Chinese tones – Their importance and creative ways to practice them

When I think back to my first Chinese language class five years ago in China I distinctly wince remembering tone drills. Every day we would spend the first 10 minutes of the class being tested on tones. Our wonderful teacher would read out a word or character and we would have to guess what tone she was using. Then the tables would turn and we would have to read words out loud and have our tones corrected. I constantly complained about how useless this was, and how we should be using our time more effectively learning grammar points or new words. Like a typical inexperienced student, I couldn’t have been more wrong! I failed to realize then how important tones are, and I regret not having paid more attention.

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“When your Chinese teacher say’s it’s time to practice tones.”

In total there are four tones*, they are:

  • First tone: a flat high pitch tone, g. 妈, ma1, mum. Like a singer practicing ‘Fa’.
  • Second tone: a rising tone, start from a low to a high pitch, e.g. 蟆, ma2, toad. As if you are asking a question.
  • Third tone: fall and rise, start at a neutral tone then dip lower and end in a high pitch, e.g.马, ma3, horse. Imagine you are surprised.
  • Fourth tone: falling tone, start at a high pitch and strongly drop the pitch down, e.g. 榪,ma4, headboard. My favorite tone, you just sound angry!

*There is also a neutral tone.

Tones are the foundation of being able to speak and understand spoken Chinese. Without them not only are you lost listening to conversations but also no one is able to understand you. Now for the good news, getting tones right is not that difficult if you practice and use a good approach.

 

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The local

Children are already on the path of success with Lingo Bus! The first step to getting tones right is to practice with a local. Not only are all our teacher’s Chinese native speakers but our classes are designed to create a fun and engaging atmosphere. Students will be getting their tones right before even noticing they are practicing them!

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Unfortunately, students don’t have access to our teachers 24/7, so what else can they do to improve their tones?

The first step to improving tones is recognition. Being able to speak with the correct tones is difficult if you can’t recognize them, to begin with. Thankfully there are many apps out there focusing on tones, so it’s easy to find one that is suitable for each child. Apart from apps, there are free resources on online platforms such as YouTube, BBC, etc., to help students practice.

Top tip: Most apps or online resources are for adults so can be boring for young children. To make it more interactive and fun we suggest printing out the four tones and sticking them on the wall and having the child run to touch the tone they think is correct. A simpler version could rely on tone flashcards that the child raises.

Games: Music and Simon says

Once the student has begun to recognize tones the next step is to be able to use them. Initially, the best way to practice is through mimicking. A fun way to do this is by playing “Simon says” and having the student repeat our loud and follow what Simon has said. This also helps the student to move beyond one-character tone practice. One-character tone practice is useful for recognition but not for usage, at this point the student should start to link words into pairs and applying the tones. As Mandarin Chinese can sound very lyrical, when practicing longer phrases students can turn the phrase into a song and highlight tones as they ‘sing’. Luckily, there are already plenty of children’s books that focus on teaching tones through songs.    

Top tip: Linking words in a phrase (for example into pairs) will help with tones and fluency. E.g. ‘我是美国人’ ‘I am American’ can be grouped and read as 1 (Wo3 shi4) 2 (mei3guo4) 3 (ren2).

There are many other childhood games that can be adapted to practice tones. It may seem like a task at first but tones are extremely important, the key is not to rush but enjoy the process of learning and experimenting with tones.

 

The importance of books in second language acquisition

Reading is an essential part of second language acquisition or 2LA, so it’s a surprise that it’s so often overlooked and that many foreign language curriculums don’t encourage it.

Reading, even at a slow pace exposes students to more sentences, grammar, and new vocabulary per minute than the average, short class, TV show, or song. This is why students who read foreign books are able to speak more fluently than students who don’t, despite having done the same amount of classes.

Reading offers students a wider range of vocabulary and grammar, it essentially supports and feeds the brain with the correct language structures. That’s why we at Lingo Bus find reading an essential part of our Chinese language program.

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Although reading may be a source of frustration at first, students who make it a ritual to read gain language skills much faster than their counterparts. Teaching through reading allows students to engage with their teacher cultivating a rich learning experience. Many researchers have focused on the positives of why books are an essential part of a language curriculum, especially for kids. This isn’t anything new, going back as early as 1995 researchers Moeller & Meyer researched the positives of using books in early childhood second language acquisition.

They found that since children’s literature makes use of natural language patterns in familiar contexts that the students can relate to, that it helped the students to make connections and recollect those language structures much faster.

Children’s books contain more than just vocabulary, the images provided also help the reader comprehend the meaning without language skills, the images support the text in a mutual relationship. As learning is facilitated by visual cues, reading helps the brain to remember these language structures as the learner will connect an image to the word it represents.

Reading also helps with recall as students will link those grammar structures to past memories involved with book reading, especially if the memories are linked with positive feelings.

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We also need to remember that books contain a richer and more refined form of language. Most books have been written, drafted, and re-drafted until they convey the intended meaning. Whereas when using speech, the meaning can be ambiguous in comparison to a written form, as when speaking we don’t take that much time to think before relaying the information. Relying on just spoken forms can lead to a simplified acquisition of language skills, in spoken form we could say “The weather is bad”, but in a written form we could throw in “dreadful, awful, lousy, abominable, etc” the list could go on and on.

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This all makes sense if we recap the two main theories of 2LA by researchers Cambourne and Krashen. Cambourne researched and created a list of conditions that make it possible for children to learn a second language (see image one). Whereas Krashen focused more on the theoretical model, and how children learn through two different methods, acquisition (subconscious) and learning.

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A program like Lingo Bus that provides books as part of their curriculum involves learners so that it can meet all of Camourne’s and Krashen’s conditions. This is all done with the student’s development in mind, as reading is an excellent aid in language acquisition and learning.

A day in the life of Chinese elementary school students

In China, there are six years of elementary school, which starts at age 7 for students in China. In the country’s mega-cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, where transportation is a large factor, students will be at school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. with only a short break for lunch. But in most areas in China, there’s not only a lunch break but also a nap time break at their homes as well.

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In elementary school, Chinese, English, math and the basics of the natural sciences are student’s main courses. There are also music, painting, and physical-education classes. Typically, each class lasts 40 to 45 minutes, and there is a 10-minute break between every classes. Around 8 AM, the whole school assembles to do Zaocao (the morning exercises), and the flag-raising ceremony is held every Monday before exercise. In some schools, they also do eye exercises every day, a set of movements devised by doctors and set to music.

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Most elementary schools have interest-based clubs, such as soccer club, basketball, dancing, music, and orchestra clubs. Except clubs, extracurricular activities for many students include weekend classes. The majority of kids have Olympic Math and English as extracurricular weekend classes.

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While kids have homework to do, they still have spare time. Generally, homework of elementary school students can finished in about one hour. After they finish their homework, they like to play. Video games and movies are not new concepts in China just like in the West many kids enjoy similar activities in their free time.

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Kids go to bed at around 9:30. Reading books has always been a common part of their nightly routine before going to sleep. Foreign picture books, world famous books, and children’s literature are filled with bookshelves in kids’ room.