Tones in Chinese: get them right to be understood

Chinese tones

By Wereon [ GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

If you are just starting out learning Chinese, the tones can be an annoying road block. You just got all the letters right, knowing the difference between “zh” and “z” and how “c” is pronounced very differently in English. So you feel you’re doing well, but the teacher keeps correcting your tones.

Does it matter anyway? Can’t Chinese people understand you if you get a couple of tones wrong? The attitude of “don’t care too much about the tones, just talk” is common among Chinese learners, and I have to admit that I’ve been thinking it at times as well.

My wife is a native Chinese speaker and she doesn’t like it when I speak Chinese to our son. So I guess I also still have a way to go before I get my tones right.

But I think Olle Linge from Hacking Chinese hits the nail on the head on how important tones in Chinese are:

It is true that you will be able to order a beer, say hello, I’m from America or apologise without worrying about tones, especially if you’re talking with native speakers who are used to foreigners. This is because it doesn’t really matter what you say, they see you, a foreigner, in a certain situation and they immediately know that the number of things you’re likely to say is limited and it’s only a matter of deciding which of the possible phrases you’re trying to say. It doesn’t matter how much you botch the tones, you’ll get your beer.

However, if the person you’re talking to can’t guess what you want to say, communication will rapidly break down if your tones are off. Next time you take a cab somewhere, try to get to the correct destination with the wrong tones (here is a hint: it doesn’t work very well). When you have left the beginner level you will also start expressing ideas which aren’t immediately obvious to the listener and you may use words they don’t expect. If you don’t get the tones right, it is likely that people won’t understand what you say. (check Hacking Chinese for the whole article)

So don’t skip over the tones. Make them part of your learning program. If you know how to write a word in Hanyu Pinyin, but don’t know what tone mark to put on each syllable, you don’t really know the word.

Here are some background articles on the Chinese tones:

Tones are more important than you think – by Hacking Chinese.
This is the article that I quoted above. Besides notes on the importance, it contains tips on learning strategies to get the tones right.

Toward better tones in speech – by Sinosplice
This article is about how tones are really used by native speakers. Native speakers swallow the tones on many words, depending on whether the word is emphasised. Besides, the 3rd tone is not what it’s often made out to be: there are variations.

Learn vocabulary faster through spaced repetition – on this blog
This is a general post on spaced repetition software, which is a good way to learn new vocabulary. If you use spaced repetition, pay attention to the tones of the words.

About Guus Goorts

Guus has traveled widely and has lived in The Netherlands, Ghana, Belgium and Singapore. In descending order of fluency, he speaks Dutch, English, Mandarin, German and some rudiments of Spanish, French and Italian. Guus lives in Singapore with his wife and two young children. He settled in Singapore in early 2006 from his native country The Netherlands. After working in a job for corporate training, he founded Yago Languages, Singapore's guide to language learning.