Many things have changed since that distant 1988, and the number of foreign students coming to terms with the Chinese language and living in China has grown dramatically over the last 20 years. It is no longer unusual to come across a “wairen” (foreigner) in Mainland China. Yet, many students keep having problems when it comes to speaking Chinese, and this is mainly due to an aspect often considered “dramatic” from a Westerner’s perspective: Chinese tones.

When it comes to speaking about tones, two things immediately to mind:

1) Why are Chinese tones perceived as being so difficult?
2) Is there a proper way to learn them?

The difficulty of learning Chinese tones
Let’s address the first issue. It is important to emphasize, once again, the following point:

Chinese is a tonal language. This doesn’t only mean that tones make up the words, but also that the meaning of the words themselves relies on their tones.

In non-tonal languages such as Italian or English, tones do exist. We are not aware of that simply because the meaning of the words does not depend on their variation. So, in theory, the same tones can be used to visually represent syllables that make up the words in non tonal languages.

The very first thing you’ll be confronted with when it comes to speaking Mandarin Chinese is the tones. The following charts show, in detail, the four “heights” of a syllable in Chinese.
One is generally told to look at the chart, listen to the corresponding sound and try to repeat it. It seems like a logical approach: one starts by the basic building blocks (the syllables) and then moves on to words (which can be mono-, bi- or trisyllabic) and finally to whole sentences. In engineering and computer jargon one would speak of a “bottom-up” approach: one builds a wall starting with the base, brick after brick. Although techniques have been developed that seem to adopt a very successful approach among students (*see footnote), learning Chinese can’t be done using a simple algorithm. ‘A good start is half the battle’, they say. Unfortunately, things are not as simple as they might seem. (If you want to learn more about this issue, my friend Vlad wrote an excellent article about this on his blog)

Now, imagine that you want to learn Italian, and that your teacher imposes the aforementioned bottom-up approach. So, one should start from the sound quality of syllables and then move on to words and sentences. After tedious explanations and charts, imagine practicing the following sentences:

Ma che hai fatto oggi? ==> Mā chē hā-ī fàt-to ŏg-gí?

Ma dove sei andato? ==> Mā dō-vē sē- ī ā-ndàtó?

Imagine the gigantic effort in trying to utter a whole sentence by looking at the tone of every single syllable. Things get even worse when it comes to thinking about a sentence, in that one should also remember every single tone!

And even if you are great at pronouncing the tones, the sentence would still sound ‘robotic’ to a native speaker. The reason for this is that a sentence is not the simple aggregation of individual sounds. When we talk all the single components follow the general intonation of the sentence, and a ‘tonal shift’ takes place (you can find more information here). This “tonal shift” means that the pronunciation of the syllables making up a word change according to the positions occupied by that word in a sentence. In Italian (as in other languages), the same word has different tones if it is at the beginning or at the end of a sentence.

La pōlĕntá* è un cibo tipico dell’Italia del Nord. (‘Polenta’ is a typical dish of NorthenItaly)

Mi piace la pōlènta.* (I like ‘polenta’.)

As you can see, the word “polenta” at the beginning of the sentence sounds like a first-third-second tone, while it becomes a first-fourth-fifth (neutral) tone when at the end of a sentence.

It is obvious that this approach to learn Italian would be a disaster. None, fortunately, would dare adopt such an approach. Yet, even considering the big difference between Italian and Chinese, this IS the only approach adopted in the vast majority of Chinese courses, be it at university or in private schools. Now, is there an alternative to all this?