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How to learn Chinese 5-Tones: “Why using tones is not optional – by Don Watson”

tonesThanks Don for sharing his personal learning experience with us. As we known, It not very easy to speak the Tones properly all the time, and Don speak Tones very well now after his continuing efforts.

Why using tones is not optional — By Don Watson

‘So tell me, is it true that you don’t really need to pay too much attention to the tones?’

The speaker was a senior manager at the British Embassy in Beijing who was just about to start learning Chinese. She was looking at me hopefully.

Unfortunately she wasn’t going to like the answer. It is a theory that you hear from some Chinese learners. Tones are just like natural stress in a sentence, some will tell you. Others suggest that if you speak really quickly you can dispense with them altogether.

For my money it’s all complete nonsense. The tones are not optional, they are an integral part of the language and you will save yourself a lot of time and trouble, not to mention an awful lot of blank looks from native speakers if you simply knuckle down from the start and learn the sound, including the tones, of every new word or character.

So what are the tones not optional?

The easiest way to answer this is to call to mind the slightly panicked look that I used to get when I spoke to native speakers, particularly those who were not used to hearing Westerners speaking Chinese. What native speakers are actually wondering when that look comes across their face is ‘What language is this person speaking? It doesn’t sound like English, but it sure a hell isn’t Chinese.’

Since working with Xiao Min I’ve put a lot of work into my tones. Not just knowing what the tone is, but actually pronouncing it correctly. I still make mistakes, often with words I’ve been mispronouncing for years, precisely because I learned the pinyin without the tone when I first learned it. But I find I now very rarely get that look. What’s more my Chinese sounds different even to me. It sounds… well like I’m speaking a foreign language.

Cast your mind back to the first time you started really listening to Chinese. How foreign it sounded to you. You probably thought, like I did, never in a million years can I learn something so alien-sounding to me.

It was the tones that made it sound like that. If your Chinese sounds flowing and relatively monotonous like English speech usually does then you’re doing it wrong. It should sound un-natural to an English speaker’s ear.

Of course if you do speak toneless Chinese you might still be able to make yourself understood. In restaurants, shops and hotels there is a relatively narrow range of things that you could be saying and a native speaker who’s used to bad pronunciation will find it quite easy to guess. But don’t kid yourself that you’re really speaking Chinese.

To illustrate just how much difference it can make, I was in a hotel in Hangzhou waiting for the breakfast chef to complete my order, when an American came up and asked him ‘Zhe shi tang ma?’ pointing at a bowl of white granulated stuff. No tones that I could make out at all.

Bu2 shi4, the chef replied. I was a bit puzzled. The man appeared to be asking if it was sugar. It looked like it was, and I said so to the chef. ‘Kan4 qi3 lai5 xiang4 tang2’. ‘Dui4’he replied, ‘Yes’, ‘zhe4 shi4 tang2’, ‘it is sugar’.

So why did you tell that American it wasn’t?

‘Oh he didn’t ask if it was sugar, he continued ‘ta1 wen4 shi4 bu2 shi4 tang1’ ‘he asked if it was soup.’

What I had heard as a toneless ‘tang’, the chef had heard as ‘tang1’ – soup. Now sometimes you will get native speakers who take one look at your face and have decided that you can’t possibly speak Chinese before you open your mouth. And nothing you say when you do open your mouth will persuade them otherwise.

The breakfast chef was not one of those people. He was happy, quite visibly delighted in fact, to speak Chinese to me and had no desire to be awkward to someone who was after all making a significant effort. But as far as the breakfast chef was concerned he had asked about tang1 and the bowl did not contain tang1 it contained tang2 which is an entirely different thing.

Now you might say that he could have thought, ‘Just how likely is it that someone would be asking if a bowl of white granulated stuff was soup?’ But then do you want to expect people to guess what you mean? Or do you want to be understood?

If it’s the latter then the tones are not optional.

(I find that the flashcard system that comes with the Pleco electronic dictionary www.plecodict.com is a really good way of doing this. It tests you on a character and asks you for the pinyin. You are either right, or wrong. And if you have the wrong tone, you’re wrong.)


  1. People who don’t use tones sound retarded. This is a good piece about tones. But I think Don Watson should write it in Chinese.

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