Tone smackdown: ears vs brain

So, Chinese has tones. Yeah. The thing everyone fears, and talks about, and comes up with practices and apps and all that stuff to “teach”.

And yet it’s really, really easy to get tones into students’ heads.

1. Lots of input. I mean lots. Nope, more than that. Lots of input they can understand, showing them THROUGH REAL MEANING that tones matter. The first words I teach beginners are kū (cries) and kù (is cool). Big difference. They are still distinguishing between tones, but they’re doing it by focusing on the meaning, not getting all anxious about whether they can do this new party trick of identifying with a number the way someone’s voice goes in their new language.

2. Directional gestures. Can’t emphasize this enough. On top of the mountain of input (a little more input, please, while we’re on the subject!), I attach a gesture to each new word at the novice stage. Each syllable of the word is gestured in a place that represents its tone. Each gesture (as a whole; there are as many movements as there are syllables) represents the meaning of the word.

This is much stronger than simply gesturing with a high motion to show a first tone, or a rising motion to show a second tone. Those tone gestures are not associated with any particular word, so it’s easy to forget which words they go with. (They’re also patented — believe it or not — yes, the method of indicating the tonal contour of words in a tonal language was patented by somebody. Though it hardly matters since obviously no one has ever defended that one.)

3. Limited Pinyin.

Yes. Limit the Pinyin.

The main cause of “Pinyin accent” — sounding like someone reading English but doing it while looking at Pinyin — is seeing Pinyin before the mind has a firm grasp on the sound of the word the Pinyin represents. It is not hard to get the “x” sound into someone’s head. It’s much more difficult to do the whole song-and-dance about how the X and SH pinyin sounds are similar and different and then do a discrimination exercise on words that no one has any clue about anyway yet, and that doesn’t stick anyway.

Pinyin should be the kind of thing they can glance at once and easily say the word, not something they look at, think about and then hesitantly “read” out loud.

Students MUST hear the language. There is no substitute for this. And they must hear language they understand. The words must be so familiar to them that they can easily “hear” the Chinese voice in their heads. This Chinese voice is the foundation for so many amazing things in the TPRS Chinese classroom. It drives good pronunciation. It drives the ability to predict words while reading. It drives the kind of writing that has kids able to write 200+ characters well within the first half of the first year of class, and make fewer mistakes per 100 characters than kids who have had a full year of traditionally-taught Chinese classes.

So, you want good tones from your kids? Give them lots of opportunity to listen to YOUR good tones. And some gestures, so the tones “get into their bodies”. And easy on the Pinyin.

So what do I mean by “ears vs brain”?

I’ve learned Chinese dialects both ways. I have 30 years in Mandarin. I learned it the hard way — memorizing and outputting. I was lucky enough to spend much of my adult life living in a Chinese-speaking environment, so I finally managed to pretty much get the pronunciation thing better, but let me tell you, it was pretty bad even 10 years in.

Now, I’ve had 14 hours of Cantonese through TPRS. Cantonese tones are supposed to be harder than Mandarin ones. I know there are six, or maybe eight — I’m not even really sure. But I can say all the words I know with the proper tone. People (unfortunately, many times) think I have much more proficiency than I really do, just because I sound good. And that has come because I acquired the language I have, not learned it. Listening. I probably have my teacher’s local accent, but that’s okay. The point is, my tones are better in a more complex tonal system after 14 hours than they were after 10 years of work in Mandarin by brain work (learning).

Input. Gestures. Less Pinyin.

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