Difficulty hearing the Mandarin tones

Hi friends, I started practicing Mandarin using Gabe's methods since mid-September. I felt like I was making great progress: I first learnt the English IPA, then went through the Mandarin Pronunciation Trainer, and then onto the Mandarin Radical deck (which I made myself, and intend to share with others once I've refined it). However, towards the into the month of November, I began to hit a wall. I could not grasp the tones. I certainly understand the theory behind them - how each of the four are produced, and what you are supposed to do verbally to produce them - and know I can produce them from speaking with Chinese friends (though of course could do with more practice of them). But hearing the tones I'm really struggling with. I do hear a difference between them, but recognizing which is which I cannot do. I spent weeks on the tone part of the pronunciation trainer and felt like I was going round in circles. Each day I would get through all my review and new cards, only to revisit them the next day and get them wrong again. It felt like I was only learning the answer to each card, rather than learning to hear the tones. Clearly this is inefficient and not the intended result - it is doomed to fail. This made it hard to keep myself motivated to continue with the SRS each day, as each day I felt little to no progress was being made. So I went to the next step of learning the Mandarin radicals - I hoped time would somehow get me accustomed to the tones. I spent the next few weeks on the radicals and great progress again was being made - I really enjoyed learning the characters! But on the days where I returned to the tones, I felt like I was going backwards. I really like Gabe's recommendations - learning pronunciation first, omitting all English, using SRS, and so on... - and I felt successful in learning the IPA, learning Pinyin and pronunciation of, but I cannot get the tones. I know how important they are, so I'm really unsure how to continue. I don't want to start on the 625 world list and from the start be getting the tones wrong (or just ignoring them). I've been looking at many other online resources, both for learning Mandarin in general and for hearing the tones in particular, but I'm still at an impasse. Please, any help other users can give, or Gabe, if you have any advice on how to train your ears to the hear the tones, would be greatly appreciated. I really wanted to travel to China this summer to practice there, but now I feel like I won't be ready in time :'( Best, Jordan

* Originally posted by Jordan.

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  • Hi @Jordan,

    Don’t feel too bad about apparently hitting the wall after (what?) just 4 months or so. I’ve been going just on 12 months with FF-Mandarin and have hit plenty of walls along the way, but feel I’ve made some progress, even with tones – although to some extent only. I’m sure you are doing well.

    Like you, I did not find the tone part of the FF-Mandarin trainer much help – just too challenging for a beginner, so I gave up on that part of it.

    For Mandarin, it seems there is no end of free online resources, but of course one still has to find them (and remember to bookmark as well!). I learnt early in the piece from reading around the topic that modern Mandarin tends to be produced using pairs of characters, with a high proportion of words and common expressions constructed from 2 Hanzi, with everyday speech seeming to be constructed on this model too.

    Two websites I found that focussed on this were SinoSplice (search there for Tone Pair Drills – it includes MP3s, Pinyin and Hanzi components) and YoYoChinese. The latter sets up a 4×5 table of 20 tone-pair words – the 4 initial tones and 5 secondary, allowing for the neutral tone, e.g. in shén-me (什么). Actually there are only 19 pairs, as (3,3) is pronounced (2,3), as I’m sure you’ll know by now. I just ground away at this table with accompanying audio, so that now, if I come across a, say, (1,2) word such as fēi-cháng, I know that I need to say/sing it the same way as zhōng-guó from the table. At least that’s the theory, but it does help. Of course actually recognising tone pairs produced by someone else is a further big step along the path. But in that regard there are web sites where you can test yourself (PinyinPractice, and another that I seem to have forgotten to bookmark!).

    From what I read from the experts, I bit off too much by starting out with characters as soon as I had mastered Pinyin. This seems to be too soon. However, learning all the radicals at this stage has made a huge difference to my subsequent grasp of characters. I’m also using the Assimil course, which starts gently and has plenty of simple dialogues (in MP3, Hanzi, translation – both literal and fluent, plus grammar notes). My Anki decks largely come from this source and I’ve struggled to make headway with the 625 words on top of this – just too much for my ancient brain!

    Please feel free to ignore or disagree with the above. But if you’d like to contact me offline at lancebode (at) gmail (dot) com, I could organise to get some resources to you, and maybe share some of yours too.

    * Originally posted by Lance.
  • Hrm...I'd love to hear more input from folks who have tried the tone trainer in Mandarin pronunciation trainer. I designed it with the tone pairs that Lance is talking about in mind, aiming to have all of the possible tone pairs covered with those "Mama" tests. If folks have suggestions on ways to make things easier or more effective, please let me know!

    If it's impeding your ability to continue due to frustration, then yeah, I'd recommend suspending those cards for a while and continuing on, consistently using spelling tests with your vocab so you're basically turning your vocab study into additional tone tests (which will have some component of memorization, but also ear training).

    * Originally posted by Gabriel Wyner.
  • Maybe I didn't persevere long enough in my initial work with the Mandarin Pronunciation Trainer. But at any rate I've just revisited it, and was reasonably surprised. The Min Pairs went well (although they weren't too bad initially), and the Tone Combos weren't too bad either. Before this, I had gone back to the PinyinPractice site where one can test for Tones and Tone Combos. In the past I'd struggled to get 50% of the combos correct (individual tones weren't ever really a problem); this time through it was more like 80 . Not perfect, but exposure must have osmotically improved my brain. However, still struggling with Tone 2 in combinations (maybe because Australians use the rising inflection a lót, and I'm deaf to it?).

    I still think the repetitive use of simple sentences (such as one gets from Assimil) helps to automatically assimilate the "music" of individual 2-character words, as well as longer combinations that go together in commonly-used phrases.

    Could I even suggest plugging Hanzi sentences into Google Translate? While the translations into English might be ropey, there's also the Pinyin and Audio that are simultaneously produced. To my ears the audio seems OK, and some Chinese friends confirmed this – they were quite surprised how good it sounded to their ears.

    * Originally posted by Lance.
  • Lance and Gabriel,

    Thank you both ever so much for your replies. Responses to both of you:

    Lance - it is reassuring hearing that I am not alone, and a reminder that 4 months is still very early in the game. I had come across some of the resources you suggested also, but did not spend long on them after my initial discovery. I feel Gabe's approach resonate with me so well so I have been hesitant in seriously investing a lot of time into these other sites. It's discouraging hearing your movement to characters was perhaps premature... as that is similar to what I'm about to do. Though I had spent a few weeks on the radicals already, I suppose. After I sink some time into the 625 words, if I still am struggling with tones I will revisit this topic to look at your sources again. I will message you at that stage with any updates I feel relevant. Of course feel free to message me too: jjnorris91 (at) gmail (dot) com

    Gabriel - My plan then is to try the 625 words and see how it goes. I do have a suggestion for the tone trainer - it would be great to see what you think about it. So far, when learning the tones, the tones/tone-pairs are always heard in isolation. Sometimes I feel it might help if I could hear different ones next to each. Like the minimal pairs cards, but for tones instead. So the card would have two words displayed, which only differ by their tone. Audio would be played of one of the words, and you have to say which is the correct word. When the answer is revealed, both words would be played so that you can hear exactly the difference between them, and therefore exactly the difference between the two tones too. (Like with the minimal pairs, I suppose you could choose whether to have only the correct answer be played, or both answers to be played.) I suspect this feature may take some time to complete, as you would need to find many words which only differ by a tone. But, for purely pedagogical purposes, I suppose fictitious words would be fine.

    I am truly grateful for both of your help.


    * Originally posted by Jordan.
  • Yes, it would be nice if there was some economical way of using the Trainer to ease into Tone Pairs, and this would presumably apply to all tonal languages. It's clear that Gabriel found a need to modify/magnify his system when exposed to the difficult realities of Japanese. While there may be some aspects of Mandarin that make it simpler than Japanese, tones are a big additional hurdle.

    * Originally posted by Lance.
  • I've been finding some tone pairs particularly challenging. For example, wai with a downwards tone vs. why. The "wai" can sound like an English "why" when someone is asking it in a slightly aggressive tone. If that's the case, I guess I'd have to assume that the voice's (emotional?) tone is neutral to avoid confusion.

    Is this observation correct, or does this mean that I'm having trouble hearing the difference between wai and why?

    * Originally posted by fftim.

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