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Learn The Chinese Tones With Morse Code?

I want to share a teaching cue I’ve been using with my students recently that’s been great for learning how to actually produce the tones.

When it comes to learning any skill, you need to frame it in a way you can understand before you can truly learn and master the skill. Quite often, I’ll use the analogy of playing music when teaching my students about tones.

If you think about it, learning the Chinese tones is like learning how to read music. You might be able to read the musical notes, but if you don’t know how to play those notes with the instrument, you won’t be able to pay the song. It’s the exact same challenge with Chinese tones.

So recently, I’ve been using the concept of Morse code to teach my students how to pronounce 3 out of the 4 Chinese tones, and it’s been working very well.

If you’re not familiar with Morse Code, you’ll need to read this article (otherwise, the concepts in this article won’t make any sense to you!).

HOW TO PRONOUNCE THE FIRST TONE (OR HIGH TONE)

The first tone is very similar to the “dash” in Morse code. A common teaching cue for the first tone is to pretend like you’re singing a high note. This cue isn’t completely inaccurate, but quite often, people will exaggerate too much and the tone won’t sound natural.

Instead, imagine you’re standing in a crowded subway, and you’re trying to hum a high-note without drawing any attention.

Drill 1

Hum a high-note 10 times, each time for about ¼ of a second

Drill 2

Now, repeat what you practiced in Drill 1, but apply that high note to the following sounds (imagine you’re on the crowded subway)

BA       DA      MA      LA       PA       TA       ZA

HOW TO PRONOUNCE THE THIRD TONE (OR LOW TONE)

Similar to the first tone, I think the third tone is also very similar to the “dash” in Morse code, except in the lowest pitch of your voice. Despite the fact that the third tone looks like a “U,” natives rarely go “down and up” as the tone mark indicates. Instead, it’s more of a sustained sound in the back of the throat. Again, imagine you’re standing in a crowded subway, but this time you’re trying to vibrate your uvula (the dangly thing at the back of your throat) without drawing any attention. This sound is almost identical to when you make the sheep sound, “baaaaah.”

Drill 1

Vibrate your uvula 10 times, each time for about ¼ of a second

Drill 2

Now, repeat what you practiced in Drill 1, but apply that “vibrating” to the following sounds (imagine you’re on the crowded subway)

BA       DA      MA      LA       PA       TA       ZA

HOW TO PRONOUNCE THE FOURTH TONE (OR DROP TONE)

Finally, the fourth tone is almost identical to the “dot” in Morse code. If you’ve never heard the dot in Morse code, it’s a quick, forceful tap.

Drill 1

Say the “duh” sound 10 times with a quick, forceful tap sound.

        。     。      。       。      。       。       。      。       。

Duh    Duh    Duh    Duh    Duh    Duh    Duh    Duh    Duh    Duh

 

Drill 2

Now, repeat what you did in drill 1, but apply that quick, forceful tap sound to the Chinese sounds below

。       。       。        。        。        。        。

BA       DA      MA      LA       PA       TA       ZA

 

 

There you go! Now you have a simple framework in order to correctly pronounce the first, third and fourth tones.

I recommend that you practice these drills several times so you can get these tones into muscle memory!

Jamie Rufe

Jamie Rufe is an American who's been living in East Asia for over 5 years. He lived in Shenzhen, China for almost 3 years and has been living in Taiwan the past 2+ years. He's used his Chinese in professional work environments like a DRAM factory in Shenzhen and an Operationals HQ in Hsinchu, Taiwan. He started studied Mandarin Chinese in sophmore year of high school and continued to study Chinese four years at the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated with a major in East Asian Languages & Cultures, Concentration in Chinese. He is also the founder of Warp Speed Chinese.

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