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Tips on how to learn Chinese tones

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By Valeria Nikulina (Russian)


Tones are often one of the most significant problems for beginning learners of Mandarin. In this article, I would like to share with you some tips that I find really helpful on how to learn and improve your tones.

对于中文初学者来说,其中一个最重要的问题就是声调。在这篇文章中,我将分享一些我觉得很有用的技巧,教你们如何学习声调以及怎样提高发音水平。

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You might have heard from some people that the tones are not actually needed because Chinese people can still understand you. So, is it really necessary to spend time on learning Chinese tones? My answer is: “YES, YES and YES!”. Let me put it this way: perhaps your teacher will understand you even if you don’t take care of tones while speaking, just because a non-Chinese speaking teacher (Chinese is just his/her second language)is used to hearing a laowai’s way of speaking Chinese (“老外汉语”). He (or she) will probably know the topic that you speak about and vocabulary that you’ve already learned. But as soon as you try to do the same with Chinese people outside the school, you’ll definitely fail. No one likes being misunderstood.

你可能听某些人说过声调其实不重要,因为即使没有声调,中国人仍然能够听懂你说的话。所以,我们真的有必要学习声调吗?我的回答是,有!有!有!我们假设一下这种情况:即使你不注意声调,你的老师可能也可以听懂你的话,那只是因为这位非中国籍的老师习惯了老外说汉语的方式(老外汉语)而已。他或她可能知道你说的话题和你学过的词汇。但是,只要你尝试着用同样的方式跟校外的中国人对话,他们就听不懂了。没有人喜欢被误解。

My journey began in the university at the faculty of international relations in Russia, where I’ve been taking Chinese language classes for 2 semesters. As a native Russian speaker, the concept of a tonal language was completely foreign to me. In fact, learning to speak in tones was one of the hardest part about learning Chinese for me as a beginner. Fortunately, I’ve been lucky to have a teacher, who realised how important  it was for us to speak with tones. Here I share some tips on how to practice Chinese tones which I’ve learned from her:

我在俄罗斯一所大学的国际关系学院上学,我的中文旅程由此开始,我在这学了两个学期的中文。作为土生土长的俄罗斯人,我对这门带声调的语言感动很陌生。实际上,当我刚开始学中文时,最难学的部分就是说话要带声调。很幸运,我的老师意识到了声调对我们很重要,我在这分享一些从她那学来的关于如何练习声调的技巧。

1. Read the sentence starting from the end.


Although you might know the tones of each word in the sentence, as soon as you start reading it, everything suddenly goes wrong. Try to do it this way: let’s say we have a sentence “我要去超市买菜”。Now start reading it from the last word: “菜” then add the second word from the end “买” and read them together “买菜”. Continue adding words so in the end your reading process should look this way:

虽然你知道句子中每个单词的声调,但是,只要你一读,突然间所有的都错了。试试这样做: 举个例子:“我要去超市买菜”。现在,从最后一个 “菜”字读起,然后是倒数第二个字“买”,合在一起念, “买菜”。继续加字,所以最后你读的整个过程应该是这样的:

菜 cài。

买菜 mǎi cài。

超市买菜 chāo shì mǎi cài。

去超市买菜 qù chāo shì mǎi cài。

要去超市买菜 yào qù chāo shì mǎi cài。

我要去超市买菜 wǒ yào qù chāo shì mǎi cài。

To tell the truth, I am still not completely sure why this method works, but I suggest you try it once and you will see the result. Start with short sentences first and then practice longer ones. 

说实话,我也不确定这种方法为什么会凑效,但是,我建议你试一次,你会看到效果的。先从短句开始,然后过渡到长句。

2. Record yourself while reading the text

This method helps you to hear and analyse your own reading mistakes. Most of the textbooks for learning Chinese will come with the CD where you can find all the text in the textbook being read by a native Mandarin speaker. Listen to the text carefully for couple of times, then try to read it and record yourself. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, in fact that is the only way to know what your weak points are. 

这个方法可以帮你听并分析读课文时出现的错误。大部分中文教材都附带有CD,里面的课文录音是由能说一口地道中文的人录的。仔细听好几遍课文录音,然后试着读并录下来。不要害怕犯错误,犯错误实际上是知道自己哪里不足的唯一的方式。

Now listen to the record and try to concentrate on your pronunciation mistakes, especially the tones, but not on your voice that might sound weird for you. Remember the words and sentences that you pronounce wrong and practice them again. Try to read them correctly, mark the tones in the textbook to make it easier. When you are ready, make a second record and do your best to not repeat the same mistakes this time. The result will surprise you! Repeat this exercise again and again until you’ll be satisfied with your pronunciation. 

听录音,尽量专注于你在发音上的错误,特别是音调,而不是你觉得听起来很怪的部分。记住你拼错的单词和句子然后再读一遍。试着读正确,在教科书上标注音调,念起来的时候会比较容易。这些都完成了以后,再录一遍,这次尽量不要重复同样的错误。结果会让你大吃一惊的!一遍又一遍地重复这种练习,直到你满意自己的发音为止。

3. Watch some Chinese TV series


Although I think that watching TV series is usually a waist of time, I can not tell the same about watching it in Chinese. That can be a great practice for your listening skills, especially if you learn Chinese outside China. Select simple series, something about everyday life in modern China. Switch Chinese subtitles on and do not try to understand every single phrase.  Just enjoy the action on the screen. More likely you will be still able to understand the story. Instead, do your best to catch the phrases that you might have already learned and pay attention on the way actors pronounce them. Repeat the phrase by yourself and try to sound as close as possible to the original. 

尽管我觉得看电视经常是在浪费时间,但是看中文电视剧不在其中之列。它能很好地训练你的听力技巧,特别是当你不在中国学习中文的时候。选一些剧情简单的中国现代生活剧。切换到中文字幕,不要尝试去理解每一个短语。只是看屏幕上的表演,你很可能可以理解剧情,但是不要这样做,尽量留意那些你学过的短语并注意演员是如何拼读的。重复自己读一遍这个短语,尽量让他们接近最原始的读音。

I find this tip very useful: learning the language in a relaxing way – what can be better?

用一种轻松的方式学中文,我发现这个技巧很管用,还有什么比这更好的呢?

However, I would not recommend you to do the same with Chinese songs, because very often the melody takes over and the tones are ignored.

但是,我建议你在学中文歌曲的时候不要这样做,因为中文歌的旋律经常占上风而声调经常是被忽略的。

I sincerely hope you will find those three methods helpful. Yet, don’t be scared to experiment and create your own ways of learning Chinese. As long as you’ll enjoy it, you’ll keep improving! 

我真希望这三种方法对你有帮助,不要害怕尝试,创造你自己中文学习方法。只要你能够把它当成一种享受,就会不断进步的。

In the end, I’d like to say: 多听,多说,多练习 (listen more, speak more, practice more)!So far, this is the best and effective way of learning foreign language! Good luck!

最后,我想说,多听、多说、多练习。到目前为止,这是最有效的学习语言的方法。祝你好运!

2016-06-22

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