It isn’t easy for non-native speakers of Mandarin to pronounce words correctly, though many of them eventually master the basic sounds after studying pinyin and putting in hundreds of hours of speaking practice.
What many “fluent” speakers of Mandarin can’t manage is getting the tones right. There are a suprising number of non-native Mandarin speakers who can read and write in Chinese, and who have a vast vocabulary, but who cannot seem to accurately reproduce the tones of spoken Chinese. It is the Achilles heel of many a Sinologist.
For beginners: There are five tones in Mandarin. The first tone is elongated and somewhat high-pitched. The second tone rises from a lower point to a pitch just under the first tone, and is roughly the same length as the first tone. The third tone dips and then rises to a pitch under the ending pitch of the second tone, and the fourth tone abrupt and spoken at a lower pitch. The fifth tone is the neutral tone and is not used nearly as often as the other tones.
In my view, producing the wrong tones is often worse than simply speaking atonal Mandarin, because the tone determines the meaning of the word.
So what is a student of Chinese who wants to produce accurate tones to do? I have five suggestions for you.
1. Early on in the process of studying Chinese, make a commitment to learning difference between the tones. Then, decide that you’re going to repeat new words 10, 20, or 30 times, until you’re sure you’ve got the tones right. Many people are lackadaisical about tones in the beginning and end up forming bad habits that are hard to break, once your own take on a particular sound in Mandarin is ingrained.
2. Learn to write new words and phrases in a vocabulary notebook using pinyin, and make sure you mark the tones accurately with each new entry. When you review the words you’ve added, focus on the tones.
3. Spend time imitating native Mandarin speakers in real time. Think consciously about the tones associated with each syllable that comes out of your mouth as you do this. You can use real people who are willing to let you mimic them, or you can use recordings. A particular challenge is being able to fire off entire sentences with proper tones from beginning to end. Eventually, you’ll need to work up to this.
4. Ask your Mandarin speaking friends, relatives, and/or instructors to ruthlessly correct your tones when you make a mistake. Be an absolute stickler for correct tones.
5. Record yourself speaking longer sentences in Mandarin. Pick out your problem areas (with the help of a language coach if needed), and work on strengthening your weak areas. For example, many learners of Chinese cannot accurately produce a second tone. It will either sound like a third tone, or it won’t rise to a high enough pitch to be discernible to a native speaker.
There are some learners of Mandarin who are indeed gifted mimics. It will be easier for them to develop accurate tones, if they are diligent. Sadly, some people will never have very accurate tones, no matter what they do. Their brains just aren’t wired that way. Still, there is hope for most anyone who works hard enough at it.