The tones of Mandarin Chinese are undoubtedly a challenge, but they can be learned with the proper approach. The one I propose is simple: consider a whole sentence and listen to it, try to figure out how it sounds as a whole without focusing on the tones. You’ll find that it is an efficient approach to acquiring tones in a natural way.
1. Tone Denial
Please don’t deny that tones are important. Tones are important. I sometimes hear people say “I don’t need to learn tones, the vowels and consonants are enough for me.” I disagree.
2. Oral Awareness
Get in touch with the parts of your body that make sounds happen (above the neck). Take the time and find the resources to learn wher to place you tongue and how to shape your lips to make the sounds. Practice these sounds everyday using big slow movements. Make your girlfriend watch and laugh so as to boost your confidence. Or join the tai chi ladies making exaggerated movements in the park.
3. Stick to the Standards
Some places in China, like Kunming, even with bad pronunciation you are more likely to be understood. The people there are used to a range of bad Putonghua accents created by the different dialects of the region. That doesn’t mean you should have a bad accent. Dialects can be fun to learn, and pulling out a word here and there is great way to impress people. But for regular day-to-day speech and important affairs, like giving a presentation, sticking to standard pronunciation is a fail-proof way to ensure you will be understood. And if you ever dreamed of being the foreigner on TV you’ll never get there with anything less than a standard accent. Even Chinese TV and radio hosts need to pass rigorous pronunciation tests.
4. Be Brave
Never give up. Repeat what you are trying to say until the person gets it. Force people to understand you, be creative, use gestures, point at things, all the while speaking in Chinese. Soon you’ll learn your own personal tricks for what works and what doesn’t. Take notes of what words and phrases repeatedly give you trouble and sit down with a Chinese teacher or friend to try and work out what you are getting wrong. Or leave a comment below and we’d be happy to try and help over Skype or something.
5. Be an Actor
Repeat everything you hear. Don’t try to read out loud from a textbook, repeat from an mp3. When I was at school in China all our textbooks were still on tape and I spent hours converting them into mp3 format so I could listen to them over and over everywher I went. This did wonders for my speaking and listening skills. Repeat what you hear with passion. Mimic all the inflections, grunts and facial expressions.