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01 July, 2007:
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Tone Mnemonics

Probably the most foreign and difficult aspect of spoken Chinese for students is pronouncing the four tones. Many students find it helpful to make up mnemonics, memory devices that help associate a word with its respective tone

Mnemonics are a better tool for remembering tones than physical techniques that many students employ such as the “finger method” and the “bobble-head” method.” Not only do students look foolish when they bob their heads or move their fingers through the air to represent tones, but these techniques are crutches that do more harm than good. If you try to represent tone physically, then there is less pressure to pronounce that tone correctly. In other words, if you see yourself drawing a tone marker in the air, then you lose the incentive to properly say that tone with your mouth. Mnemonics still force a speaker to pronounce tones, they simply provide a helpful reminder of what tone to pronounce.

A tone is more than an accent marker above a vowel in Pinyin, it is an integral part of pronunciation: pronouncing the wrong tone is equivalent to pronouncing the wrong word. Therefore, a mnemonic for remembering the tone should relate the meaning of the word to the way you pronounce it. Keep in mind that tones are not actually linked to meaning. Mnemonics are helpful aids, but there is no truth behind them. The pronunciation of a word is arbitrary, and its link to meaning is pretty much random.

Randomness aside, making up associations between meaning and tone can be helpful to memory.

The first example of tone differences everyone learns is the distinction between ma1 妈, ma2 麻, ma3 马, and  ma4 骂. How can you make good mnemonics for these?

Ma1 妈 means “mother.” Theoretically, it is the first sound that a child makes, so you can remember that it should be pronounced with the first tone. A better mnemonic has nothing to do with tone numbers, but simply sound. When you yell for your mother as a baby, you do so in a continuous high pitch, which might be visually represented as “MAAAAAAAAAAAA.” Remember that ma1 妈 is what you call your mother.

A mnemonic for ma2 麻 must relate to its meaning, “hemp.” One possible device is to remember that hemp grows from the ground up, so the tone of 麻 should rise from low to high.

Horse, ma3 马, can similarly be remembered if you visualize a saddle has a dip to it. Because a horse’s back drops down and then rises back up, you can remember that the word for horse should be pronounced with a similar “sway.”

Finally, ma4 骂 is easy to remember if you think of the falling fourth tone as someone getting angry. When the mother scolds the horse, she does it directly and angrily, so the tone of her voices drops sharply, just like the tone of the word ma4 骂.

Remember that tones are not really related to meaning. Many different mnemonics can be though of for all different words. They can be very helpful when you first start learning to speak Chinese and when you have a hard time distinguishing between two words. Obviously, to always be thinking of little stories makes speaking quite slow, so mnemonics should not be seen as anything more than training wheels that should be discarded as soon as they are no longer useful.