Toward Better Tones in Natural Speech

At ACTFL 2008 one of the presentations on TCFL that I found most interesting was one called “An Alternative Way to Teach Mandarin Tones in Speaking” by Dr. Rongrong Liao of the Defense Language Institute.

The problem, as Dr. Liao presented it, is that many learners can reach a relatively high level of fluency in Mandarin Chinese, have excellent tonal accuracy for individual words, yet still make a large number of very unnatural tonal errors in natural speech. This is a common enough problem that educators really need to be looking for ways to address it.

The message of the presentation was, in essence:

  1. We’re giving students of Chinese the wrong picture of tones (third tone in particular)
  2. Tones are not of equal importance in natural speech
  3. Funny-sounding speech can be corrected most efficiently by focusing on certain key tones

Now I’ll break these different points down one by one.

We’re giving students the wrong picture of tones

The way students first learn tones is in isolation. You apply tones to individual syllables. The idealized tone contours of those tones in isolation look like the chart below.

Tone Contours in Mandarin Chinese

The thing is, in natural connected speech, tones don’t behave quite that way. Yes, there’s tone sandhi (tones in sequence affect each other in regular ways), but it’s more than just that. Third tone in particular has a habit of dipping but then not rising the way it should. (This phenomenon is known as the “half-third tone.”) So then is the not rising in natural speech the exception, or is the perfect rise in an isolated tone the real exception?

Dr. Liao suggests that it’s more useful to teach that the third tone is low rather than dipping. This could help with third tone problems in connected speech. The “model” third tone with a rising tail could then be treated as the exception to the rule.

The symmetry-loving perfectionist in me actually likes this a lot. This way you end up with two pairs of almost diametrically opposed tones (yes, we’re fudging a bit): high vs. low (1 vs. 3), and rising vs. falling (2 vs. 4). Dr. Liao also notes here that learners tend to confuse tone 1 and 4 with each other much more than with the other two, and tone 2 and 3 much more than with the other two. Very interesting.

This really struck a chord with me, as it matches nicely with my own observations. Taking all this into account and putting the actual tone contours aside for a moment, I put together my own experimental “idealized perceptual tone diagram”:

Perceptual Tone Contours in Mandarin Chinese

I have no idea if a representation like this could actually be useful to any students. Before you freak out by such a concept, though, let’s move on to the next point…

Tones are not of equal importance in connected speech

When Dr. Liao started talking about this, I had an immediate flashback to something my friend Alf said after studying Chinese in China for about half a year:

Tones are such bullshit. When Chinese people talk really fast, they don’t really use them. So I’m just going to ignore them and talk really fast like Chinese people, and I’ll be fine.

Ah, the “tones aren’t important” fallacy. Most students of Chinese have heard such sacrilege more than once in their long years of study, I’m sure. The thing is, like any good lie, there’s actually some truth to it.

Dr. Liao pointed out that in natural speech, some tones in a “frame” are “weakened” or “reduced” and lose many of their “idealized” properties. That is to say, if you look at their tone contours (remember how to do that with Praat?) in the sentence, they don’t all resemble the perfect angles in the classic chart we all know so well.

Here’s an example of what native speaker tone contours look like in speech [source]:

Tones in Connected Speech

You’ll notice that the tones of some words are clearly recognizable, while others are less so. What’s going on? Well, in natural Chinese sentences, certain words in each phrase are stressed. Stressed words will have a tone contour which most closely follows the idealized form, whereas the other tones are shortened, kind of run together, and generally goof off.

Funny-sounding speech can be corrected most efficiently by focusing on certain key tones

Here’s where Alf’s idea comes into play. Dr. Liao recommends that instead of correcting every mispronounced tone in a sentence (and there might be many), instructors should focus on the stressed words. When the tone(s) in a stressed word is mispronounced, the sentence will frequently sound quite bad to native ears, but when the stressed word is pronounced correctly, the other tones will often fall in line.

This is a cool idea, because if it works, it means (1) teachers can stop worrying about so many wrong tones, and (2) students can quit freaking about every tone.

Sounds good to me. It’s complex enough!

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