Learning tones is one of the harder parts of Mandarin Chinese, and it can take years before tones come out naturally instead of just feeling like something added to the top of pinyin. Unfortunately, too many people never get to that point. I think the main reason is pretty simple: Chinese learners don’t know how to improve their pronunciation.
You can’t depend on others to correct your tones.
Most people spend the first week learning pronunciation. After that, pronunciation often gets put last on the list of things to work on. In the classroom, there isn’t enough time to correct student’s pronunciation problems. On top of that, by being around people who make mistakes all the time, teachers become desensitized to mistakes. Even when your tones are completely wrong, your teacher probably understands what you’re trying to say. Outside the classroom, your Chinese friends or co-workers will only correct your Chinese to a point. Even those helpful souls that happily offer corrections can only do so when you’re with them.
Add it all up and its clear: you can’t expect other people to fix your Chinese for you. If you really want to improve your pronunciation, you will need to lead the effort.
What are your weaknesses?
I’ve found one method that works extremely well in improving my Chinese pronunciation. It’s a simple three step process:
- Ask for advice. Even though your teacher or tutor doesn’t always have the time to correct you, they can usually tell you what your weaknesses are. Take the initiative and ask them which sounds and tones you need to improve.
- Learn how to practice. Ask them for advice on what exercises you need to do to improve. They usually have a couple of ideas on some ways you can practice. If not, ask a question on a forum (link to chinese forums) or even ask me (You could also check out Lingomi, which has tools to help you practice your pronunciation.)
- Practice, practice, practice. Try to spend at least 5 minutes a day on at least 4 days a week. Practice wherever you can.
Wait for it
Just like Rome, great tones aren’t built in a day. It might take time for you to notice improvements. The time scale for measuring pronunciation improvements is measured in weeks and months, not in hours or days. Stay motivated. Keep practicing. You can do it.
How do you practice your tones?