Remembering the tones in Mandarin

In Chinese on September 11, 2009 at 6:58 PM

This post was originally published on October 8, 2008 on another blog that I no longer use. I therefore move this post over here in hope that it will be useful to someone.

For a newbie like me on the Chinese language and Mandarin, remembering the tones of words is very difficult.

One technique that I’ve been using to remember the tones is to associate a person with each tone. Since there are four tones in Mandarin, and my family consists of four people, I have assigned one family member to represent each tone.

For example, the word shū (书) means book and has the first tone. Since the character looks kinda like a sail on a boat, in order to remember this word, I imagine my dad lying on a boat reading a book in the sunshine. My dad always represents the first tone.

This technique works quite well for words that consist of only one character. It does not work so well for words that consist of more than one character. That is because those words have multiple tones (one for each character). When I place my family members in a scene somewhere, it is difficult to remember the order in which the tones come. Maybe if I place me behind my dad, I can remember that the tone that I represent (which is tone three) comes before the first tone, but it gets messy.

Another disadvantage with this technique is that it is difficult to remember the tones for words like mom, dad, and sister if the tones do not correspond to the the ones that I’ve assigned my family members.

For example. The word for mom is mā ma (妈妈). A first tone followed by a neutral tone. But since I have associated the first tone with my dad, I can easily get confused here. But I guess I can learn these exceptions in some other way.

To address the problems of my current technique I have a new idea. I think it might work well, but I have not tried it yet. The basic idea is that you assign a combination of tones to a specific object and then associate that object with a word. For example, the word for Chinese language is Hàn yǔ (汉语). A fourth tone followed by a third tone. Lets say that I associate this tone combination with a panda. Then a panda will always represent this tone combination.

Now I have to learn two associations: that this particular tone combination is represented by a panda (I have to learn this once), and that a panda is related to Chinese language somehow (I have to relate the panda to all words with this tone combination).

For each tone combination I have to come up with an association to an object. This is a bit of work, but once it is done, it is done. For two character words, there should be only 4*4=16 such combinations (and maybe a few others if the fifth neutral tone is included). But I think this will help in the long run.

Another possible positive side of this is that I can maybe remember how a tone combination sounds like by associating a sound with the object associated with the combination.

But I have to experiment a bit more with this to be able to tell if it is useful or not.


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