Tag: tones


Mar 2008

Car Tones

I recently stumbled across this graphic, and found it amusing enough to share.

Car Tones

So, does using an automotive visual help anyone learn tones any better?? It takes all kinds…

Seeing the Tones of Mandarin Chinese with Praat


Jan 2008

Seeing the Tones of Mandarin Chinese with Praat

When you first start studying Chinese, you are introduced to Mandarin’s four main tones. You are invariably shown some variation of the chart on the right. You may have wondered where these lines came from. Are they just some artist’s conception of how the tones sound that everyone ended up agreeing on? No, actually, they’re tone contours, the result of linguistic research into the pitch contour of the various tones of Mandarin Chinese.

At this point, your average language student is going, “oh, right, pitch contour. Linguisticky mumbo jumbo. Whatever.” He then decides to accept the chart, no matter how helpful or useless he happens to find it, and move on. The reality, however, is that pitch contour is incredibly easy to see, thanks to a piece of free linguistic software called Praat. I’m going to show you how to do this yourself in a few easy steps so that you can stop accepting this “tone contour” stuff on faith alone.



Jun 2007

Thesis Proposal in China

Today I had to officially submit my masters thesis proposal to a panel of professors at East China Normal University. In Chinese, the verb for going through this process is 开题. When you propose your thesis topic, you have to give each professor on the panel a copy of your proposal, or 开题报告. Then you summarize what you’d like to do in your thesis, and ask the professors any questions, if you’d like. The professors ask you questions about the scope of your thesis, controlling certain variables, theoretical basis, how your thesis will differ from existing research, etc. If all goes well, they will give you a few recommendations, approve the topic, then sign some paperwork and it’s all over. (I wish I could compare the process to an American version, but I’ve only ever been a graduate student in China, so I can’t.)

My thesis proposal was approved. I still have to revise the scope of my experiment somewhat, but I’m going to be studying some of the problems that North Americans have with the tones of Mandarin Chinese as upper elementary level exchange students in China.

In preliminary research on my topic, the most relevant and interesting paper I came across was a research paper by Dr. Qinghai Chen, who is currently a professor at the University of Michigan. Dr. Chen’s doctoral dissertation was done at Brigham Young University in 2000, entitled “Analysis of Mandarin Tonal Errors in Connected Speech by English-Speaking American Adult Learners: A Study at and Above the Word Level.”

The part of the abstract that intrigues me most:

> Findings at and above the word level jointly led to a summary of tonal error patterns, a discussion of relevant learner factors, an acquisition order of tonal contrasts, a set of criteria for better tones, and pertinent pedagogical suggestions.

So far I have been unable to get a full copy of the dissertation. I have contacted Dr. Chen and am awaiting his reply, but I’m afraid he might be on vacation or something. If anyone has an electronic copy of this paper, I would greatly appreciate the help!

Update: I got several e-mails offering help in acquiring Dr. Chen’s doctoral dissertation, including one with a PDF copy of exactly what I’m looking for (and within 12 hours of publishing this post). You readers are awesome! Thank you.


Dec 2006

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.



Oct 2006

New Feature: Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills

Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills (box cover)

It’s been a while since I’ve added significant non-blog content to Sinosplice, but I’ve just completed something that could be really useful to learners of Mandarin Chinese. That something is Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills.

I actually began this project all the way back in 2003. I put my ideas together into a rough form and some friends (including John B, Brendan, Greg, and Alf) helped me test them out. They gave me good positive feedback, but I felt the whole thing still needed a fair amount of work. I didn’t find the time and inspiration to finally put in that necessary work until this month, almost three years later. I spent a good chunk of my October holiday working on it, and quite a few nights over the past few weeks.

The main idea behind these drills is that learning tones of individual characters is not enough. Learning tone combinations is the key. Mastering those combinations necessarily involves extensive practice with tone pairs. A mastery of tone pairs will lead to significant progress with any number and combination of tones in succession. Although I was not fully cognizant of the exact process at the time, I believe it was this method which lead to my own successes in correctly producing tones of Mandarin Chinese in succession.

This concept is not exactly unique. In the past few years I have even noticed several other websites take the “tone pair” angle. I think where the other websites fall short is:

1. The words chosen are random words, both in terms of part of speech as well as level of difficulty.
2. There is no clear method for how to use the tone pairs to improve one’s tones.
3. There is no clear connection between the tone pairs and actual speech.
4. They often rely too heavily on visuals (tone marks) to teach the tone combinations.

I tackled these problems in several ways.

1. I focused on adjectives, which are both highly likely to be useful in elementary conversation, as well as plentiful in almost all tone combinations at the elementary level.
2. I developed a clear method which progressively increases in difficulty, and, in the later stages of the method, can also be used by intermediate learners looking to improve their tones. (That method is provided in pinyin, simplified characters, and traditional characters.)
3. Following the method progressively will eventually result in practicing useful, grammatical sentences.
4. I included audio files for all the words in the drill, both in simple clickable online versions, as well as in downloadable MP3 versions with playlists for drilling and quizzing.

I also licensed the method using a Creative Commons license, encouraging others to build on it.

The method I developed is labeled as a “drill.” As such, there is definitely plenty of room for it to be built on using a Chinese teacher’s experience and a little creativity. I should also stress that the drill was designed to be practiced with a native speaker Chinese tutor, but I still believe it can be useful even without the guidance of a tutor.

I welcome your feedback. I do expect to update and improve this feature over time.


Sep 2006

Church Boy Badtones

On ChinesePod we recently did a podcast lesson about being misunderstood because of incorrect tones, and then getting corrected (in Chinese). It prompted quite a few comments, including this amusing little anecdote in a comment from lostinasia:

> The only time I can recall when I had a substitution problem like this was asking for sauce (jiang4 [酱]) and instead saying ginger (jiang1 [姜]). (Ginger wasn’t totally out of place with the hot pot, but I still wished I’d received the sauce). Oh, and for the longest time at tea stands I asked for “jiao4 tang2″ [教堂] (=church) tea instead of “jiao1 tang2″ [焦糖] (=caramel) tea. They understood me, given the context, but when I finally got it right they commented that for weeks they’d been enjoying my mistake, and I’d become known as “Church Boy”, or something like that. But there are countless other times when people simply haven’t understood me, and my tones are surely a big part of that.

Oh yes, I’ve certainly been there.


Aug 2006

Tone Deafness and Whispering Doesn't Stop Tones

I recently read a blog entry in which the author mused that life must be a living hell for tone deaf Chinese. If the language is tonal, and tones play a crucial role in differentiating words, then tone deaf Chinese can’t understand what other people are saying, right? Right?

Well, no. It’s not that simple. Singing and speaking a tonal language are not the same thing. However often you might hear people speak of “the music of the language,” the two are not the same. I’m lucky this is the case, because I’m a terrible singer.

A USA Today article explains:

> How can [a tone deaf Chinese person] tell the difference in speech between, say, [] and [] with only their distinct tones to distinguish the meanings?

> Easily enough, it turns out. Mostly, he uses context and other language clues. Homonyms in Chinese (or English: “I’m a little hoarse”), rarely confuse a listener — when heard in context. But also, it’s easier to distinguish varying tones. Moreover, the tones we use in languages are coarse discriminators that even a disabled person can manage. To convey meaning differences, speech requires tone distinctions three to six times greater than melodies do for musical nuances.

(Pinyin News gets a little more analytical about it, if you’re interested.)

I was not surprised by this. I remember a while back when I first started studying Chinese, my dad posed this question to me: if Chinese is tonal, then can the Chinese understand each other when they whisper? This is actually a very good question. Whispers can’t carry tones. Trying “whispering to a melody.” You can’t.

This is because whispers lack what is called “fundamental frequency” (a physics term represented by f0), which is the basis for pitch. And that’s the aspect of normal spoken speech which carries tones.

So it would seem that my dad was dead on: it is physically impossible for whispers to carry tones. The thing is, you can whisper in Chinese, and it is understandable. But how does this work?

It turns out that when people whisper a tonal language such as Chinese, they naturally compensate for the lack of tones. How? According to one study:

> 1. the laryngeal sphincter mechanism is found to be a principal contributing physiological maneuver in the production of whisper, emphasizing the vertical rather than the horizontal component of the laryngeal source;

> 2. two special behavioral maneuvers are also used in whisper: male speakers tend to lengthen vocalic duration and female speakers tend to exaggerate the amplitude contours of Tone 3 and Tone 4;

> 3. these two special behavioral maneuvers and two temporal envelope parameters contribute to tone recognition in whisper, but the phonetic context is shown to be a distraction;

> 4. the environments of the target tones cause perceptual differneces, and the ranking of these environments in order of increasing degree of difficulty is: isolation, sentence-final, sentence-medial and sentence-final;

> 5. the ranking of the four tones in isolation, in order of increasing degree of perceptual difficulty is: Tone 3, Tone 4, Tone 1 and Tone 2.

> Source: Tones in Whispered Chinese: Articulatory Features and Perceptual Cues by Man Gao

Whew! OK, the basic idea is this: when people whisper, they naturally overcome the limitation of the medium by compensating in other ways. And they do it without even trying! I can even do it, and I’m pretty sure I never studied whispering tones. This is pretty cool.

So there you go, dad… it only took me about 6 years to find the answer to your question.


Mar 2006

Mandarin Tone Changes

I recently got an e-mail from a beginner regarding tones in Mandarin:

> I was searching the web to find an answer with no luck. I read what you wrote about Debating “You’re Welcome” and I’m hoping you can help me.

> I keep finding different sources giving different tones for “bu keqi”. In Chinese for Dummies bu has a rising tone and keqi both have falling syllables. Another book gave a falling tone to bu, a flat tone to ke, and a rising tone to qi. Many websites tell me that I have the right words, but they don’t give the tones at all.

> If you have an extra minute, I’d also love to know the tones on the variants you wrote, or a good source to look them up at.

I realized that the author of the e-mail was confused because there is a rule in Mandarin Chinese that when when 不 precedes a 4th tone, it becomes second tone. Most textbooks will expect you to always remember this after they teach it, and will still mark 不 as 4th tone even though it should be read as 2nd tone. Some textbooks, however, mark 不 as 2nd tone when it should be read as 2nd tone. I can see how that could be very confusing to a new learner.

In responding, I wanted to include a link to a site which clearly outlined all the tones changes (AKA tone sandhi) that occur in Mandarin. I was disappointed that Wikipedia didn’t seem to have one. Eventually I found the rules outlined clearly in the Change of Tone section of a site called InstantSpeak Chinese.

I had never explicity learned Rule 3, regarding the “half third tone,” but when I thought about it, I realized it was true and that I even follow it. I guess I unconsciously acquired it.

Anyway, because I found them somewhat hard to find online, I’m going to reproduce the main tone rules here (leaving out the “half third tone” one) and add some examples to flesh them out a bit.

Mandarin Tone Sandhi

1. When there are two 3rd tones in a row, the first one becomes 2nd tone. Examples: 你好 (nǐ + hǎo = ní hǎo), 很好 (hěn + hǎo = hén hǎo), 好懂 (hǎo + dǒng = háo dǒng).

2. 不 is 4th tone except when followed by another 4th tone, when it becomes second tone. Examples: 不对 (bù + duì = bú duì), 不去 (bù + qù = bú qù), 不错 (bù + cuò = bú cuò).

3. 一 is 1st tone when alone, 2nd tone when followed by a 4th tone, and 4th tone when followed by any other tone. Examples: 一个 (yī + gè = yí gè), 一次 (yī + cì = yí cì), 一半 (yī + bàn = yí bàn), 一般 (yī + bān = yì bān), 一毛 (yī + máo = yì máo), 一会儿 (yī + huǐr = yì huǐr).

Again, it’s important for beginners to memorize these rules because textbooks will often not remind you. They usually provide words’ original tones before tone sandhi.

Related: my Chinese blog entry about lots of third tones strung together

Page 2 of 212