    t Mr. T
    n Nick Nolte
    l Lil’ Kim
    g George Clooney
    k Kim Kardashian
    h Homer Simpson (The Simpsons)
    j Janet Jackson
    q Q-Tip
    x Xi Jinping
    zh Zhang Ziyi
    ch Chewbacca (Star Wars)
    sh William Shatner
    r Rebecca Romijn
    c Catwoman (Batman)
    s Sylvester Stallone
    w Walter White (Breaking Bad)
    y Ylvis (“What does the fox say?”)
    z Zach Galifianakis

    Of course, I encourage everyone to customize this list of celebrities if others are more relevant to you. I tried to make a similar list for all of the finals (ou, e, iang, iaou, ing, etc.) but it was too difficult to make a connection without a consonant. Anyway, I think just having the tone and first letter is 80% of the benefit for 20% of the work. And now that the framework is there, it’s much faster to create mnemonics.

    When I create a mnemonic, they usually focus on some action based on the radicals of the Chinese character. So instead of making the action more elaborate and abstract to include pronunciation and tone, the appropriate celebrity becomes the person doing the action, in the location according to the tone.

    Character: 设
    Pinyin: she4
    Meaning: to establish, found
    Radicals: word, club
    Mnemonic: William Shatner established a Scrabble (word) club in a mountain ski resort.

    I would be interested to hear everyone’s thoughts on this.

    1. Jordan says:

      Thanks for sharing! I was thinking of doing something similar but I don’t think it was as simple as yours.

      I like the first letter-only approach to remembering the pinyin pronunciation.
      Perhaps remembering only that will help one remember the rest of the pinyin 80% of the time. As for for the other 20%, one could always add to the mnemonic. As said in another article, only create mnemonics when you need it.

      Just to be clear, your system follows the following format, right?
      [Pinyin’s 1st letter] + [Word’s meaning] + [Radical(s)] + [Tone Location]

      I think this will help one remember verbs, but what about regular nouns or adjectives?

      1. Ben Winters says:

        I find that verbs and nouns are quite easy to work into mnemonics, but you might need another approach for more abstract/advanced words, possibly rote or phrase memorization.

        It would be the first 1-2 letters of pinyin, i.e. the initials as shown here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinyin_table. You are right about the order. Start with the pinyin to identify the subject of your mnemonic sentence, then use the meaning to choose the verb, then the radicals for the object(s), and then the tone for the location. And I typically only use mnemonics when I find a character difficult to remember, not in the first round of learning new vocabulary, maybe more around the 3rd or 4th pass through the SRS.

        1. Jordan says:

          Thanks for the advice!
          After I transition my Anki cards to a different format, I will try this out.

    2. Muhammad says:

      do you have them in anki? if yes could you send me ?

  4. Elena says:

    Clever. I will customise a kind of celebrity list (v hard, as I don’t do TV or cinema), and try it out. Thanks for sharing!!

  5. Peter Palme says:

    Great advice. I am using actions for each tone and as well a list of celebreties for the first letter of the pin yin. Plus for the rest of the pin yin I use nouns. Additional I brake up all Chinese characters into components. Out of all these elements I create a unique story. I might add the color idea to it.

  6. Alexander says:

    Thanks for teaching us how to use mnemonics to learn tones, but if you don’t use them to learn tones yourself, then what do you do to remember tones? I think learning how to read and write is relatively straight forward, especially after reading your articles, but tones on the other hand…. ouch.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I assume you mean what I do to remember the tones? Learning here is a bit ambiguous because it could refer to both learning to pronounce tones and combinations of tones, as well as remembering which tone is which. I’ve just seldom had a problem with that, not sure why. Lots of listening probably helps too, so you start feeling what’s right and what isn’t. I did use mnemonics though, but only when I really needed to.

  7. Gordon says:

    I am mildly dyslexic and I often reverse the order of a word (詞). I use mnemonics to remember which character is first and which is second. I developed a list of mnemonics for each of the 400-odd sounds in Mandarin. It takes a bit of time when I learn a new word, but it’s worth it.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Sounds interesting! Would you mind giving us an example or show how you go about this? It might be helpful for others, too. I’m not dyslexic, but I also mix up the order of words in Chinese sometimes (especially rarer words where both characters mean sort of the same thing).

  8. Ailee says:

    I’ve basically been using a personal adaptation of the Mandarin Blueprint “Hanzi Movie Method”. They’ve basically rearranged the initials and finals in such a way that there are only 13 finals, and 50-something initials (yi- is considered an initial for instance, and if you had a character that was just ‘yi’ you’d use the ‘yi-’ initial + a “Null” final. And if you had a word like 用 ‘yong’ you’d use the ‘yi’ initial, knocking off the ‘i’ and using the -ong final.)
    They did this because they use finals as locations (“sets”), and initials as people/characters(“actors”). And most people know way more people than they do locations. So rearranging the initials and finals make it easier.
    The tones are different ‘rooms’ in the sets (1st tone is outside the entrance, 2nd tone is kitchen or inside the entrance, etc.)
    And the components are “props” aka objects. (or ppl or animals)
    And basically you imagine scenes including all of these elements.
    It sounds like a lot, but it just takes a bit to get started and then it makes things much easier. Because if you happen to forget one element of a character, it’s very easy to remember it again. Rather than the whole thing falling apart, it’s just like one element falls off, but the rest of the mnemonic structure helps you retrieve it fairly easily on your own, w/o having to look things up again.
    Of course you also don’t need to stick to it so strictly all the time, but overall it’s a good system.

    One of the ways I deviate from their method though is that they actually categorize the initials, so some of them you choose specifically a female “actors”, some specifically male, some specifically real people, and some fictional. They have a reason for this, but I don’t make this distinction. I don’t consider it too important, and it’s much easier to come up with whatever fits.

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