Tone Robots (and How Not to Become One)

"Hello - we - are - tone - robots. Take - us - to - your - leader."

Sometimes you can be so right, you are actually wrong. You’re determined not to speak sloppy Mandarin. You’ve memorized the tone for every word (or character combination) you know. In every word you utter, the tone rings crystal clear and you know it. There is only one problem: You sound like a freaky robot.

You win some and you lose some with each style of learning Mandarin. Some of my students are “loosey goosey” with their tones, hitting on the right ones seemingly only by accident, yet somehow capturing some of the cadence of the language. Then there are some diligent students, with well-memorized tones, who may come off sounding, well, like robots. I’ve seen Mandarin teachers in my school, or native speakers in my San Francisco Mandarin group, giggle uncontrollably when hearing this kind of Mandarin; The kind where each morpheme is separated, thrown out into the air, and violently axed with a 100% accurate tone. Correct? Yes. Funny sounding? Affirmative.

The good news is if you are already speaking this type of Mandarin, you are probably a very good student. Now you’ve just got to smoke some reefer and loosen up. Or, if you’re not into that kind of thing, try this approach: Take some of your study time to focus on the cadence and melody of Mandarin. How does a whole sentence sound put together? When are tones emphasized or de-emphasized? What do native speakers really sound like? You may be surprised to hear tones almost lost in the cadence of speech, while others are clearly executed for emphasis. English is not that different. A learner of English could separately say each word, emphasizing what clear diction he has in the sentence “I – am – going – to – go – to – the – store”. Yet, he would also lose the feel of how an American might more naturally say “I’m gonna go t’the store.”

The best way to avoid becoming a tone robot is to listen to as much Mandarin as you can, and simply try to mimic what you hear. Pretend you are an actor who has to repeat the lines exactly as you hear them. This is the time to shut off your tone-focused brain, and concentrate simply on melody and cadence. If you don’t live in a country that speaks Mandarin, the best way to increase your exposure to the language are podcasts (try or do a Google search for others). Download lessons on to an MP3 player and carve out some time in your studies just for listening and absorbing the flow of the language.  Signing – off – now.  I  – do – hope – this – computes.


8 Responses

  1. I really need to be more like a tone robot – at least for a while. I have the ‘flow’ and cadence of the language pretty well down (listening to my wife and other native speakers helps in this regard) but when I don’t slow down I make too many tone mistakes (so people don’t end up understanding what I am saying).

    My Chinese teacher often stops and points out where our language isn’t flowing (pauses and emphasis is wrong) so we don’t sound too robotic and alien-like. That being said, I’d rather sound a bit alien than get my tones wrong and have people just stare at me blankly which sadly happens more often than I would like.

  2. Good point. The advice is really for the opposite kind of student. Right, the student who is not a robot, should emphasize tones and getting them right. It’s all about balancing your own skills with those you need to improve.

  3. What a great article… How I WISH I were to more like a tone robot. I’m happy to slop around … and sadly, most of the time no one understands me!

  4. Hey Ning, You both make good points. Maybe tone robots sound strange, but at least they are understood. On the other hand, there is a bit of a mental block with Chinese people speaking to foreigners in Mandarin. I have had the experience as a paralegal in a Chinese law firm where people understood me perfectly well on the phone (assuming I was Chinese, or Chinese American with Mandarin a bit off), then met me in person and froze unable to understand me suddenly in person. Take it with a grain of salt. Maybe a good topic for a post.

  5. I am somewhat of a tone robot, but people don’t laugh. They do understand me though and I would rather have that than great cadence and no one understanding me. –

  6. A great article. I must admit though that I am from the dark side :-). The following is very, very unorthodox and all Chinese teachers hate my guts for saying this.

    Well, it turns out that Chinese ear is very adept in figuring out what you want to say despite the fact that you mangle the tomes. Some of that stems from the fact that depending on which Chinese language is your native tongue you produce anywhere from 3 to 7 (or is it 9) different tones. The result is that when speaking Mandarin (4.5 tones :-)) native Chinese, who are not native Mandarin speakers confuse tones themselves. Now then, Chinese willy-nilly depend on context to figure out what is it that you are talking about.

    Sure, there are situations when the need for correct tones are absolutely necessary, e.g., a sudden switch of topic in the conversation, uttering an isolated phrase and so on. In such a case, a native who said it wrong will try to provide a context to make the situation clear.

    When I started learning Chinese I found that the endless repetitions of a word was utterly boring and demoralizing and so early on I decided to ignore the tones. This was easy because Chinese friends would not correct a foreigner if s/he makes a mistake. They would only intervene if they truly do not understand.

    Instead of studying tones I focused on expanding my vocabulary. It was very gratifying to see that my ability to converse grew rather quickly. The tones came later. I started to appreciate their importance as my ability to communicate became more complex. When it came to expressing more subtle shades of meaning and communicate more precisely it became truly important to say things “right”.

    Chinese teacher’s say that it is important to learn tones up front because it is difficult later to unlearn the mistakes. Perhaps so, I did not find that so difficult. Maybe it is because I did not fight the tones. If someone corrected me then I dutifully repeated the correction, but until recently i could not tell which word was which tone. I say “until recently” because, I must admit about 2-3 months ago I got onto a campaign of systematically expanding my vocabulary and at that point it seemed ridiculous not to identify the tones.

    I found this approach a more rewarding one and something that one should consider in teaching Chinese.

    I will now retreat into my cave put on a hard hat, raise my shield to protect myself from the sharp and smelly objects being thrown in my direction.

  7. Man this is so true >_> I see it all the time in my Chinese classes.

    Personally, I have a lot of flow and less correct tones. Working on it!

  8. Thanks for your interesting blog about Chinese culture and cross-cultural view. Somehow it occurs to me the attractive Chinese American star: Anna May Wong.. Enjoy 🙂

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