How to memorize Chinese tones

October 22nd, 2008

One of the challenges in learning Chinese is remembering the tone for each word, but I’ve come up with a fool-proof method to learn tones in just a few seconds per word.

Use visual memory

Since the tone numbers (and even the tone symbols) are more or less arbitrary, you can substitute something more memorable for them. I assigned the following objects to visually represent the five tone contours in Mandarin Chinese (four tones plus “unmarked” tone):

  • Tower
  • Jet
  • Swing
  • Waterfall
  • Pavement

The tower and pavement images are motionless because the tone contours they represent don’t change. The others incorporate motion (imagine the jet taking off, the swing falling then rising from left to right, water plummeting down the waterfall).

I also assigned colors to each object to give my memory another feature by which to “index” the tones and to let me use highlighter pens to flag ones I want to remember. Since any color association would also be arbitrary, I assigned the primary colors in ROYGBIV order (with one exception) to yield the following:

  • Red Tower
  • Yellow Jet
  • Green Swing (like Tarzan’s)
  • Blue Waterfall
  • Grey Pavement

Pavement is the exception (grey instead of indigo), but it’s appropriate both because this symbol is supposed to represent no tone and grey is kind of a non-color, and because pavement is generally grey.

To remember a word’s tone, mentally picture the word with the appropriate object (or combination of objects if it’s a multi-syllable word). You can try it yourself: “Horse” in Chinese is mă, and it’s the third tone. To remember the tone, create a mental “story” associating a horse with a swing and/or the color green. The crazier, sillier, more action-packed, or violent the image, the easier it is to remember, so don’t just imagine a horse in a green swing (though that is probably silly enough). Instead, put the horse in a latex suit, and put the swing in a circus, S&M dungeon, or superhero training camp.

Update: MDBG, an online Chinese dictionary, has introduced the same color scheme I suggested above (except that it continues on to indigo for the the 5th tone/no tone instead of using grey).

This idea owes a lot to Harry Lorraine and to James Heisig.

Here are some other strategies for reinforcing your tone knowledge:

  1. Draw the tone in the air. Use your finger to indicate the tone while you are saying it. You will look like you are conducting an imaginary orchestra, but adding a physical element to your tone production makes the tones easier to recall. Many of the teachers here in Shanghai bob their head to indicate the tone instead of using their hands.
  2. Create tone families. I remember the tones for cow-milk (牛奶) and milk-cow (奶牛) by remembering that the French keep dairy cows for cheese even though they don’t drink much milk. I know that France is Fǎguó (3-2), so this pairing helps me remember that milk-cow is the same sequence.
  3. Add emotional color. LaoWaiChinese.com suggests giving each tone a personality. For example, he thinks of the fifth tone as “secretive, deceptive”.

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