Learning Tones is Hard!

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Learning Tones is Hard!

Post by Programmer »

My experience of learning tones is that the process is maddeningly slow and difficult compared to say learning vocabulary or learning characters. This may not be everyone’s experience. In the “boot camp” page I assert that learning tones has nothing to do with music or musicality. My reasoning is that I am “tone deaf”, along with a certain percentage of the population, and in China there must be a similar percentage of the population that are unable to sing without everyone in the vicinity wanting to block their ears. Obviously, these people don’t have any trouble communicating, ergo using tones isn’t about being musical. But it would be interesting to know if there are some learners of Chinese who pick up tones easily, and if so, do they tend to be of a more musical bent.

Here is a confession: when I was developing the Mǎ or Mà website back in 2016 I did the tone tests every day as part of the debugging process and I noticed a definite improvement, I think it was about two or three percent over the course of several months. Then there was a long period when, having created the website, I didn’t use it at all. I had been getting like 80% or 85% on the tests and I thought that was pretty good, and then I just got out of the habit of using the website.

Then in the last year I have been developing “Character Mine” (a Windows desktop program which also incorporates the tone tests and character practice) and once again I have been doing tone tests nearly every day. This time I have noticed how one day I might effortlessly get 90%, whereas the next day I seem to be getting every other question wrong. What this tells me is that learning tones is not a process of memorization like learning vocabulary, which is much more consistent and linear. A better analogy for tones practice v. vocab building would be the process of trying to learn how to hold a balancing position in yoga versus the process of working out in a gym. With yoga it seems one day you are perfectly comfortable and at ease standing on one leg, but the next you can’t manage to hold any posture for more than a few seconds. We don’t understand the mysterious processes of how synapses form and link, but to me it seems apparent that training your ear is somewhat more hit and miss and requires somewhat more patience than learning words or characters, but over time the progress can be just as significant.