Really??? Again on the social media…I really have to just stop reading it…I get the following:

Nail those tones and all is forgiven. We’ll show you how to improve your tones in the HandyDandy TonesRUs NotItsRealName Masterclass…

I really, really wish people would stop and think for themselves instead of parroting “conventional wisdom” about why Chinese is So Hard™ but If You Just Use Our Amazing New Thing And Hey We Take Paypal…

Chinese has tones. Yep. We all agree on that.

The same “word” (series of consonant and vowel sounds) in Chinese can mean two different things if pronounced using different tones. Yes, that’s true.


There are very, very, VERY few single-syllable words in Chinese to start with. With two- or more syllable words, you don’t have this “only the tone makes these two words different” thing going anymore.

Of the few single-syllable words, there are extremely, vanishingly few where there are two meanings that are “confusable”. Two random words that differ only in tone aren’t going to be the same part of speech, or appear in the same “slot” in a sentence. No one is going to confuse yī (the number ‘one’) with yì (the ancient name for the Chinese board game ‘go’). It’s just not going to happen.

There is exactly one case I can think of that comes up in most K-16 level Chinese teaching where it IS a single syllable and it DOES make an enormous difference in meaning to get the tone right: buy (mǎi) and sell (mài). But even having said this, people don’t usually mis-pronounce 3rd and 4th tones to be the other one. (1st and 4th get muddled a lot, and 2nd and 3rd, but not usually 1st and 3rd). But it’s true enough that if you go wild on the tone for that particular syllable in your otherwise-correct sentence, people will be confused or not get the meaning you intend.

But now that we’ve cleared the ONE exception — in other cases in Chinese, you can speak entirely without tones and still be understood. Yes, I said it. No. Tones. At. All.

To do that, you have to have correct grammar and you have to choose the right words. I have personally seen a roomful of ACTFL OPI trainees, experienced Chinese teachers and native speakers all, shrug and say ‘so what?’ when presented with a recording of a learner speaking grammatically-correct Mandarin with not a single thing resembling a tone. They all agreed that there was no reason to reduce his proficiency score because he was perfectly easy to understand. Not “we can understand him with problems” or “we have to work at it”. It was no problem.

Now, here’s the thing. Most (if not virtually all) of the students out there are learning Mandarin — not acquiring it. And so they do this by working hard to memorize those sentence patterns and that vocabulary, and then they apply the Rules and Vocabulary to make sentences. Oftentimes, since they get very little input and are asked to constantly output to “show their mastery”, they get those sentences wrong. Been there, did that. My entire college career consisted of “making sentences” and getting them back with red marks all over them, and not having a CLUE why they were wrong — and never being told, either. Not that being told would have fixed the problem. The only thing that did fix it was input. I would never have gotten into interpreting school in Taiwan on the “strength” of the Chinese I was taught, despite going to a top-notch program and having very dedicated teachers.

A person who has acquired Mandarin — even “toneless” — won’t make those errors of grammar or word choice. In that case, it’s very, very easy for the fluent speaker listening to “fill in” the tones. The brain practically does it automatically. I’ll bet if I’d done an experiment with those teachers at the ACTFL OPI rater training session and instead of saying “Can we give him an Advanced Mid without him having any tones?”, I’d asked “On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the accuracy of his 4th tones?” after the sample had played, a lot of raters would have said “good”. Even though there were none. Because the brain “assumes” that the things it expects to hear are there if the overall job (successful transmission of meaning) happened.

I am not saying abandon tones. I’m not saying tones aren’t important. I’m not saying we shouldn’t guide students to acquire them. But we need to do just that — GUIDE students to ACQUIRE them, not give pronunciation drills and fancy online “this will fix all your Mandarin problems” short courses. Tonal spelling, directional gestures, and pop-ups for noticing tones all help — but what REALLY works is linking meaning to words. Which is also known as providing comprehended input. Lots of it. We can reinforce tone knowledge — the ability to say “oh, that’s a 4th tone” on a test — with “techniques”, but the only thing that’s going to make those tones pop out automatically and correctly is input.