On a language teachers’ mailing list, someone asked for hints on how to teach Chinese tones. Here’s how I do it.

Some tools for getting students to acquire tones in Mandarin:

–Directional gestures (gestures specifically for each new word that incorporate both a meaning component and place the tones into a tonal space that is consistent across gestures — chin level of above for tone 1, waist level for tone 3, rising motion for tone 2, falling for tone 4). These gestures are not only showing the tone, but showing meaning and tone simultaneously, and as such are highly effective in fixing tones in the student’s mind WITH the word, not as an afterthought. I originated these and have been working with them for over a decade with good results in both Mandarin and other Chinese dialects.

–Tonal spelling (not the clunky “add silent letters” systems of the past). Another Mandarin teaching add-on that I’ve developed is Tonally Orthographic Pinyin (TOP), a pedagogical refinement to Pinyin that uses three marking systems to redundantly mark tones (capitals and small letters, consistent color-coding of words and the usual Pinyin diacritical marks). If you get lazy with the markers, students will often correct you: “That should be a blue tone word, not green!” They know this because blue tones are high like the sky, green goes upward like a plant growing, black is low, and red sounds angry. (They also gradually learn to use the numbers to describe the tones; they don’t just refer to them by colors.)

–Mnemonics. Associate the tone of a word with some “reason” why the word is that tone. These go well with the directional gestures. For example, the “teacher” gesture is picking up a piece of chalk or a marker (at waist level = tone 3 for “lao3”) and writing on a whiteboard with it (at chin level, for tone one “shi1”.) The kinesthetics of the directional gesture put the tone into the body, while the story behind it make the gesture –and tones associated with it — more memorable.

I do not teach tones separately, do no phonetics drills or “sounds of Mandarin” lessons, but students develop good pronunciation and tones using these methods plus brief pop-ups highlighting tones and the key segments of Pinyin that are particularly problematic (zh/j, ch/q, sh/x, r, etc.)

Most importantly, students must have LANGUAGE before they become LITERATE in it, and that includes Pinyin. Get the language solidly in the students’ ears (have them actually acquire it, even if it’s a small subset of the whole language) and then begin literacy on that bit of language. Having them read and deal with text in general (whether Pinyin or characters) that contains known language makes reading much easier and prevents “sound-it-out” foreign accent issues caused by visual associations with the native language sounds. Having the sound of the word solidly in the head, it’s easy for students to accept that “that’s how this is written/spelled” — especially with lots of interesting, contextually-rich reading materials.