How to learn tone patterns in Chinese?
December 15, 2012 7:37 AM   Subscribe

What is the best way to learn tonal vocabulary in Chinese?


I'd be interested in any mnemonic techniques people know which are effective for learning the tone patterns of Chinese vocabulary. It would also be cool if someone could give me advice on building my vocabulary by browsing the Chinese language internet, with some sort of translation site which can explain vocab that is unfamiliar to me.

Thanks in advance.
posted by Musashi Daryl to Education (9 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Paste text into Google translate, use convert to speech function? The computer generated tones might be easier to discern than natural ones.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:44 AM on December 15, 2012

Could you be more specific as to what you mean by "tone patterns"?

It sounds as if you as asking how to learn tones along with vocabulary. If so, I do not think there is much of a pattern to it. When I learn a new word, I always learn the "extras" that go with it. For example, gender for those languages that have gender, "broken plurals" in Arabic, and in the case of Mandarin (which I assume you mean by "Chinese"), the tones for the word. For example, when I learned 同志, I learned the tones as tóngzhì. It is just is something that has to be learned. It is hard for me to imagine a mnemonic device for it.

I highly recommend Skritter for building your Chinese vocabulary. It is also great for Japanese, if you are so inclined.

Google Translate will supply tone markers for pasted-in words.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:09 AM on December 15, 2012

There are several things you can do:

1)Use spectrogram software to observe REAL tone patterns, not the idealized ones taught in textbooks. Get a USB microphone and WASP software (free from University College) and compare your tones to native speakers.

2) Learn to use Gwoyeu Luomaatzyh (GR, National Romanization), a romanization that shows tones by means of an ingenious system of spelling rules. Maa is an exampleof a 3rd tone word spelled with a double vowel because 3rd tones are the longest (in fact, some speakers really do pronounce them as TWO vowels with a glottal stop in between).

3) Be aware that isolated single-syllable tones are different from the tones in multisyllablic words. Know what to listen for, then practice.

4) Give yourself plenty of dictation exercises to train your ears to hear tones

I am working on a website GWOYEU.COM which I hope to launch early next year that will give specific pointers on what to do and dozens of examples. If you send me an email, I will let you know when the website is ready.
posted by juifenasie at 8:23 AM on December 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

You can buy learning cards that have different colors for each tone.

This is also a good and free software:
posted by yoyo_nyc at 11:30 AM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

While not directly related to your question, this is also a very decent tool:
posted by yoyo_nyc at 11:36 AM on December 15, 2012

Methods I use with my students to help learn tones:
  • Learn the rules of tone sandhi.
  • As juifenasie says, listen to native speakers.
  • As yoyo_nyc alludes, color-coding characters by tone can be really handy. Assign tones to certain colors (first tone might be blue, for example) and then either write the tone diacritics in those colors, or write the characters themselves in those colors. Be careful of tone sandhi and variant tones, however. Also, a lot of dictionary apps show characters color-coded by tone.
  • Use and other online tone trainers.
  • At least when you're first starting, make gestures to show tones. For example, when you pronounce first tone, move your hand in a level way, slightly above your head. When you say second tone, move your hand up as you pronounce the syllable. You can also do these motions with your head. It feels silly, but it really helps when you're starting out.
  • Find a teacher who can strictly correct your tones.
As for learning vocabulary, are you just looking for a dictionary? Nciku is a pretty good online one, though with lacunae. Yahoo Taiwan's dictionary is pretty good, too, though not intended for learners of Mandarin. What sort of vocabulary do you want to learn?
posted by jiawen at 12:43 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your question is a little unclear because it doesn't seem that new vocabulary can be learned without the tones also being part of that process. But anyway I don't think memorization is the way to go because there's really no reason for a certain word to be a certain tone (except for the sandhi thing mentioned above), therefore it's hard to memorize it. Instead what you just need to do is practice by reading, listening, talking to native speakers, etc., and then eventually you'll naturally remember the correct tones, and the wrong tones will just sound wrong to you.
posted by Dansaman at 7:49 PM on December 15, 2012

Here's my $0.02:

If you want to learn by browsing the Chinese language Internet:
  • Nthing yoyo_nyc, perapera-kun is pretty awesome.
  • Google Translate and (good character recognition software, like any standard dictionary puts the word you're searching for in context via a sentence).
  • ChinaSmack.Com is not exactly the epitome of good journalism, but the entries there contain translated Chinese comments from the Chinese blogosphere. If you mouseover, you can read the original Chinese characters.
  • If you've an Android phone, try Pleco. It allows you to draw a character out via handwriting, and then identify it. I recommended this because of the speed by which you can identify the character.
If you want to build familiarity with tones:
  • ChinesePod.Com. The newbie level stuff is free, and I believe you get a free trial (no need for credit card numbers and all) to access the more advanced podcasts. This helped me a lot.
  • Funshion.Com. Some students at my university had success gaining fluency within 6 months by watching Chinese serials/soaps/dramas for a few hours a day. You don't have to understand everything, but you eventually get more and more receptive to naturally memorising the tones when you study in a structured environment (ie in a class). YMMV.
Good luck, and happy learning.
posted by rozaine at 11:18 PM on December 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd just like to congratulate you all on some great answers. It's difficult to pick a best answer, so I'll just say they were all very helpful.
posted by Musashi Daryl at 8:05 AM on December 30, 2012

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