Homeschool Chinese: Tones, Tones, Tones


Periodically, Laoshi Shawn will divert from the lessons in the Better Chinese book to focus on pronunciation and tones.  Correct pronunciation is very important in Mandarin because the five tones can change the meaning of a word.   To further complicate things, Mandarin is a group of related dialects.  A northeastern-dialect speaker and a southwestern-dialect speaker can hardly communicate except through the standard, written language (characters), mainly because of the differences in tone.  In Mandarin, the most widely-spoken tonal language, many words are differentiated solely by tone, and each syllable in a multisyllabic word often carries its own tone.

The only way you are going to have success is to first have lots of failures.

These tones combine with a syllable such as "ma" to produce different words. A minimal set based on "ma" are, in pinyin transcription,
  1. (媽/妈) "mum/mom" ~ a high level tone
  2. (麻/麻) "hemp" ~ a tone starting with mid pitch and rising to a high pitch
  3. (馬/马) "horse" ~ a low tone with a slight fall
  4. (罵/骂) "scold" ~ a short, sharply falling tone, starting high and falling to the bottom of the speaker's vocal range
  5. ma(嗎/吗) (an interrogative particle) ~ a very short, neutral tone
These may be combined into the rather contrived sentence,
妈妈骂马的麻吗?/媽媽罵馬的麻嗎?
Pinyin: māma mà mǎ de má ma?
English: "Is mom scolding the horse's hemp?"

 If you risk nothing, you risk everything.

Without the correct pronunciation it is difficult for the listener to understand, even native speakers can have difficulty understanding one another due to dialects.  We notice this when we travel to Chinatown in San Francisco or when we recently had an exchange student with us for a short time.  Those who are not familiar with hearing Mandarin spoken by someone learning the language don't always recognize the common mistakes.  Upon asking a question or making a statement, they will stand and tell you they do not understand.  We try again and if we still don't get the pronunciation correct we feel very self-conscious.  This fear of failure is what prevents many new language learners from speaking more often. Granted it is embarrassing but one must make mistakes in order to learn and grow. In the pictures here, the kids are practicing their tonal pronunciation in a couple of ways.  Meili is using an iPad game app called "Penyo Pal Dance Party".  She listens carefully to the audio and uses her finger to swipe the correct tone. The bird backup dancers are there to help her out.  Jiejie is using an online site called Chinese Wordbook.  The site allows him to first listen to the tones and then record himself repeating it aloud.  A graph then shows him how closely he was able to imitate the sound.  He practices until his accuracy is above 80%. Watch and learn how to pronounce Chinese vowel and consonant sounds. Better Chinese also has a book called "Pinyin for Everyone"  that teaches 21 consonants and 24 vowel sounds to get a beginner Chinese learner started. We used this book when we first began our Mandarin studies before we started with My First Chinese Reader.

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