RisingTone: A better way to learn Chinese tones

Posted on December 3, 2023

TLDR: I have released an app that helps you learn how to differentiate Chinese’s tones. It starts simple with drills that only compare two tones, but later progresses and teaches you to effectively differentiate all the tones in Chinese.

Accents are part of learning a second language as an adult. When we were young and learning our mother tongue, our brains learned how to turn the spectrum of sound that we hear into specific phonemes that convey meaning in our language. Every language turns this spectrum of sound into slightly different phonemes. Thus when German speakers attempts to say “rabbit” in English, they will tend to use the German guttural r 1 to pronounce the “r”, whereas English speakers will use the alveolar approximant. However, while sounding strange to English speakers, such a pronunciation is usually not an impediment to understanding. The guttural r is outside of what we consider a correct r to sound like, but at the same time it is not likely going to get confused with another sound. However, if you use a completely different vowel or consonant what you want to say becomes unclear. “babbit” for example, would not be easily understood as “rabbit”, and “rabbit” and “rub it” are only differentiated by a single vowel.

Chinese is a notorious language to learn for several reasons. Chinese characters are a completely different writing system requiring a significant amount of memorization to master, and there is almost no shared vocabulary with any Indo-European language. It is also intimidating. However, one area of significant difficulty that gets less attention is the tones. Every language has words that are made up of at least a combination of vowels and consonants. Chinese has words that are made up of a combination of vowels, consonants, and tones. Tones in Chinese are effectively a phoneme that most learners have learned to intentionally filter out in their auditory pathways. Learners of Chinese, having grown up never considered the tone of a word as integral to its meaning, can pick up the Chinese set of vowels and consonants just as fast as with any other language, but even learning to differentiate let alone use the Chinese tones, can sometimes feel impossible.

Tones in Chinese tend to be less important than constant and vowels. Music for example is one medium in which tones cannot be realized, but nevertheless their lack does not cause a significant impedance to understanding. Music, however, tends to use vocabulary that is easily understandable with context clues. Speech on everyday subjects is similar in that there is a significantly higher amount of context available to aid in guessing which tone a word should have used. Because of that when the topic is kept simple, someone who is used to foreigners can usually understand what they are attempting to say, even if they do not use tones at all. However, the more advanced the topic, the harder it gets. For Chinese to understand intermediate level speech without the correct tones is significantly harder than for English speakers to understand “rabbit” with the guttural r.

With tones being so crucial to perform at a high level in Chinese, one would imagine that they would be treated with significant importance in CFL (Chinese as a foreign language) education. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Tones tend to be drilled with the rest of the phonetics in the first few lessons, but later seem to get almost no dedicated exposure. Usually only individual tones are drilled, even though as most Chinese words are composed of two syllables and thus two tones. Even if one were to have a thorough grasp of the four tones in isolation, they would be unable to effectively use them in the two syllable words that make up the bulk of Chinese’s vocabulary.

Learning to correctly say Chinese tones is something that would be best learned with a Chinese tutor, however learning to correctly differentiate them can be done with drills. This was the topic of my bachelor’s thesis. To help learners effectively differentiate between them, I created an android app that coaches you on their differences. You start only with two tones, and then successively add more tones to your drills as you progress through the levels. This is something I am also still interested in improving, so if you feel there are areas that can be improved, please hit me up in an email. In addition, the application is open source, so if you have the time, feel free to open a pull request in the repository.

This article is being discussed on Hacker News