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Recently I've been teaching an English-speaking friend some basics about Chinese, but inevitably he got stuck with the tones. I've demonstrated to him the 4 tones with audio files, yet it seems hard for him to distinguish between them. (That being said, he is still able to imitate the pronunciation immediately after listening, though not knowing what tone he is repeating.)

As a native speaker, I have picked up the tones through years of immersion in the language environment, which is of little help to a busy non-native speaker.

What can I do to help my friend perceive the tones? Is there a transition from "cannot perceive" to "can perceive", or are there stages that I can guide him through? How can I describe the differences to him so that he can learn the nuances? Experience from teachers who are used to adult learners (especially learners whose native language is English) would be welcome.

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Here are some different things that I have seen that has helped people pick up tones:

Starting out

  • Most books use graphs which show how each of the tones rise, fall, flatten etc (example here). It helps some people to see the difference visually and the graphs show how great an extent the tones differ.
  • The tones also have names (not official) e.g. rising, falling. Show the learner the graphs and ask them how they would describe each of the tones. Then ask them to pronounce tone X based on their descriptor.
  • Almost everyone I've seen starting with tones have started with the exercise: mā, má, mǎ, mà.
  • This is a bad habit, but it helps some people: using your head or your hand to move in the right direction of the tone while saying it. May help with beginners, but not recommended to keep this habit for long.

Stepping up

  • Try using pairs of words, I suggest using names of places because the speaker will have something they are familiar with e.g. běijīngtáiwānshànghǎi
  • Counting 1 to 10 is a good exercise because it covers all four tones and as per above the speaker is familiar with the concept so they can concentrate on learning.
  • Family members is another good one (bàba, māmā) that uses a variety of tones.

Becoming competent

  • A good exercise for learning tones is practicing basic songs. I prefer to use children's songs than pop music as people tend to get distracted by the meaning of pop songs rather than concentrating on learning.
  • Learn to recite simple poems (again, don't concentrate on meaning, just on exercising your tongue and mouth)
  • There is a concept which has spread across children's Mandarin classes in the West. I will check with my wife what it is called. It involves getting children to read and recite very old writing where the meaning is completely obscured. The purpose as with the examples above is to make the learner concentrate more on how they are speaking and getting the tones precise than understanding what they are saying.
  • Practice reading out loud, even to yourself, as often as possible. This helps to train the mouth. Once you become more fluent start singing along to your favourite pop songs.

In my personal experience learning tones is one of the hardest skills and it took me at least 5 years before I started getting over 90% correct in conversation. My 5 year old son, who had the benefit of learning as a baby from his mother and grandparents, still corrects me daily when I slip up.

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I'd like to add that minimal pair bingo with tones is an excellent exercise for all levels, except perhaps for true beginners. In essence, you write down a number of tones and person A then pronounces one of them. Person B is supposed to guess which tone was pronounced. The student and the teacher/native speaker can switch roles. I've found this to be a very, very good way of spotting problems with tones. I've written much more about this here in case the above description isn't enough: hackingchinese.com/?p=245 –  Olle Linge Oct 8 '12 at 1:59
    
I agree that the hand/head gesture can help the beginner but is limited. I had a classmate in my Cantonese class who did it but with three flat tones and two rising tones, its usefulness was limited -- as he would focus on the general shape of the tone and forget the level(s) of the tones. Also, learning to produce tones and learning to identify them require two different skill sets. –  dda Oct 8 '12 at 3:30

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