Having trouble with tones? Try this method

One of the most difficult features of Mandarin Chinese is its tonal nature. Along with Chinese characters, tones are one of the key obstacles that scare people off from attempting to learn the language. I would love to tell you that the difficulty of tones is overblown, but they do represent a unique challenge in the language. That does not mean that they are impossible to learn though!

You just need to find a method that works for you. Here is what worked for me.

Like many students, when I first started learning Chinese, I used pinyin as a proxy for pronunciation. Specifically, I would learn new words using flashcards. These flashcards had the Chinese characters on the front, and the English definition plus the pinyin with tone marks on the back. The English translation would represent the meaning of the word and the pinyin would represent its pronunciation. If I knew both, I knew the word.

This seemed like a great method until I realized I couldn’t actually translate the pinyin into the sounds they were supposed to represent. This is probably because I associated the pronunciation with the written pinyin, which I would then try to “read” in my head to produce the sound. Instead, I should have been associating the characters directly with the actual sound of the word.

So, I could take a character and translate it into the correct pinyin, but the sounds that came out of my mouth rarely equaled the correct pronunciation of the character (or the pinyin).

Furthermore, even if I could occasionally translate the Chinese characters to the pinyin and then to the correct pronunciation, I could never do it quickly enough to read a book out loud, for example. Even years into my study, this was a continual problem.

Eventually, I came to realize that a reverse approach is what actually worked for me.

What do I mean by that?

Instead, I memorize the sound of a whole word or phrase and tie it back to the individual characters that compose it.

For example, I remember the pronunciation of 好久不见 as one chunk of sound, and then associate that back to the characters, instead of memorizing and then trying to “read” four separate pinyin components in my head. With practice, I found that I could do it quickly in both directions, which allowed me to read out loud at much more rapid speed.

So, if you find you are having trouble with the tones, try memorizing the sound of a word, instead of its pinyin and tones.

You may find it easier. I certainly did.

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