So what do Chinese people mean when we talk about foreigners? Well, to be honest, we’re not simply talking about your hair color or face shape. We are not even talking about your clothes (even if you are dressed strangely like the title character from V for Vendetta). Instead, we are referring to the unfortunate fact that as soon as you open your mouth to speak, we realize that you are a foreigner immediately.


And this doesn’t just happen to people who are beginners in the Chinese language. It can also happen to advanced speakers as well. Put simply, sometimes you just can’t run away from your foreign accent.


You may think that this is a shame, or even that it is quite frustrating. It may also be the reason why when students are asked to rate “the most HORRIBLE language in the world,” Mandarin is often the number one response. In a way, I almost see this as a compliment to my native language, but then I hate to see you guys suffering.


Why is learning Mandarin so hard?


So, why it is so hard to learn Mandarin, especially without a significant accent? Well, let’s first look at the biological reasons why learning a language is so difficult. There are several good theories, such as the one put forth in the following research paper:





Patterns of developmental change in phonetic perception are critical to theory development. Many previous studies document a decline in nonnative phonetic perception between 6 and 12 months of age. However, much less experimental attention has been paid to developmental change in native-language phonetic perception over the same time period. We hypothesized that language experience in the first year facilitates native-language phonetic performance between 6 and 12 months of age. We tested 6-8- and 10-12-month-old infants in the United States and Japan to examine native and nonnative patterns of developmental change using the American English /r-l/ contrast. The goals of the experiment were to: (a) determine whether facilitation characterizes native-language phonetic change between 6 and 12 months of age, (b) examine the decline previously observed for nonnative contrasts and (c) test directional asymmetries for consonants. The results show a significant increase in performance for the native-language contrast in the first year, a decline in nonnative perception over the same time period, and indicate directional asymmetries that are constant across age and culture. We argue that neural commitment to native-language phonetic properties explains the pattern of developmental change in the first year.


To put it simply: long ago, back when we were just infants, our brains learned which language (or languages, for a multilingual household) was our native language. Just like a baby is always looking for his or her mom, our brains were also always searching for our mother tongue. As a result, two significant changes occurred in our brains:


  • Our brains became increasingly more sensitive to our native language.
  • Our brains became increasingly less sensitive to other languages.


We all know that it’s common for people to complain “I’m too old to learn a new language!” Well, please don’t get frustrated by these people because as we can see, they are actually telling the truth!


After hearing this, you might want to ask: “Ms. Li, what are you talking about? Should I just give up right now?”


Absolutely NOT! What I really want to say is that while perhaps we cannot learn a new language as well as an infant can, we can still try our best to learn it to the best of our abilities.


Understanding tones


There are several methods for reducing your accent, and we will discuss them in a series of articles. However, I’m sure I can guess what you hate the most about learning Mandarin: the four tones! I know that they probably drive you completely crazy. I’m also sure that you have probably found yourself wondering: “Why do I have to twist my voice so extremely that I sound like a little bird singing on a tree branch?”


Well, try not to think of yourself so as much as a bird, but instead as a singer. An elegant singer who is singing a beautiful opera.


Let’s have a look at a picture first:



If we consider Mandarin to be a form of music, it becomes much easier to explain the four tones. In order to explain this, I’ll try to use my own words and avoid those complicated linguistic theories and terms. This may make this explanation a bit less precise, but hopefully more understandable.


In Chinese, we have five pitch levels that start at level one and end at level five. Level one is the lowest level and level five is the highest. Does this picture remind you of something? Sheet music, right? So, you can consider level one to be “Do” and level five to be “So,” if we compare the tones to the musical scales “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do.”


Here are some general rules for each of the tones:


Tone #1: The first tone stays constant at level five, making it the highest tone. You should hold that high pitch for some time.

Tip: Open your mouth as big as you can and shout it out until you have no breath left. Make sure you are at home by yourself, so your neighbors won’t call the police.


Tone #2: The second tone is from level three to level five, so that means it starts at the middle level and then goes to the highest level.

Tip: The second tone is spoken like you are asking a question, so you will raise your voice over the course of the sound. Think about being starving and watching someone eat all of your favorite chocolate donuts in front of you. “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaat??????????” There you go!


Tone #3: The third tone is the hardest one, not only because it’s twisted, but also because it changes a lot in a real conversation. As you can see, it starts at level two, goes down to level one, and then goes up to level four. What a poorly behaved tone!

Tip: Imagine that you are on a swing: down, up, down, up, down, up. We have to do that every time we encounter the third tone in a real conversation. I will explain more about this in the following articles.


Tone #4: The fourth tone starts at level five and goes down to level one. It’s really strong and short.

Tip: “I’m so angry because my neighbor called the police when I was practicing the first tone! NOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Again, there you go.


Good. Now that we know how the four tones work, let’s sing Mandarin happily together. And remember, more articles from Ms. Li are on the way!


Image Sources