“I like to eat kǎo yá,” a student of mine who has an excellent score n HSK 4 writing told me. I was confused for a second and asked her if she meant to say kǎo yáng (grilled lamb), instead of kǎo yá (grilled tooth). She sent me a picture. It’s a beautifully roasted duck (kǎo yā, ya is the first tone.)
This type of amusing frustration resulting from mixing the four Mandarin Chinese tones is quite common among non-native learners who are new to tonal languages, regardless of their level. The tones are of great if not foremost importance to make one’s speech intelligible to a native ear. If you struggle with producing certain vowels and consonants perfectly or don’t know when or whether to add a particle, on the other hand, chances are, you’ll still be understood. Below you’ll find some tips to help make your speech more effective and eloquent, from mastering the tones to becoming more conversationally fluent.
1. Build linguistic muscle memory
When we repeat a certain physical action enough times, our body remembers how to perform the action without thinking. Linguistic muscle memory is built through repetition and exposure. To take that a step further, try acting out each tone every time when you learn a new word. The goal is to associate every new vocabulary with their tones (think of how French learners learn every noun with its gender), and acquire the tones naturally as your body makes the corresponding movements. For example, to produce the infamous third tone, the one that’s written like a reverse accent circumflex, your head and chin go down first and then up again and so does the pitch of your voice at the same time; your head and mouth are both following the direction of the tone mark. Try to say the word “hǎo,” which means “good, ok,” a few times. It should feel like you are giving someone an ok with a nod.
Now when it comes to the second tone, the one where the pitch goes up, it can be less intuitive because a rising intonation generally suggests a question in languages that don’t use particles. For instance, when you say the one-word imperative sentence “来(lái),” which means “Come (on),” try raising your chin and head at the same time. Imagine you are writing at a desk and someone comes in and calls your name. You look up from your desk and answer: “Yes?” Or someone has just told you something unbelievable and you seek confirmation by asking: “You?” Your voice goes up in a similar way when you pronounce the second tone in Mandarin Chinese. The weirdness of giving a command in a rising tone will subside once we say different words in a row and make sentences.
2. Don’t “over-pronounce” the vowels
English has 14~20 vowel phonemes while Mandarin Chinese has five (not including the two apical vowels): [i], [u], [y], [ə], and [a], of which the [y] does not exist in English. The [y] sound does exist in French, by the way, in words such as “rue” and “tu.” The abundance of unfamiliar vowels in English has caused difficulties for native Mandarin speakers to differentiate between English words such as “work” and “walk.” In contrast, native English speakers tend to “overcompensate” or create vowels when they speak Mandarin Chinese, and single vowels sometimes sound like diphthongs or double vowels. Just keep in mind that Chinese sounds are short and acute, with each character talking about the same time in speech.
3.Tone Sandhi: remember the words, not the rules
There are many polyphonic characters in Chinese, which have more than one pronunciation, and the non-polyphonic characters would also change their tone in a certain context. For instance, in the word “美女(beautiful woman),” the first character měi is the third tone, but it changes to the second tone because it’s followed immediately by nǚ, another third tone. So the word is actually pronounced as méi nǚ (second tone, third tone). This phonological change is called tone sandhi, from the Sanskrit word for “joining,” when the assigned tones to individual characters or words change because of its adjacent character or word. You will see plenty of such words where one of the characters doesn’t read as you expected. Don't get discouraged by the seemingly complicated rules. Learn by words, not by characters, and remember the specific words instead of the phonological rules.
4. Don’t be afraid to improvise
Here comes the fun part. If your level is intermediate, then you probably know that oftentimes each individual Chinese character has a meaning, and by mixing and matching them together you can sometimes get new vocabularies that you didn’t realize you knew. For instance, 医 is everything related to medicine. So a medical student is 医 plus student (医学生)，the study of medicine is 医 plus study (医学), a hospital is 医 plus courtyard or institution (医院), and a clinical doctor is literally a “bedside doctor”: 临床医生。 When you practice speaking with a tutor or language exchange partner, don’t be afraid to create and utilize words from your existing vocabulary first and see how it goes.
5. With each new word or grammar structure, make a sentence with it
The final tip is for every language learner who wants to convert passive knowledge into active usage. Just studied the question particles “吗” and “呢”? Don’t look at your book or pdf, make a sentence with each particle on the spot, and ask your tutor whether you’ve used them correctly and whether there’s a more idiomatic way of expressing the same idea. Learning by application is so much more efficient and rewarding than remembering the rules and the exceptions to the rules of when to use which. You have some of the most amazing tutors here on iTalki, use them to check, correct, and facilitate your own learning efforts. Good luck!