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.