A New Approach To Tones

Most people who learn Chinese as a second language will tell you one of the hardest things to master besides memorizing characters is tones. Tones are something which can be difficult to wrap one’s head around, and the idea of mastering tones can easily scare away most would be Chinese learners. I can tell you it was certainly intimidating for me. Knowing that “shì” and “shǐ” have multiple meanings put me on edge every time I tried to speak.

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A common problem I had was  “overthinking” tones. I worried about getting them all exactly correct.. Of course this led to more problems as I still made mistakes anyway. Also, l spoke so slowly and deliberately that native speakers would struggle to understand what I was saying.

Finally it hit me that if I tried listening, more  to how Chinese people actually talk. I would eventually catch on. Some people couldn’t tell me the correct tone for a word but I could absorb the tone by paying attention. Of course tones come naturally to the native speaker, but there was something else to it. There’s a flow to it that I only found by practicing my listening, over and over and over. I did this by watching Chinese movies. Of course these provided good entertainment as well as practice. Once I was able to watch and only read the Chinese “Hanzi”, or character, subtitles without any English. I knew I was on the way. Soon I was able to duplicate ways in which things should be . Of course not to the same fluency and speed, but it still provided a good stepping stone to honing my tone skills.

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By watching lots of Chinese movies I discovered a good cultural point of reference as well. Not only is language a means of communication, but it’s core to any culture. This holds true to the idea that culture’s movies mirrors the stories a culture tells. So as I watched these films to better understand the language, I could also understand the culture behind them. In the reverse, I found that having this cultural background I could use them as examples in how to use the tones for the words.

Maybe this method will work for you. Or maybe not! For the type of learner I am, I found it helped me to go from a beginner level to a much more advanced proficiency in a short period of time. Hopefully, at the very least, you can enjoy some amazing movies!

  • By Nicholas Waln

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