Confidence and Tones

It was in the summer of 2012 during a talk with all-star intern Parry that I first discovered that confidence-based learning was a thing. The concept had occurred to me before, but it really gelled when I saw this graph:

Confidence Knowledge Quadrants

Confidence-based learning applies to any kind of learning, but I think it applies especially well to mastering the tones of Chinese. Let’s take a quick walk through the four quadrants of the graph above…

  1. Uninformed. So this is your typical beginner. You don’t know much, and you know that you don’t know much. It’s hard to say much of anything, and tones are only a part of the problem. Obviously, study and practice are needed.

  2. Misinformed. In this case, the learner has learned a lot of Chinese, but has either not had sufficient practice, or has gotten bad feedback, leading him to believe that his tones are much better than they actually are. Part of the problem may be Chinese speakers’ tendency to overpraise any ability to speak at all. If no corrective feedback is ever given, how will the learner know his tones are still in need of work? This is the “unjustified confidence” I’ve talked about before in my post Laowai Delusions of Fluency. It helps to stay humble, and honest feedback is essential.

  3. Doubt. If you’ve learned to be humble, and worked hard at improving your tones, they may be pretty good. But you may still lack confidence. You may speak quietly, or try to rush through words you’re not 100% sure of the tones for. This is actually a pretty good place to be, because you have the knowledge, and you just need some extra practice and corrective feedback. You’re probably used to not getting any feedback, which results in the doubt.

  4. Mastery. You may not be perfect, but you know you’re pretty good, and you can speak with confidence. You know your tones, and you can pronounce them correctly. This doesn’t happen in a short amount of time; it comes as a result of extended practice with good feedback.

You need to KNOW the Tones

A friend once asked me what the correct tones were for a certain word. I told her: “3-2” (or something like that).

She then looked at me and asked, “how can you just do that? How do you know the tones for so many words?”

“I memorized them,” I said.

This is not the answer she wanted; she hoped there was some trick or pattern she could learn. There is another option of course: to learn like a child. Children, immersed in the language environment don’t “memorize” tones per se; they hear them so many times that there’s only one “natural” answer. This isn’t realistic for most adult learners, though, who frequently have to go from dictionary lookup to written or spoken communication. You have to know the tones of the vocabulary you know, and then you have to be able to correctly pronounce those tones.

This knowledge of tones corresponds to the “knowledge” axis of the graph above.

You need to be able to PRODUCE the Tones

Confidence in tonal production comes from the knowledge that you can consistently and correctly pronounce the tones correctly. This starts with being able to produce the tones of single syllables correctly, and then later progress to being able to produce tone pairs correctly, and eventually extends to longer phrases and whole sentences. But you need to practice, and you need good feedback. You need to know when you’re right and when you’re wrong in order to progress and gain that confidence. (See also The Process of Learning Tones here on Sinosplice.)

The way that we build confidence in tonal production at AllSet Learning is through regular pronunciation practice with a teacher (almost every lesson, for about 10 minutes). This is important well into the intermediate level. We have developed our own exercises for this, which are available online as Pronunciation Packs.

At this point in history, I don’t recommend computer feedback to work an tonal production. Perhaps some tonal feedback is better than none, but human perception is a weird thing, and computers do “logical” things which seem extremely strange to humans sometimes. Right now, only humans can reliably tell us how good tones sound to humans. Maybe someday that will change.

So build up your knowledge of tones, and get some good practice with corrective feedback to build your confidence. Mastery awaits.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. As a newbie, I’m interested you don’t mention the “HEAR the tones” category. At the moment (using introductory audio tapes) I can hear the tones… in isolation, or when I know what I’m listening for. I can’t quite imagine catching them in real time, though.

  2. After reading this I think I just dropped down a peg on the “confidence” axis.

  3. This article should be distributed to every Chinese department in major universities in English speaking countries such as Australia. Sure enough, these universities have teachers who are Chinese nationals and have exceptional qualifications (perhaps they are over qualified to teach their native language, but that is another story). Very little emphasis is given to the above. The belief – unvoiced and unofficial mind you – is the students will never really get it. Whatever the hell that means . . . It offers a frustrating platform for dedicated students and it is highly irresponsible of these teachers.

    The only good story I’ve heard about learning tones at university in one’s home country is from an American who enrolled at Reed College in Portland. A Korean national, who was a dedicated linguist, taught them Chinese for two years. The emphasis of the first eight weeks was the tones, distinguishing as well as producing in isolation and strings of sentences. All the students thought they had enrolled in an easy credit. But little did they know that their teacher was a hard task master who would not take “near enough is good enough” as an answer. In other words he was highly inflexible and expected standard Chinese.

    During the course of the semester, he failed students who had not done the work and sent them packing. With his own ear, he could detect if students had spent the time with their language cassettes (this back in the good ol’ days of magnetic tapes). For the ones who slogged it out, they all said the Korean national put them through their paces and gave feedback – most of it militaristic in fashion – until they could produce the tones in strings of sentences perfectly. Although the treatment sounds harsh, the feedback was immediate. At the end of the course, all the students hated this Korean teacher’s guts. But they all agreed: he taught me Chinese.

    The beauty of this is the students had to produce the tones at an acceptable level so a Korean national could understand them, a person who had Chinese as a foreign language. Now, that’s the real test. A native speaker can guess what you’re trying to say, especially those who are accustomed to half baked Chinese; a person who has Chinese as a foreign language, can’t. In my classes at university in Australia, students couldn’t understand each other. In my view, this was the fault of the department for not caring enough.

    Regardless of this, another point I’ve come across in my travels: the more fluid your Chinese – or foreign language for that matter – the greater the chances are a native speaker will speak more openly and casually. The tendency for language learning seems to always be to judge learners by their ability to speak – produce a message, rather than receive a message (for short messages, that is). In relation to Chinese, a learner may have poor tones but be able to produce a lot of content and at the same time receive complex messages, but due to the tones being poor and not standardized a native speaker may be reluctant to initiate conversation in fear of creating an awkward moment. However, on the flip side, a learner may have given exceptional attention to pronunciation and tones from the very beginning in their studies and as a result can produce simple sentences with native like accuracy but have the inability to process complex messages. In this situation, given the above logic, the native speaker may have greater initiative to speak and communicate with the learner. This is simply the power of sound at work, and how we rarely notice how much we judge by the ear. What is the better scenario? The latter of course. Eventually, increased comprehension will come while a good foundation in pronunciation has already been created.

    • Thanks for the story, Stavros!

      I think that universities are especially guilty of not spending enough time on building a strong foundation with regards to tones, largely because the academic program is forced to “keep up” with other languages being taught at the university. You can’t spend extra time on tones and still speed through a textbook a semester. It’s the sad reality of studying Chinese at many universities.

      It’s the universities that are allowed to go off the beaten path (like with your example) that can sometimes get really amazing results.

  4. John, you wrote:

    “In this case, the learner has learned a lot of Chinese, but has either not had sufficient practice, or has gotten bad feedback, leading him to believe that his tones are much better than they actually are.”

    But I think under misinformed we need to add those who’ve been told, and who have believed, that tones aren’t important. These people are out there, and they make a right hash of speaking Chinese, but they don’t realise it, because they’ve been lulled into this false sense of security.

    • Chris,

      That’s true. I almost feel that it goes without saying, but there are way too many people that insist on believing it, so it’s worth explicitly stating, for sure.

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