Types of Tone Mistakes
As a learner of Chinese, you’re going to make mistakes with your tones. A lot of them. It’s unavoidable. It can be helpful to reflect on the kinds of mistakes you’re making, though, because it can help you realize that despite all the mangled tones, you’re actually making progress.
No, I’m not just talking about the stages of learning tones which I’ve written about before, I’m talking about mistakes which are fundamentally different in nature. As your Chinese gets better and better, you’ll keep making some mistakes, but the types of mistakes you make will change.
So without further ado, here are the 4 main types of tone mistakes:
Mistakes of Control
When you first start studying Chinese, you have no idea at all how to properly make the tones. Even if you can hear a difference, you can’t do it yourself. Or maybe you can hear and repeat it immediately after, but then quickly forget how to do it. This is all part of the process of learning tones.
Don’t think this type of mistake is only for beginners, though. Even after you can accurately produce individual tones in isolation, you’re going to have problems with tone pairs and tones across whole sentences for a while. (For me, the most insidious of these was the 3-2 tone swap error.)
Relax! Persistent effort will totally pay off. No one masters tones in 2 weeks. It takes time.
Mistakes of Ignorance
Sometimes you don’t know the tones of the words you want to use. Don’t worry; it happens to all of us. If you only use words for which you’re 100% sure of the tones, then you’re doing it wrong. Not knowing the correct tones but blundering on through anyway is just part of the learning experience.
The key here is that you eventually make the effort to learn the proper tones for the words you’re unsure of. This takes time, patience, and lots of dictionary lookups. Eventually your accumulated tonal knowledge (and proper execution) make you start sounding less like a “stereotypical foreigner” when you speak Chinese.
Mistakes of Memory
For me, this is always the most frustrating tonal mistake of all. Have you ever been sure that you know the right tones for a word, and always took care to properly pronounce that word, but then found out much later that the tones you thought you had down cold were actually wrong?
I remember when I first came to China I was sure that the word for “north,” 北, was pronounced “*bēi” (first tone rather than third). I was horrified to finally learn the truth. I’d been confidently saying it incorrectly for half a year. Nothing to do but make the mental correction and move on. Memory is never perfect, and you can’t really avoid these mistakes.
Mistakes of Influence
This one can also be frustrating, but I’d say it’s more confusing than anything. So what happens when the dictionary says a word is pronounced one way, and your friend tells you it’s pronounced a different way? Or two friends give you contradictory information, but it’s all different from what the dictionary says? Sadly, these issues invariably plague the intermediate learner of Chinese.
There are several reasons that these discrepancies arise. First is regional variation. Different parts of China pronounce some words in different ways, and although at times you’ll hear unquestionably “non-standard Mandarin,” at other times it’s unfair to call a certain regional variation “wrong” or “right” (although some Beijing have no problems at all doing this).
Second is the widespread use of dated reference materials. Printed dictionaries simply aren’t keeping pace with the rapidly evolving language of the Chinese people. New words are created, and pronunciations change (sometimes just the tones) relatively quickly.
Third is a cultural tendency to submit to the recognized authority (i.e. the outdated reference materials). So you often get exchanges like this:
A: How do you pronounce the character 血?
A: But the dictionary says it’s either “xuè” or “xiě.”
B: Oh yes, that’s right.
A: But you just said…
You get the idea. But what can you do? Know that dictionaries are not perfect, and no single person can be an authority on a whole language. You’re going to have to assemble your mental map of the words of the language over time, from the mouths of many speakers, not one “omniscient” teacher.
Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. They’re inevitable, and they help you learn. But as long as you’re going to be making these mistakes, you might as well look a little closer and gauge how your language ability is growing and your unruly tones are slowly but surely being tamed.