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Is it only me, or whenever you listen to whole sentences or dialogues you barely can recognize the tones too?... If that's true, then there are two implications. Either chinese people are not so strict with tones, or I should work a lot more towards recognizing and producing phrases correctly. What are your thoughts?

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  • I think it is just a case of people who grew up with the language, and people who learn the language as a second or third language, in most cases as an adult when the ears are already "tuned" to whatever mother tongue. I have problems understanding English dialogue in the movies. And I also have difficulty appreciating Jazz music. It just sounds "off tune" to me. And, finally, pure Mandarin speakers have difficulty understanding Cantonese speakers speaking Mandarin, and vice versa of course. So, it is not just about Tones. Oct 18, 2023 at 12:27
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    A lot of Chinese cannot speak mandarin perfectly, and some of them are even worse than foreigners. But usually natives can still understand them, maybe with some effort. As most people are not linguist, they are not able to tell whether it is the tones or phonemes are not good, but they can hear a kind of accent. That is to say, native will not try to distinguish or recognize tones in speech. But it the tones are not good, they will be able to hear accents.
    – fefe
    Oct 19, 2023 at 2:02

3 Answers 3

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At least I'm not like that. And both of your guesses make sence: good tones can make it easy for us to understand others' words. And when they are not clear, we use our ability to associate in order to correct and complete our understanding.

One great example is Chinese songs where the melodys is supposed to override the tones of the lyrics. In this case, lyrics can be harder to get recognized if you are not familar with it. I find it easier to understand the intentions of creators when the lyrics of most songs reflect everyday life. However, we do get trouble recognizing lyrics with classical Chinese or other rarely-used word.

Their's a related word called 空耳(Soramimi) in Japanese, which means getting wrong (often humorous) homophonic reinterpretation of dialogs and lyrics. Although Soramimis are mostly intentional, I believe it's nearly impossible to convince yourself of a wrong meaning when the pronunciation is clear and the wording is common. A recent meme on the Chinese internet couldn't be more appropriate. It's a song called "for ya" which makes it difficult for many Chinese people to understand its meaning without reading the lyrics. Putting aside the part that uses English, many of its expressions have problems:

......
你迷人的发尾(less commonly used expressions for "hair tips")
记得亲你的时候你害羞往后退(亲(qīn) is easily misheard as 清(qīng)("remember when I kissed you"→"remember you clearly"))
我天天都想念着圆圆的你(my round? one???)
你淡淡的发香是迷人的迷(meaningless repetition)
you know 不愿意失去你
人群再熙攘我也可以瞬间抓住你(only used in written language)
......

So it's unsurprising that people who are less familiar with Chinese can encounter difficulties in more common scenarios.

Chinese users use association to deal with hearing problems. If you are confident that you can hear clearly but cannot understand, it may be because you are not familiar enough with common words and phrases.

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    很谢谢你. So the conclusion is that I'm not alone in this, and I must study harder... Oct 18, 2023 at 11:57
  • Please permit me to put my "interpretation" In 我天天都想念着圆圆的你, as it stands, it means "I miss your plumpness or well-rounded self (圆圆), every day", because it is impolite to say "fat", so 圆圆 for plumpness or "well-rounded" is teasingly polite. It is also a pun on "远远", and so the ambiguity when spoken only is the fun part. In 你淡淡的发香是迷人的迷, I don't think it is a "meaningless repetition" I would interpret 迷人的迷 as "a captivating mystery" So, the sentence means, literally, "The light fragrance of your hair is a captivating mystery" There may be a pun somewhere, but can't think of any. My 2 cents. Oct 31, 2023 at 2:07
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Either chinese people are not so strict with tones, or I should work a lot more towards recognizing and producing phrases correctly. What are your thoughts?

Both are true.

As to the first issue, there are various reasons native speakers will produce tones in different ways.

Accent:

Learners generally start with citation tones of one syllable words spoken by native speakers with "prestige" accents. Many major cities in Mandarin speaking areas have their own range of pitches and sandhi rules. (See, e.g., Wikipedia: Tianjian Dialect: Characteristics) Once you encounter Mandarin from speakers with a variety of accents, prepare to hear great variation in how the actual tones are rendered. This is similar to how English speakers will vary in their pronunciations of "cat," "cart," "cot," and "caught."

Unstressed syllables:

Standard Mandarin is spoken with lots of changes in rhythm between word groups to clarify meaning. Stressed words tend to get their full tone range, but unstressed words have narrower ranges in pitch. Also, the second syllable in a three syllable word/phrase is often de-stressed, e.g., the 国 guó in 中国话 zhōngguóhuà often is pronounced short without a noticeable rise.

Grammaticalization:

Words used in grammaticalized functions often lose their full tones, so that a word like 来 lái is usually pronounced with a neutral tone when used as a particle at the end of a sentence.

Citation tones to word tones:

From a learner's perspective, after learning to produce and recognize citation tones of one syllable words, you should get a good grasp of producing and recognizing tones in multisyllable words. Perfection is not necessary. Then you should pay attention to full sentences and differences in rhythm and stress which are often as important or more important to comprehension than a faithful grasp of tones.

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Have a look at the real-world pitch contour in the image below. It is far different from the over-idealized curves that you see in the books. This is why you can't recognize the tones. Up to 7.2 s the (female) speaker says: Jùxī, zhòngyìyuàn gònghédǎng rén ... The breaks in the curve are due to silence and to unvoiced consonants. (I'm experimenting with this to build software that supports practicing such contours for fluent speech.)

real-world pitch contour of Mandarin tones.

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