Are Tones That Important in Mandarin Learning?

learn-mandarin-tones

When we learn Mandarin, there are three components: Chinese characters and Pinyin; pronunciations; tones. Many people have been frustrated by the tones as it seems the hardest to understand and master them.

Hence, many people give up learning Chinese and always think that Chinese is a difficult language to learn. Are tones very difficult to learn? Are tones that important in Mandarin learning?

Today let’s share three facts with you:

  1. Are all of us capable in catching the intonations in a tonal language?

Babies and young kids learn a new language by imitating others in a natural environment. They are very observant. That’s why we often find western kids who were raised in China speak Chinese Mandarin as good as a native speaker. They can even speak in the native accent.

However, after 12 years old, most of us will start to lose the ability to sense and catch the different intonations. For example, it’s difficult for Chinese people to pronounce “th” in English as it’s not a sound in Chinese.

In a word, don’t be depressed if you can’t catch the tones in Chinese, because most of us can’t get it without doing practice over a long period of time.

  1. Are tones that important in Mandarin learning?

Many people would say yes to you and tell you their experience when they can’t be understood if a tone is wrong. Is it the fact? My answer is a big “NO”. Similar to many other languages, Chinese is a language based on the context. It’s not easy at the beginning of your learning journey as you only say a few words and your sentence is very short.

In this case, it definitely is confusing.

A famous Chinese joke is that a westerner who wants to order dumplings in a Chinese restaurant asked the waitress 水饺一碗多少钱 (shuǐ jiǎo yī wǎn duō shǎo qián?) – How much is a bowl of dumplings?

But by mistake, he pronounced it to be 睡觉一晚多少钱 (shuì jiào yī wǎn duō shǎo qián) – How much is one night sleep. It can only be a joke as it’s not logic in the context and language environment.

Our suggestion would be to just open your mouth and confidently practice. Eventually, you’ll be understood as you practice speaking and engaging in conversations.

  1. How to learn tones?

Most teachers would ask you to follow the mā má mǎ mà way and read it again and again. But before that, we need to understand how the tones were made.

  1. First tone – a high pitched, long and flat tone.

Think about when a dentist asks you to open your mouth and say “AH”

  1. Second tone – a rising tone. Similar to the intonation made when saying “ yes?”
  2. Third tone – a down and up tone
  3. Fourth tone – a falling and short tone. Similar to the intonation made when saying “Yes!”

Practice makes perfect. Instead of drills of tones, it’s more advisable to listen more to native speakers and have more conversations.

If you want to learn more Mandarin in Singapore, check out our courses available.

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