Ian Hayden, Business Development Manager, Mandarin House

Ian Hayden, Business Development Manager, Mandarin House

It’s not that hard to learn Mandarin – the tones

Mandarin learners tend to separate into two opposing groups:

  • Group A, or those who think that learning Mandarin is impossibly difficult and akin to scaling Everest naked or flying to Mars in a paper aero plane
  • Group B, who argue that Mandarin is much more like running a 20 minute mile, most people are more than capable of doing it

As a Mandarin learner and as a former language teacher, I find myself split between these two groups.  I have days where my Mandarin seems to flow fluently and days where I know I’m not expressing myself clearly.  After seven years of Mandarin study and seven years of being immersed in Mandarin speaking environments I find myself agreeing with group A on some days and group B on others.

That is not a particularly useful statement,  so let me try to be objective about both my experiences teaching and studying languages and let me start by talking about the well discussed and documented topic of Mandarin tones.

There is no doubt that mastering the four (or maybe five) Mandarin tones is absolutely crucial for all students of Mandarin.
If you can’t distinguish and reproduce the tones you will find it difficult or impossible to understand and be understood.  Most Mandarin students know this and therefore find the tones both intimidating and off putting.  But if you persevere they are not impossible.  After a couple of months of listening and imitating I was able to distinguish the tones quite easily and produce the individual sounds fairly accurately.

The problem is that each character (or syllable) has its own tone.  Mastering the tones in syllabic isolation is fairly straightforward.   When these syllables are placed into a sentence, however,  the tones and the intonation can change dependant on the sentence rhythm.  Both the words used in the sentence and the context of the sentence will affect the overall sentence rhythm.  For me it took hours of practice before I was able to link the tone sounds together and form coherent sentences.

Mandarin is not alone in having intonation and stresses in syllables and words.
Intonation is important in spoken English sentences, and syllable stress helps us native speakers distinguish the meaning of words.  With practice most English learners achieve fluency in English without achieving 100% accuracy in pronunciation, or word stress (if 100% accuracy exists). The difference between Mandarin and English is that you need to have a higher percentage of accuracy in order to be comprehensible.

This aspect of Mandarin (being able to distinguish and reproduce the correct mandarin tone) tends to favor (not unsurprisingly) aural learners.  The ability to hear and distinguish pitch and rhythm in a sentence greatly assists in Mandarin comprehension.  I took the VALK test in the last year of my degree course and discovered that I was a strong read/write learner.   Visual, aural and kinesthetic all scored similarly lowly.  In spite of this I was able to gain proficiency and mastery in the Mandarin tones in only a few months.  I took the VARK test again before I wrote this blog.  My preference for read/write learning remains however my preference for aural learning has jumped significantly and I have no doubt that this is in part down to my study of Mandarin tones and sentences.


Ian Haydn is Business Development Manager with Mandarin House. He has first hand experience as a former student of Mandarin House, and has worked seven years in the language industry. Read more about Ian.

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Members of IALC share their insights on the language travel industry. Contributors are owners, directors, managers, teachers or administrative staff of IALC-accredited language schools worldwide.

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