Tones, a fluid and dynamic concept
Learning tones has always been tied closely to pronunciations, which is further tied to intelligibility. The logic is that if students don’t pronounce tones clearly, they will have bad pronunciations. If they have bad pronunciations, nobody will understand them. And that can cause serious problems, such as getting slapped in a restaurant because the poor guy said “shuì jiào 睡觉” instead of “shuǐ jiǎo 水饺”.
As a result, students are encouraged to speak Chinese according to the tones marked in the pinyin. Hence, correcting tones becomes a major component in many Chinese classes. Tones have become so inviolable that they basically dictate how students learn Chinese.
My practice is slightly different. I believe that there are many ways to improve pronunciations, and working on tones is only a small part of a wholistic and on-going effort. However, this is only an empirical claim based on my experience and observations. Now I have some hard evidence to show that tones are definitely not inviolable, because they themselves keep changing. And there is really no reason to spend too much time to drill on tones.
From late 2019 to early 2021, I worked continuously on the Complete Beginner’s Chinese Reading and Writing Course Kit, and countless hours were spent on the audio recordings. That was how I realised that tones are in fact very fluid. Later, after some comparisons, I am convinced that tones are a more flexible phenomenon and quite a dynamic concept in nature.
This study is probably a nonissue, and it is very much limited to the Chinese Reading and Writing series. Somebody might have already worked on thousands of Chinese characters for a more comprehensive picture and published an important paper in an academic journal which I do not know about.
Still, I am curious. And the Chinese Reading and Writing series provides a perfect study arena. Due to the structure of the books, I can study individual characters, combinations, sentences and paragraphs, and compare how a character changes its tone in different places. I have got plenty of recordings to work with, 320 characters, 1291 combinations, 1455 sentences, 52 conversations and 46 narratives.
I started with dividing these 320 characters into five groups.
And immediately I recognised some limitations.
The first one is about the characters with more than one pronunciations. There are 19 characters which are introduced explicitly as this kind of special characters. However, there are more of them in the pool of 320 characters. I have my reasons for not teaching more special characters.
For me, it’s quite straightforward to decide whether or not to introduce a character as a special character, or to introduce a character’s second pronunciation at some point in the series. It all depends on whether or not there are other characters already available, which this special character, when pronounced in a certain way, can be combined with. The availability of these companion characters is very important.
For example, the character “和”, only one pronunciation “hé” is taught, because it can be used so widely in the books. Another pronunciation “hè” is not taught, because there are not any companion characters available in the series to fully activate the usage of 和 in terms of this pronunciation. It’ll be a waste of time and energy for students to learn something they could not use, and if they learn it, they’ll forget about it quickly. Since the Chinese Reading and Writing series is written for beginner students to actively use all the available characters in meaningful texts, it’s absolutely necessary to favour the most frequently used characters/pronunciations.
Next is about the group of characters with the neutral tone.
The neutral tone is quite a special category on its own. In a given context or combination, many characters’ pronunciations change to a neutral tone. And in the books, there are characters which are predominantly pronounced as a neutral tone, despite they are pronounced with a definite tone when standing alone, such as the character “个”.
I had to make a decision that, for the neutral tone group, only those characters, which really do not have other available tones or other available tones are not introduced, are included.
Therefore, as soon as I divide the characters into five different groups, my study is already not accurate. Nevertheless, the following is some of my preliminary understanding why tones are a fluid and dynamic concept.
After counting all the 320 characters, the first thing I noticed is that tones do not spread across the characters evenly. The fourth tone has a larger share in the pool, while the percentages of the first tone, the second tone and the third tone are quite close to each other. Below is the breakdown.
The fluid and dynamic nature of tones
When I say tones are fluid and dynamic, it is because the pronunciation of tones are not fixed. How the tone of a character is pronounced is affected by the positions of this character in the sentence and by its surrounding characters. Following are some examples.
When a character with the first tone is pronounced alone, the pitch is usually the highest. It is lower if this character is pronounced at the end of the sentence, and seems to be the lowest when it follows a fourth tone in a longer sentence. For example, 他.
When in a sentence, second tones are often pronounced shorter than they are pronounced as stand alone characters. The pronunciation of a second tone is slightly longer when followed by a third tone or a fourth tone. Compare the character 白 in the following sentences.
The difference between the top two “白” and the bottom two “白” is the quite obvious.
I find the fourth tone characters with the final “a” is the easiest of all to be detected by the microphone. For example, 爸 and 大.
There are four characters with the fourth tone in these two sentences, 爸, 事, 这, 大, while the tone of 爸 and 大 is pronounced noticeably clearer from the other two characters, which are more muffled.
The take away
The question is, what benefit can students get if tones are not fixed, rather, quite fluid and dynamic?
I think the greatest benefit will be that students do not need to worry about that they are not speaking the “correct tones”, because there are no “correct tones” in an absolute sense. They can free their mind from hovering over tones constantly, and speak Chinese more freely.
Also, perhaps teaching tones can be made similar to teaching about the Earth, which involves three phases over time:
Similarly, teaching tones can be adjusted according to the level of students:
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