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2/10: The four tones in Chinese: Discover the KEY secret to actually understanding Chinese

The room was old and faded with a dusty blackboard and some broken pieces of chalk the only teaching accessories visible. An older man, I’d like to say with a classic weeping beard but alas just a few whiskers for a moustache, was waiting for everyone to get seated. Calmness was in the air. And then it began.

Prof Li : In Chinese we have four tones. I will write them here:

Mā Má Mă Mà

You must repeat after me: Mā Má Mă Mà

Class : Ma Ma Ma Ma

Prof Li : OK, it is not easy but it is very important you master these tones. Listen carefully and repeat again after me: Mā Má Mă Mà

Class : Ma Ma Ma …

The spell was broken. I never showed up again.


As soon as I returned to France I signed up at the first Chinese class I could find.

And then another.

And another and another.

And all across the board, every single one would repeatedly focus on the four magic "ma"s trying desperately to get us to repeat them tone perfect.

The reality being either Chinese was just really difficult or we were all tone deaf.

Or were we?

A prototype for a better way to learn Chinese

I already knew a bit about learning and a bit more about teaching, enough to know that even if the lesson at hand was important, in this case the four tones of Chinese and that this was a classic way to introduce the language, something was still amiss.

My mission, or project in challenging myself to learn Chinese in just a year, was not just personal. I wanted to use my experience with learning Chinese to develop learning strategies and techniques to make learning more accessible and usable, in particular for those of us on a low-time or no-time time budget.

I knew so many people who wanted to speak a second language fluently, yet because of full-time jobs, family responsibilities and life in general, time was constantly an issue.

It was like losing a battle before you even started fighting it.

I decided to rethink learning at every single level.

I wanted learning techniques that actually worked.

Learning techniques which didn't interrupt life yet made learning possible 24/7.

Learning methods which gave a constant sense of achievement, making you want to keep learning more and more and more.

Learning that was achievable, learning that was sustainable, learning that was progressive.

Learning that happens.

Learning that actually happens!

Isn't that the learning you are looking for too?

Let me know in the comments #yestobetterlearning

You've come to exactly the right place!

Do we really need to start with the four tones in Chinese?

And logically, what we all want to know with a language like Chinese is where is the best place to start?

As mentioned at the outset, the vast majority of classes all start with the four Chinese tones.

The four Chinese tones form the core, the backbone of the Chinese language.

And if you don't master them, quite simply in the longterm of your learning Chinese, you will forever struggle to be understood.

So obviously it is a bit of a no brainer that all classes teach them first, yet still I found something amiss.

Something that had me walk out of every class I attended.

And it came down to this one simple concept.

A simple concept found in a common analogy relating to colour and blindness.

And it goes like this:

How do you explain colour to a person born blind?

(If you've actually cracked this conundrum, please let me know in the comments!)

But how do you?

And a similar thing is true when we start talking about the four tones in Chinese.

Just as we would never expect a person to be able to describe colour that they had never seen, how can we rationally expect somebody to repeat what they cannot even hear?

Let's dig into this a little deeper.

What really is listening in language learning?

When it comes to learning a second language, be it Chinese, English, French, Spanish, Japanese, or any one of the thousands of languages and dialects out there, we often talk about the four core skills: reading, writing, speaking and...


And when we think of listening we often think of comprehension, even labeling the skill as listening comprehension.

Always this idea of understanding.

To the point we get discouraged when so often we don't understand what people are saying in the language we are learning and we start to question our very ability:

I just need to learn more grammar

I just need to learn more vocabulary

Then I will be able to understand more

Have you ever found yourself saying or even thinking those exact words?

It's only normal.

But I'm going to let you in on another learning secret. In fact this one is a pretty big one. And it will turn this concept of listening on its head.

Because over the years I have spent a lot of time studying the listening aspect of language learning, and brought together learning techniques which radically improved some of my clients listening comprehension levels in just a few short months.

And you know what?

I didn't even teach them any grammar or vocabulary!

You see in categorising language learning into four main skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening, our focus actually becomes very rudimentary.

In fact, you will notice very quickly, that beyond the first three sections of this guide, the skill set I recommend you to develop to succeed in your language learning journey goes far beyond those four basic elementary skills.

I'm also going to show you in detail in this section how even those four skills should be expanded on and developed far beyond their generalized and standardized objectives. And to do that we will specifically be looking at the category of listening.

The magic of understanding how sound works in language learning

From my early days teaching, I remember coming across and then researching the concept of each language having its own sound range or frequency levels.

It is frequently connected to the research by French otolaryngologist Dr Alfred A. Tomatis, who worked with opera singers and pioneered research into hearing itself as being a cause of voice problems. His theory revolves around the theory that the voice cannot produce what the ear itself does not hear.

It's a concept which is still debated, however several factors remain highly influential when it comes to language learning.

First though, when it comes to our ears and language, it is important to understand how things evolve and develop.

When a baby is born, its brain has the potential to work at full capacity and its ears open to take on any language or any number of languages. And each at the level of a native speaker.

As a child grows this capacity remains in place until around the age of thirteen.

This is because from around the age of thirteen the ears potential to hear any sound at any range of frequency is cut short and all those ranges which have not been exploited up until that point are pruned away and reduced to what is needed for day to day use.

This is why as adults when we start to learn a second language, the issue is not so much we don't understand what we are hearing, but rather we don't actually hear it in the first place.

Take a look at how these different sound frequencies of language overlap:

Sound Frequencies of Language

Note in particular, how languages like French (with a frequency range of 125-300Hz and 1000-2000Hz) and Chinese (with a frequency range of 125-2000Hz) both fall out of range with British English which has a high frequency range of 2000-12000Hz.

What other interesting differences do you notice? Let's talk about it in the comments below!

The key to understanding that initial 'wall of sound' in language learning

For those of you, however, who are fluent in a second language which you learnt as an adult, think back to when you first started learning that language. Don't those first recollections include that feeling you were listening to a wall of sound without even being able to identify a single word?

And one of the reasons we hear a foreign language as a wall of indistinguishable sounds is because that language is often on a different range to our own and our ears do not have the capacity to hear it.

Notice my emphasis on the word hear rather than using the word understand.

This is deliberate.

Because when it comes to coming into contact with a language on a similar range to our own, we will find ourselves capable of picking out words and ideas because words and groups of words keep popping out to us. And also because already we can hear the actual language.

I remember years back in university I was housesharing and one of my housemates was from Spain. And she had a friend who would come over quite a lot. And this friend was Italian. And even if Italian and Spanish are from a same group of languages, it always used to fascinate me how my Spanish housemate didn't speak Italian and her Italian friend didn't speak Spanish yet to communicate with each other, each would speak and reply in their own language. And they would talk for hours, one speaking in Spanish and the other in Italian! I was often tempted to turn it into a trio and start speaking in French!

This is why languages such as Italian, Spanish and French are very easy to pick up if already you are fluent in one of those languages. Not only because the words and grammatical structures share similarities, but because on an auditive level they share similar frequency ranges and so your ears already have the capacity to hear the new language.

Exploring new ways to open up our ears to a new language

Having lived and worked in France for so many years I always wondered why so many English speakers found French hard to pick up even after living there for many many years, and inversely why English was so hard to pick up for French speakers.

When I came to look at the frequency range of French compared to English (see Table above), I saw that the two barely overlapped and often times people were unable to speak because quite honestly they couldn't even hear the language properly.

The day I started training them to expand the auditive range of their ears, that was when they started to be able to understand everything because finally they could actually hear it.

It sounds almost like a no-brainer, and to an extent it is, but you would not believe the number of language learners and trainers who actually overlook this essential step.

The FIRST secret to opening up your ears to the Chinese language

This is why when I set out to learn Chinese in just a year, my very first port of call was to work on my ears.

And for the first six months, my number one focus was my ears.

If you've already read my intro, you will know that this was before tech had become what it was today. Our main form of audio came on cassettes or CDs, so anything in Chinese I could get my hands on to listen to I would.

Nothing was at the touch of a button!

Youtube hadn't even been invented yet!

Any Chinese language events I heard about, I would go to.

And for the first six months I listened...

...and didn't even try to understand a single word!

(That itself is a whole topic in its own right and will be the subject of future articles, so I will only add here that in taking off the pressure to understand (and all the stress and feeling of discouragement which comes with it), you allow your ears to focus on what they need to be doing at that time: adapting and expanding to be able to start recognising and processing a whole new language.)

But what is especially fascinating about this period, is how visible and distinct the different stages of progress were in starting to hear Chinese.

Obviously, at the very beginning all I could hear was one great wall of sound. I could not even distinguish a single sound.

At Stage 2 I started to hear actual sounds and with time these became clearer and clearer.

At Stage 3 I started to hear groups of sounds.

At Stage 4 the groups of sounds turned into actual words.

Note at this point that I didn't actually understand those words, I just knew they were words and when I stopped and asked somebody what that 'word' actually meant, my supposition was usually correct.

At Stage 5 I started to pick out grammatical structures and simple day to day expressions.

While training my ears was my number one focus, I had also started studying the language, so as my ears were opening up more, particularly at around stage 5, I was also starting to hear the grammatical structures I had been learning in my textbook.

This was very powerful to be able to learn something in a book and then straight away jump into day-to-day life and hear and be able to identify the actual structures I had just learnt, thus solidifying the learning process on both sides of the coin.

To say it boosted my confidence and my desire to keep learning would also be an great understatement.

And it can do exactly the same thing for you!

Just imagine the effect it could have on your Chinese!

And that is only the very beginning...


Now if you ever take a look back at some of my Instagram posts @RuthZannis, you will soon discover that I am not the type of person who likes to do one thing at a time. As far as it is possible to synchronise activities and effectively do several things simultaneously, I go for those options.

It saves time.

It saves energy.

It also saves money.

Never one without two: the BEST Chinese language learning secrets come in pairs

This is actually only the first key secret to listening.

There is actually a whole lot more and I'm going to be sharing it with you!

Stay tuned.


All will be revealed very soon.

Got any great resources you use for listening to Chinese?

Share in the comments below!


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