So Mandarin is a “tonal” language … who gives a hoot?

Are you learning Mandarin Chinese? I am. Do you know what a tone is? I do. Do you think “knowing what a tone is” makes any difference towards your eventual success in becoming fluent in Mandarin? Think again.

As is to be expected of someone with a background in Linguistics, when I first started learning Mandarin, before I had heard of “natural language learning”, e.g. Automatic Language Growth and the LingQ method, I went out in search of literature on the tonemes of Mandarin and all these nifty ways to “memorize” and “practice” the tones. The BBC Languages site for Chinese was one of these, offering a variety of kinesthetic tips to help you “learn” the tones and even a game to “practice” them.

Said tips include throwing a frisbee for the 1st tone, doing push-ups for the 2nd tone, sumo wrestling for the 3rd tone, whacking your sleeping brother with a pillow for the 4th tone, and if my grandmother had wheels she’d be a bicycle for the 5th tone (ok, ok, these don’t quite correspond to what you’ll find on the BBC site). Not only that, but they try to teach you all these ways of remembering how different tones “interact” and change at the sentence level, as if having overt knowledge of these phonetic interdependencies would actually be of use to you in a real-life conversation at natural speed.

This is essentially the equivalent of hearing something like this bunch of bunkum from your teacher on your first day of English instruction, before you’ve ever heard any real English:

“Good morning class. So, you want learn English. Well, the first thing you need to know is that English has a Germanic substrate punctuated by a thriving Romanic lexicon, and it is characterized, among other things, by the recurrence of stressed and unstressed syllables. I’m now going to make you memorize what all this means and how these syllables interact with one another, all of which will someday make you into a better English speaker.”

That is, if you don’t implode from the onslaught of hogwash first.

THUS, BE WARNED. This is not a natural way to acquire the tones of Mandarin, and any effort to consciously “learn” and “apply” them to real language use will leave your Mandarin sounding canned and robotic. The only “natural” way to get a good grasp on the tones of Mandarin is by doing lots of listening to natural conversation.

In fact, though it may be hard to believe, when I’m listening to Mandarin, I hardly pay attention to the tones at all. That’s not to say that I’m not aware of them; it’s just that I’m more interested in understanding natural speech and words and expressions in context, and I mostly do this by reading the (rough) translations of Chinese texts while listening to the corresponding audio lessons in Mandarin (I’m currently using Intermediate level CSLPod, ChinesePOD, and ChineseClass101 lessons par faute de mieux).

And though I do utilize the pinyin transliterations of the dialogues and their vocabulary lists (both of which include the tonal markings), I do this to facilitate my ability to parse auditory input (that is, in an effort to “hear” individual words in context) rather than to memorize tones. The simple fact of the matter is that you should remember tones from having heard them being used naturally in context, and not from having “memorized” and then “read” them. The former, if it so pleases the language gods, will produce natural output. The latter, however, cannot and will not produce natural output, period.

In the end, it seems as though proponents of these methods of “memorizing” the tones of Mandarin are more interested in selling you on the exoticness (uuuu…tones…shiny…) of the language than in actually aiding you in your quest to acquire it naturally.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. hotshot bald cop
    Aug 31, 2011 @ 08:45:45

    You my friend are a genius


  2. Raymond
    Nov 02, 2011 @ 18:04:32

    Think twice about using anything from Steve Kaufmann. The guy is a fraud! Mandarin is his first foreign language and is supposed to be his best, yet after 20+ years of it, he still speaks at an advanced beginner-lower intermediate level. His pronunciation is poor and his word choices are unnatural and bookish.

    Six months to a year and you’ll surpass his 20+ years; I know, I did.


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