Even if you can pronounce the four tones in Chinese, learning to recognise them or pick them out in speech can be much more difficult.
You may think you know what they are, but then when people start speaking, you find you can’t really tell the difference at all, or you just recognise a ‘word’ but you can’t hear the tones, they just don’t seem clear enough…
It’s important to practise your ability to recognise the tones, and start off with slower words and phrases, until you get better at it.
It’s best to practise the Chinese tones in pairs and different combinations first, and get really familiar with the different patterns (there aren’t that many of them). The more familiar you are with the patterns, the easier it will be to pick them out, even at speed, so it’s really worth laying a foundation with that first.
In this video we’ll practise picking out the different tones, first with single words and then with some sentences.
All of the following words are names of cities in China, and they’re all two syllable words. Try to recognise the tones of the two syllables each time, and say your answer out loud, before you see the answer on the screen.
Ok, now let’s try to pick out the tones of some full sentences. Try to note down the numbers of the tones you hear on a piece of paper, and see how many you can pick out. You’ll hear each sentence several times.
You’ll probably notice that it’s a lot more difficult to pick out the tones of full sentences, especially when they are being pronounced at ‘normal speed’.
But don’t panic and don’t lose hope!
Go over this video and try the exercises multiple times, and then when you’ve done that, go back to your textbook or Chinese course and play one of the dialogues / audio files.
Listen to roughly one sentence at a time, pausing to give yourself loads of time to think, and rewind and listen again a few times to make things easier for yourself.
Really concentrate hard on listening and try to write down the numbers of the tones you hear, or better still, the pinyin with the tone marks, then compare your answers with the pinyin written in your course.
It does take time to train your brain to distinguish and process the tones in Chinese, especially when people are speaking in a quick stream, but it does get easier, trust me!
The other point to make is that some people just don’t speak clearly or with standard pronunciation, and even native speakers have to ask “What did you say?” sometimes!
Try to practise with textbooks or course material first, or Chinese friends who will speak to you clearly, and then move on to easier TV or radio shows (all TV presenters are required to pass a Chinese language test in China to check that they have ‘standard’ pronunciation).
How did you do? Were you able to get the answers right? What other kinds of practice do you need? Let me know in the comments!