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