It’s crazy that Chinese blogs still have to write about this. Tones matter in Chinese. A lot. Still, I hear learners and native speakers dismissing the importance of tones all the time. Here’s a breakdown of the most common reasons why people say tones don’t matter.
1. Chinese people don’t pay attention to them
Frenky, a commenter on my blog said: “Tones seems not important in daily conversation..” Why do some Chinese speakers feel this way? Because they don’t think about tones. If you’ve ever tried asking someone on the street “What tone is that word?”, you’ll notice that they don’t always come up with the answer right away. Tones are so ingrained in their mind that they don’t have to think about them.You don’t pay attention to half the things you do… but those things are still important.
Walking is another example of such a task. It’s very complicated, involving balance, timing, weight, speed, terrain, and multiple muscles firing in the right order. All of these elements have to be taken into consideration in order to walk properly. But no one walking down the street is thinking about these things. Walking is automatic. For native Mandarin speakers, tones are automatic, too.
2. Chinese people will understand you without them
Jose from China (seriously) explains this typical fallacy well:
However, in reality, if a foreigner speaks wrong tones, we native speaker can also understand what he or she is trying to say. For example, my grandmother from Dalian city (a coastal city in the northeastern part of China), she speaks with a strong accent. Other than calling ants as ‘ma3yi3′, she says ‘ma3yi4′, but we Mandarin speakers also know her very well.
This may be true for native Chinese speakers with strong accents, but it won’t be true for you, the Chinese learner. Besides, even Chinese people have trouble with non-standard accents. That’s why farmers are always given subtitles on the news. Until they develop a real-time subtitle system for foreigners speaking Chinese (RTSSFFSC), you’ll need to get your tones right.
3. Tones matter less when you’re advanced
This one goes like this: tones matter at first, but as you get better, they matter less. Um. No. In some ways, this is similar to #1, but is said by a Chinese learner instead of a native speaker. Tones don’t matter less as you get more advanced. As you get more advanced, you get better at tones. They become ingrained in your memory like muscle memory.
Naturally, you end up thinking about them less, but that doesn’t make them any less important. When you’re Chinese is really good, one bad tone can turn a good conversation into a confusing one.
4. It’s not taught in my class
Ah, Chinese class. I have so much respect and thanks for my Chinese teachers. They were given an impossible task: cram all the knowledge necessary to speak good Chinese into a few semesters. Introductory Chinese has way more material than class time to teach it. Some subjects are bound to be under-emphasized. Unfortunately tones and pronunciation tend to fall by the wayside. That doesn’t mean they’re less important, though. Your teacher is secretly hoping that you’ll listen to her advice and go to the language lab to practice listening.
In Mandarin Chinese, tones do matter. Please pay attention to the tones.