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. 

  • Characters with more than one pronunciations (多音字)
  • Characters with the first tone (一声)
  • Characters with the second tone (二声)
  • Characters with the third tone (三声)
  • Characters with the fourth tone (四声)
  • Characters with the neutral tone (轻声)

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 “”, 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 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 “”. 

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. 

The statistics

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.

statistics of tones in Chinese
  • 19 characters (5.9%) with more than one pronunciations. They are:

便差长处当发分干还华教空了哪为校行只种

  • 66 characters (20.6%) with the first tone. These characters are:

八班包边车吃出穿春冬东都多方飞高哥跟工喝黑花欢机加家间江今斤经京开妈期七千秋三山身生声师收书说思她他天听西先些心新星衣一因英真知之中

  • 63 characters (19.7%) with the second tone. One thing to mention is that character “” is also introduced in the series, in addition to the character “”. All 63 characters are:

白别才常成船从得读儿国孩河和红黄回来蓝零〇楼毛没门们名明拿男南能年平其钱前情球全裙然人如谁什实十时条同头完文无学颜宜游鱼员直昨

  • 70 characters (21.9%) with the third tone. These characters are:

矮把百北本比场此打等点短法给拐果海好很己几姐九可口老冷里理两马买美每你女跑起请少手水所体晚网往我五午喜想小写雪也已以泳有雨远早怎找主子总走左

  • 96 characters (30%) with the fourth tone. They are:

爸半报被不步部次大带到道地弟第电店定动对饿二饭放个贵过号候后话会价见叫进就看课客裤快块乐累力六路绿卖慢妹面那气汽去让热日入色上事是四太外万问夏下现向谢信姓样要业意用又右月在再这住赚自字最作做坐

  • 6 characters (1.9%) with the neutral tone. These characters are:

吧的吗么呢着

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. 

  • The pitch of the first tone has a wide spectrum. 

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, .

他跟他。

他和他。

他給他。

他看他。

他明天看他。

  • Second tones often get cut short. 

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 in the following sentences.

我白天去。

美国有白人,也有黑人。

他白给我一条短裤。

这是白色的。

The difference between the top two “” and the bottom two “” is the quite obvious. 

  • The pronunciation of a forth tone is quite influenced by the finals. 

I find the fourth tone characters with the final “a” is the easiest of all to be detected by the microphone. For example, and .

爸爸有事。

这个很大。

There are four characters with the fourth tone in these two sentences, , , , , while the tone of and 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:

  • Phase 1: The Earth is flat.
  • Phase 2: The Earth is round.
  • Phase 3: The Earth’s surface is a dynamic union of its solid crust, its atmosphere, its hydrosphere, and its biosphere.

Similarly, teaching tones can be adjusted according to the level of students:

  • Step 1: There are four basic tones in Mandarin Chinese.
  • Step 2: Tones change in many places.
  • Step 3: Tones are a dynamic union of a character’s own sound, its sounding characters, its positions in the sentence, and speaker’s own personal preferences.

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