Tones are one of the hardest parts of learning Chinese. Although tones take time to master, there is a secret to perfect tones. I present it in three keys.
Key 1: Be like a baby
Those were the good days. Do you remember how you learned English (or your native language). I can’t remember either, but I’ve read quite a bit on the subject. Babies spend most of their time observing and listening and are listening even before they’re born. Eventually, they start making sounds, and then start talking, but if you looked at how much time a baby spent listening vs. speaking, you’d end up with an incredibly skewed ratio. Maybe 1000:1, maybe 10000: 1. (Anyone know of a study on this?).The exact ratio isn’t important. What’s important is this: babies spend much more time listening than speaking and so should you.
Key 2: Let Mandarin surround your life
Immersion is considered one of the best ways to learn a language. That’s one reason study abroad programs are so popular (the other: partying in a foreign land). But as anyone in Wudaokou can tell you, just because you’re in China doesn’t mean you’re surrounded by people speaking Chinese. You can create an immersive environment anywhere. (My dad learned Spanish by watching Telenovelas on TV every night!)
Key 3: Imitating tones is the sincerest form of flattery
Imitation is the best way to better tones. Some will argue with me and say “more opportunities speaking” lead to better tones. That’s wrong. Every Chinese baby ever born learned through imitation. One of the best exercises (though not one of the most fun), is to listen to a recording and repeat what you hear as best you can. My suggestion: imitate anywhere you can. Imitate anything you can: movies, TV shows, friends, enemies, podcasts, textbook recordings. (My biased recommendation: Lingomi To Go, which lets you create your own recordings of Chinese words in mp3 format.) You won’t notice much difference at first, but before you know it, you’ll be sounding like a surly Beijing taxi driver.
What’s your secret to perfect tones? Let me know in the comments.