Updated (2011/04/02): added audio samples for each set of words
If you’re like most Chinese learners, you probably make tone mistakes now and again. I know I’ve made plenty. Sadly, most Chinese textbooks don’t have a section on how to get better tones (kind of odd, if you think about it). Once, when I was preparing for a televised debate in Chinese (a story for another day), a teacher mentioned I was having issues with my 4th tone. Then she told me the 20 words I needed to practice to dramatically improve my tones. That’s right, you can get better tones by spending 5 minutes a day practicing 20 words.
Why you get tones wrong
There are two main reasons people get their tones wrong.
- Don’t know the correct tones: If you don’t know the tones of the word you’re studying, you’re probably going to get the tones wrong. Work on memorizing the tones (by listening to the word repeatedly, by using flashcards/SRS, or by trying Lingomi Tingxie’s Tone Test).
- Tones just comes out wrong: You know what you want to say, but your mouth just doesn’t want to cooperate. Many times, you don’t even realize you’re making a mistake. In this case, you need to be able to produce the correct tones unconsciously.
How to practice your tones
In Karate, you practice a kick hundreds of times so that you can do it unconsciously. You create a muscle memory. After so many repetitions, you body instinctively knows how to produce a well formed kick. When studying Chinese, you need to develop your mouth’s “tone muscle memory”. You need to practice tones in combination until you can say them correctly without thinking about it. Here’s a table of the 20 words you need to do get better tones.
|1-x||tā shuō 他说||tā lái 他来||tā zǒu 他走||tā zuò 他做||shuō le 说了|
|2-x||méi shuō 没说||méi lái 没来||méi zǒu 没走||méi zuò 没做||méi le 没了|
|3-x||nǐ shuō 你说||nǐ lái 你来||nǐ zǒu 你走||nǐ zuò 你做||zǒu le 走了|
|4-x||jiù shuo1 就说||jiù lái 就来||jiù zǒu 就走||jiù zuò 就做||zuò le 做了|
Just practice saying one row or column at a time and then move on to the next row or column. That’s all it takes.
Need more practice?
If you’re looking for more tone practice, then I’d love for you to let me know. I’m working on a project to help Chinese learners improve their tones. If you’re interested in participating, please contact me (by commenting, or sending an email to tones at lingomi dot com).