Mandarin Madness: The Tones

Sasha | September 12, 2011 | Comments (6)

I’ve been in China for long enough now to be embarrassed by my lack of mandarin speaking skills (and I haven’t even mentioned my non existent character reading comprehension!). I’m going to blame the fact that all my lessons I was promised by companies I worked for always fell through, then I’m going to blame language schools for not teaching Chinese like I teach English which is fun and involves dancing. I’m definitely not going to point out that I’ve been hopeless at sticking to a self motivated independent mandarin study program. So I have many good excuses but I think  the best excuse by far is that mandarin has tones and tones well they just don’t make sense to me!

Now my hearing of tones is quite frankly appalling, tell me one word in 4 different tones which then makes 4 different words and I just don’t get it at all, they all sound the same to me.  On the other hand write it down in pinyin so I can see the tones and I ain’t ever going to forget. Unfortunately the tones are generally not taught in this manner, tones are said at me over and over again until I still don’t hear the difference.

Even when I listen to my audio of the initials, finals and tones on the metro every morning, to me it just sounds like strange animal noises, I can’t even comprehend you use these to form different words. I’m even more baffled by the fact that if you pronounce something even slightly different the meaning is completely different causing stupid foreigner’s like myself to accidentally order candy (Táng 糖) instead of soup (Tāng 汤). Now I love candy as much as the next person but I don’t fancy eating it for dinner!

I once had a 15 year old student share his thoughts on why most foreigner’s don’t speak good mandarin, “It’s the tones” he said “you just don’t get them, you have to have a yellow tongue to be able to pronounce the tones right, that’s why other Asians pick up Chinese better then western foreigner.” WOOT! He gave me a reason to suck at tones, my tongue isn’t yellow enough!

Now that being said despite us foreigner’s obvious physical disadvantage with the tones it’s still vital that we work on getting them right so we can communicate, even though in most cases even if you royally screw up a tone the Chinese can generally understand by context. But do you really want to run the risk of completely confusing someone to such frustrated levels they end up refusing to speak to all foreigner’s because of you and your terrible mispronunciation (hello Shanghai taxi driver that refused to speak to me!)


I discovered the secret to tone speaking success…

Tones are difficult to grasp but what I discovered is they don’t have to be, as long as you think in the mind of a child like I do (which I blame on the fact I spend most of my day talking to 6 year olds).  So how do children learn? How do I teach children English? Through all the fun stuff, rhyme, song and action of course!

I figured if that works for kids why wouldn’t that work for adults? So what did I do I bought a children’s poetry book.  Now how is children’s poetry going to teach me about mandarin and the tones. Well not only will I learn to speak cutesy mandarin and get a grasp on Chinese grammar it’s fantastic for practicing tones because rhyming and singing tones is so much more memorable then dully repeating it!

So without further ado the children’s poem of the week is as follows.  I suggest you practice reading it out loud and get that perfect before translating it into English because it sounds just so funny translated that you will be laughing so hard you won’t even get one tone right!


wǒ  yǒu  yì  shuāng  xiǎo  xiǎo  shǒu

我     有   一      双         小       小      手,

néng  xǐ  liǎn  lái  néng  shù  kǒu

能     洗    脸     来     能       漱     口,

huì  chuān  yī  huì  shù  kǒu

会       穿      衣,  会     梳     头,

zì  jǐ  shì  qing zì  jǐ  zuò

自 己  事      情  自  己   做


Character Reading Practice

Now it’s all well and good if you can speak mandarin well but unless you know the name of every Chinese dish merely speaking mandarin is not going to be entirely helpful when in a restaurant.  I for one am sick of ordering the same 4 dishes because they’re the only ones I remember how to say (*Cough* Chǎo fàn 炒饭), It would be nice to actually be handed a menu, browse through the items then decide what to eat.  Now that would be pretty straight forward if most Chinese restaurants had an English menu! Alas most do not.  So to help both you and I read our way to a delicious meal, for the next few installments of Mandarin Madness I’ll be including some food characters for us all to learn! Lets start with the basics Niúròu  (Beef),  Zhū ròu (Pork), Miàn (Noodles), Mǐfàn (Rice).


牛 肉          猪肉          面          米饭

Niú ròu                Zhū ròu              Miàn                Mǐfàn


Tips for Memorising the Characters:

  1. Practice writing them, over and over and over again.  How do you think Chinese kids learn them!
  2. Play games they’re not only fun but they’re great for memorising, if 4 year olds can do it I’m sure you can too! Write the characters on some cards with the English definition on the back, get a friend to call out the English name such as ‘Beef’, you have to snap the correct character.
  3. Read, read read! If you have a smart phone download a character memorizing app!


Chinese Song Spotlight

A fantastic way to not only learn pronunciation and vocabulary is to learn Chinese pop songs.  Also you will get a lot of cred if you can bust out a Chinese ballad at KTV.

The first Chinese song I memorised was Shí nián 十年 by Chén Yìxùn 陈奕迅 because not only is it easy but it just makes your heart swell when you sing it.

So now I’ve decided I’m going to take this whole learning mandarin business more seriously, look forward to more rants about this mad language, more children’s poetry, more character memorising games and more songs to impress your Chinese friends with at KTV!

If you want a more accurate and helpful definition and resource for learning tones and other aspects of mandarin check out these fantastic online resources.

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Category: Language

About Sasha: Sasha is a sassy Aussie lassie who is living it up as an expat in Shanghai. When she’s not teaching English or slaving away writing her next story she can be found scheming her next grand travel adventure, dancing up a storm at Shanghai’s hippest clubs and taking an uncountable number of photos of random things. View author profile.

Comments (6)

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  1. I bought a children’s poetry book, too. It’s about Tang Poetry. There is no doubt Chinese is a tough language, and I have been losing motivation lately (apparently at the same time you have found it). It took me 6-8 months to learn the tones. I thought, as many others do, the second tone is the hardest. It’s like asking a question every 4 words in the middle of a sentence, a very strange concept indeed.
    Thomas Aylmer recently posted..The First Two Weeks Living In Xiamen

  2. Angela says:

    True, characters are difficult but more a matter of learning by heart, but tones are pure madness. Result? Your post made me miss studying Mandarin in Shanghai, luckily I brought some books+DVDs with me and I’ll start working on them :)
    Angela recently posted..Sardinia, land of mystery. Part 2: Atlantis’ lost civilization?

  3. Baobo says:

    One great way to learn the language: buy an iPod. There are some very good flashcard programs that only cost a few dollars to download.

  4. Micah says:

    Good stuff! I’ve been studying Mandarin in Taiwan for the last 4 months and tones are definitely the most difficult part of the language to nail down (besides remembering the stroke order, grammar, and pinyin!) . One helpful tip is context. 你可以說: 我想喝湯。That way no one will confuse 糖 with 湯。因為你吃糖,不是喝糖。Unless, of course, it’s some sort of weird sugar soup! Good luck!
    Micah recently posted..Why You Should Hire an Unlicensed Guide in Vietnam, pt. 1

  5. jill says:

    I’m Chinese by heritage and you’d think I’d have it in my genes or something so I can pick up Chinese easier. But 2 years of Chinese lesson went down the drain because I can never master the intonation. Writing and reading is fine… but talking? Sssh…
    jill recently posted..The Quest for the Best Picanteria in Arequipa

    • Sasha says:

      Yeah It’s certainly not an easy language thanks to the tones! On many occasion I’ve confused people when I was trying to buy something off all because my tone was completely off. What should have been a 30 second conversation ends up 5 minutes of confusion for both parties!

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