Mandarin Tone Tricks

I recently got an e-mail from Albert Wolfe, the guy behind Laowai Chinese. In the blog Albert shares his experiences learning the Chinese language. He has lots of great observations that I recommend any beginner take a look at.

What especially caught my attention was a recent post on tones. This is because Albert has employed some of the same tone mnemonics that I myself devised and relied on once upon a time.

Albert writes:

Once you learn how to say each tone, then associate some emotion with each one. For example, here’s my own personification and characteristics for each tone:

  1. 1st tone = transcendent, helpful, simplicity.
    I love words that have the first tone because of their simplicity and how easy they are to sing out and pronounce correctly.

  2. 2nd tone = insecure, unsure, questioning.
    I sympathize with words that have the second tone because I’ve been unsure and insecure myself. I don’t blame them for sounding like questions.

  3. 3rd tone = mischievous, mean-spirited, illusive, like a bird you’re trying to watch but he dives into the water and pops up where you aren’t looking.
    I hate words with the third tone. They take more work and more time to pronounce. They change depending on the words near them. They seem to exist only to make my life more difficult.

  4. 4th tone = angry, demanding, impatient.
    I also like words that have the fourth tone because I can shout them out. These words give me a chance to vent. Usually, as a default, if I don’t know the tone of a word, I’ve found I’ll say it as a fourth tone involuntarily.

I did pretty much the same thing when I first started learning Mandarin at the University of Florida in 1998. My problem was that I could recognize tones in isolation when they were pronounced clearly, but I couldn’t reproduce them on my own if I hadn’t heard them recently. That’s why I needed to associate some kind of feeling with the tones.

Unfortunately, I don’t remember all my mnemonics, but I remember that my mnemonics for the second and fourth tones were exactly the same as Albert’s. My mnemonic for the first tone was different: I thought of a robot, speaking always in a monotone. For me, the key was remembering to keep the tone level and flat. If I could do that, I had no trouble remembering to keep it relatively high as well. I don’t remember my mnemonic for the third tone.

Albert goes on to discuss other kinds of mnemonics:

Visual – think of pictures

  • sháozi = spoon
    To remember the tone I had to make a visual image of a spoon handle sticking out of a bowl of soup rising at the same angle the second tone rises.

  • fēijī = airplane
    This one was easy since I just imagined the plane needing to fly as high as possible for both syllables (high tone, high tone).

I can attest to the power of this method as well. Spend the time to create a good mnemonic for any word you consistently have trouble remembering the tones for. Two of mine I still remember are the ones for “waterfall” and “jog.”

I had trouble remembering pùbù (waterfall) because when I learned the word I didn’t really know either of the characters in it, so I couldn’t associate them with anything. The sound of the word, “poo-boo” was funny and thus easy to memorize, but I would forget the tones. Then I noticed that the tones were both fourth, like water falling “down, down…” and I never forgot again.

Even before that one I learned a similar-sounding word, pǎobù (to jog). I remembered the tones for that word by visualizing the way a cartoon character takes off running. They kind of lean back and crouch down, their legs first spinning into a whirlwind. They lean forward again as they’re about to take off. That “dipping” motion represented third tone to me. Then, as the jogger takes off, his foot comes down hard, representing the fourth tone.

You can literally think of something for every single word. All it takes is a little imagination, and the time and effort you spend devising good menonics carries over directly into how well they will stick in your memory.

Once again, I have to quote Albert:

“Confusing cousins” – learn them in sets

  • bīng = frozen = the smooth, level surface of a frozen pond
  • bǐng = cake = my shortcake caved in and now looks just like the contour of the third tone
  • bìng = sick = I hate being sick, I’m mad when I say this word.

I did something similar because I would always confuse second and third tone, mixing up the word (rain) and (fish). I needed a mnemonic.

I did this by mentally linking rain with water. That’s not hard–rain is water. And water in Mandarin is shuǐ (third tone). That’s a word I never forgot. So , the word for rain, is also third tone because it’s also water.

Then I imagined a fish () leaping up out of the water. That upward trajectory represented the rising tone of .

In the course of this I also noted that a frozen pond would be flat, and the word bīng is a flat first tone. I even extended it to clouds (yún), which are mostly water vapor, which rises off the water–second tone.

You might think that devising these mnemonics is more trouble than it’s worth, or that the arbitrary associations on which mnemonics depend are not reliable. You’d be wrong on both counts. Mnemonics work.

Once again, I recommend you check out Laowai Chinese.

Related: Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills

Related Content
Sinosplice and all material found herein © 2002-2016, John Pasden. All rights reserved.
Sinosplice is happily hosted by WebFaction. Design by Dao By Design
Read previous post:
HSK for Inmates

I hear a lot of foreigners in China saying things like, "I need to find the right method of learning...