How to deal with tonal languages

Learners of tonal languages have a hard time when first starting out. Listening can be extremely difficult, and words that sound completely different to native speakers sound exactly the same to you.

I assure you, this is perfectly normal. Every learner has to go through this at some point.

But if you know how to go about it, you will be surprised how quickly you can get used to the tones in a new language.


What is a tone?


A tonal language is a language where the tone of what you say effects its meaning. Common in East Asia, a few examples of some tonal languages are all Chinese languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka etc), Vietnamese and Thai.

However, the concept of tones is not quite as alien as it might seem on first sight.

We have things like this in English as well. For example:

  1.  "That's not your computer"
  2. "That's not your computer?"
  3.  "That's NOT your computer"


In the example above, we have the same sentence spoken in three different ways. In example 1, there is not much inflection, this is simply a statement of fact.

In the second example, an upwards inflection can change a statement into a question.

And in the third example, stressing the word "not", changes the inflection of the whole sentence. Like you are warning the person, or telling them off.

See how in English when we change the intonation of words it can change the overall inflection of a sentence. The only difference with tonal languages, is that it changes the meaning of the word.

For the sake of this post, I will illustrate my examples using Cantonese.

Lets take the sound "si".

In Cantonese there are 6 tones. As you change the tone of the sound "si", the meaning changes with it. The six tones of Cantonese are illustrated by the diagram below:

Note in the transliteration, how the letters correspond to the sound, and the number to the tone.

As you can see from the example above, for the same sound "Si", there are different meanings depending on the tone used. For example with the 2nd tone (mid rising tone), it has the meaning of history, and with 3rd tone (middle flat tone) it has the meaning of try.

Tones coupled with the fact that they are typically present in languages very different from English can make listening very hard at first. But there is no need to worry, this is completely normal and part of the process that everyone has to go through when learning their first tonal language.

If you know the right way to go about learning tones, then you will be surprised with how far you can come in just a few short months.


What is the best way to learn tones?


Traditionally what I have seen people do, is try to remember the tone for every single word or character they come across in isolation. Then when it comes time to speak, they end up stuttering and taking way too long to form a sentence. This is because they have to carefully think about each syllable they say.

This sort of approach is completely unnatural, and you will never be able to get to a comfortable conversational level if you go about it in this way.

What I recommend instead, is having something like the picture above as a reference point to look to.

Then when you first start learning put a huge emphasis on listening. When you are listening to your dialogues, pay special attention to the tone markings in the script (or transliteration if you are learning Chinese, for example Pinyin). If you forget what a symbol means, then go back to the chart for reference.

Listen to the word, and read at the same time. Make sure to listen to how the tones fit together to form phrases and sentences. Tones are relevant to each other, and may change when coupled with other words as well. So thinking in chunks is a great way to get started, and understanding tones better.

In doing this for a few weeks, you will naturally get used to the sounds of the language and before long remember all of the tones and be able to start distinguishing them in your dialogues.

While there is no quick fix to master the tones, a lot of listening with special attention to the tone markings will help you a lot. Especially as a beginner.

If you are learning a Chinese language, like Mandarin or Cantonese, this is another reason why I recommend to hold off learning characters at the start. This is so you can focus your attention on the new sounds of the language, and train your ear to be able to pick the tones out in context.



How can I produce the tones accurately and comfortably in conversation?

Notice up to now for the most part, all I have spoken about is listening and being able to distinguish the tones from one another in context.

This is because listening and being able to hear the sounds has to come before production. If we try to produce before we can recognize the sounds, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

This is why I recommend such a big emphasis on listening when you first start, especially with a tonal language.

However, if your goal is to speak, then you should start speaking early. Normally, I recommend about a month after first starting with the language.

So how can I make sure I get my tones accurate when speaking?

The best thing by far I recommend for this is to find a patient language partner or teacher to help you practice.

Also it's best to do this over the internet, this way your teacher can easily write down the pronunciation and tone of the word as well as saying it. This gives you an extra point of reference to help you recognize the correct pronunciation before you try and produce.

When you first start out practice having simple basic every day conversations.

Make sure to ask to be corrected when you get the tone wrong. When you first start out feedback is essential. It is much better to get this right at an earlier stage, then it is to try and defossilize bad habits later down the line.

As you start to build up your vocabulary and become more comfortable producing the correct tones in simple conversations you can slowly branch out into more interesting topics. Making sure to work with a attentive partner or teacher to help correct you as you go.




Tones can seem intimidating at first, but you will be surprised with a lot of listening how quickly you can start to pick them out and make sense of everything.

Make sure to look at phrases and sentences, and not to learn tones of single words or characters in isolation.

The first step is being able to understand and recognize the tones in context, and then move onto speaking.

Make sure when you start output, you work with a partner or teacher who can give you instant feedback and support.

Context is king. Being able to understand and deduce what is being said only becomes easier and easier the broader your vocabulary gets, so things will only become clearer with time.

It will seem hard at first, but it does get better over time. If you keep going you will be able to start understanding and picking out words in full speed conversation before you know it.

Have you learnt a tonal language before? What barriers or obstacles did you find most difficult about it? What do you think is the best way to deal with tones?

10 things you need to know about Chinese characters

Have you ever wanted to learn how to read and write Chinese? Or prehaps you are just interested to find out a bit more about this seemingly complex writing system?

There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to Chinese characters, some people think they are pictures and others just a bunch of unconnected random lines.

The fact is, that learning Chinese characters and how to read and write becomes a hell of a lot easier, once you have a bit of knowledge about how they work.

So that being said, here are 10 things that you need to know about Chinese characters if you want to learn Chinese.

1 - You don't need to learn 50,000 characters

The biggest misconception out there is that when learning Chinese, there are thousands upon thousands of characters you need to learn.

The sheer thought of having to learn that much new information is enough to make anyone’s head explode.

While it’s true, that there are well over 50,000 Chinese characters in existence, the vast majority are so rare, or even obsolete now even Chinese scholars don’t know them.

So how many characters do we need to know then?

500 Chinese characters will let you understand 80% of written Chinese, 1000 Chinese characters will let you understand 90%, and 3000 will let you understand 99%.

I typical high school student graduating will know somewhere between 4000 and 5000 Characters, and a university educated student can know north of 8000.

Here you can see that diminishing returns is in play. The more characters we know, the less value there is in learning new ones.

You will be able to hold comfortable text conversations, and read basic books with only around 2000 Characters, and if you get to around 3000 then that is really enough for any learners realistic needs in day to day life.

2 - Each character represents a meaning not a sound

I often hear the Chinese writing system referred to as an alphabet, and while the characters do come together to make words, this is not quite true.

You see with an alphabet, each symbol or letter is phonetic and doesn’t mean anything by itself. It is only when you start to combine them to form words that they get meaning.

On the contrary in Chinese, each character has a set meaning. The fact that a character represents a block of meaning, and not a sound, is the reason behind why so many characters exist in Chinese in the first place.

But it is worth mentioning that each character does have a sound. Each character is pronounced with a single syllable, but sometimes the pronounciation change slightly when put in different contexts.

3 - A character is not the same as a word

So once people understand that a character represents a block of meaning, we normally draw the parallel to words. Like characters, each word has its own meaning and set pronunciation, so it is easy to see how people draw this conclusion.

While there are some single character words, the majority of words now in modern Chinese are made up of two characters.

Each character has its own set meaning, that when combined give the meaning of the entire word, which isn’t always immediately obvious.

Let me give you an example in Cantonese:

開 (pronounced “hoi1”) – means to open something

心 (pronounced “sam1”) – means heart

Combined this means to open your heart, 開心 (hoi1 sam1), and this combined meaning is the word in Cantonese meaning happy.

Because characters can be combined in different ways, this means as you learn new characters, the amount of total words you can form increases exponentially.

4 - Every single character is made up of about 200 small pieces/radicals

One of the nicest things I learned when learning Chinese characters, was the fact that every character is made up of only around 200 pieces.

These pieces, or components, are sometimes characters in themselves and sometimes not. Each component has its own primitive meaning, and they combine to form smaller characters. Then these characters can combine in turn with other characters or components to form the more complex ones.

This means learning Chinese characters is actually extremely logical, you can start with the smallest ones, and build up gradually from there.

An example of one of the simple characters is the one referenced above, 心 (sam1), and meaning heart.

Let me give you another example:

悶 (pronounced mun4) – means to be sad or unhappy. Here if you look closely, you can see what looks like two gates then inside it, the character for heart, 心.

Here it is combined with the other character, 門, meaning to close. And when combining the two together you get 悶.


5 - Most characters are not pictures


So another thing I hear a lot is that Characters are pictures. If characters aren’t pictures then what are they?

At a basic level Characters are actually based off simple pictures and diagrams, but for the majority this is not the case.

Let me give you a few examples of some that are:


一 (jat1) - one


二 (ji6) - two


三 (saam1) - three


Notice how the number one is represented by a single line, then to get the number two and three, these are just two and three lines respectively. There are a few characters like this where the character represents a basic idea, making it incredibly easy to remember.


木 (muk6) - tree


人 (jan4) - person


See the characters above for more examples. They are both simple pictographic representations of a tree and a person respectively. All of the most basic elements/characters in Chinese originally came from this sort of origin.

Now let's look at another type of character:


林 (lam4) - woods


休 (jau1) - rest


Here you have two smaller ones coming together to create a meaning. In the top example, you have two trees next to each other representing a wood.


In the second example you have a picture of a man leaning against a tree, representing rest. Here, it is not immediately obvious the part on the left is the same as 人, which can be confusing at first.


However, the good thing here is that there is only so many forms a character (or component) can take when combining with new characters, and once you get used to the small change it is really consistent.


In the case of the character 人, it will always be in the original form or on the left side drawn as in the character 休.


淋 (lam4) - drip, pour, drench


This illustrated the final type of character. Where one part is an indication of meaning, while the other is an indication of the pronunciation.


From the right side, we can see that it has the character for woods, 林, pronounced lam4.


On the left side, is the component meaning water, or drops of water.


From this we can tell that the character is pronounced lam4, with the meaning relating to water. Therefore we can deduce it’s the character meaning drip or pour, also pronounced lam4.


As you can see the smaller characters act as building blocks to make the bigger characters, and effectively you put together the same pieces in different ways to make new characters.

An additional note is that all characters, no matter how complicated or simple, take up exactly the same amount of space on paper. This is why you traditionally see students practicing with those gridded books, to help keep all of their characters the same size and improve their handwriting.


6 - Each character has a specific stroke order


Each character has a specific stroke order.

This might seem odd to us, how something as specific as the stroke order can make a difference on the final character.

Actually, because there are so many characters so naturally there are a lot that look similar. And making sure you follow the correct stroke order is important to make sure these characters are distinguishable, and your writing is clear.

If not followed correctly then this can result in the characters looking “off”, and not quite right.

Although this is definitely not something to worry about. The stroke order follows a set of rules that is consistent across all the characters. Starting with the smallest ones, and gradually building your way up you get accustomed to the way the characters are written and the stroke order becomes second nature.

Also because characters are made of smaller components and characters, essentially if you know the stroke order of these smaller pieces that make up a character, you also know the stroke order of that character.

This means that once you get the hang of it, a lot of the time you can guess what the stroke order is on the first time you see a new character.


7 - There are two main types, simplified and traditional


There are two types of characters, the traditional characters and the simplified ones.


愛 -> 爱 (Love) (oi3)


Above on the left is the traditional character for love, and on the right is the simplified version. As you can see for the most part they are quite similar, with only some small changes.

Because literacy rates in China were quite low, in the 1950s the government started pushing a simplified version of the characters which now has become the dominant form in mainland China.

However, because Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau were left unaffected by this, the traditional set is still used there. This means if you plan to live in Taiwan, or if you are learning Cantonese (most Cantonese resources/media comes from Hong Kong) then you are better off learning the traditional set, but if you are learning Mandarin and not planning to go specifically to Taiwan, then you are better off learning the simplified set.

However, not all of the characters have been simplified, and quite a large amount remained exactly the same. What’s more is that the simplifications of certain components is consistent across the entire script, so it is not too hard to jump to be able to read the simplified script if you can already read the traditional one.

Another point to make is that because simplified Chinese is a relatively new form of the character, this means you cannot read anything from before the 1950s. But if you learn the traditional script it will be easier to then jump into the world of classical Chinese.

Because of this split, it can be difficult to know which ones is best for you to learn, so you need to think about what your goals are and what you want to achieve, and then decide.


8 - Written Chinese is the same for all dialects


Standard written Chinese is the same across all dialects. Because of the many dialects of Chinese in China, a standardized writing system was developed (based off of the national language Mandarin).

This means that although a native Cantonese speaker might not necessarily speak Mandarin, they still can read and write standard Chinese as a means of communication. This helps to keep political documents and media consistent and put it out to the wider audience in China.

However, you can still get dialects written down in characters as they are spoken, even though it is not the norm. This is typically done in informal settings, such as blogs, magazines, comic books, texting and so on.


9 - Chinese characters are not just used in Chinese


Chinese characters are not just used in Chinese. While this might be hard to believe, you may of seen Japanese besides Chinese before and think they look oddly similar. This is actually because a long time ago, when the Japanese had no writing system they copied the characters over from Chinese and adapted them to Japanese.

Right now in modern Japanese there are about 2000 standard use Kanji (Kanji literally translates to “han character” or “Chinese character” in Japanese).

With the rest being made up from the phonetic scripts hiragana and the katakana (also simplified and edited from Chinese characters).

Believe it or not the Chinese characters also played a big part in the Korean alphabet or “Hangul” too.

Around the 1300s king Sejong was frustrated that the common uneducated population could not read or write due to the fact they were unable to use the complicated Chinese characters used by the educated folk.

The Chinese script was used by educated people and scholars, but since it was a foreign system, it could not fully express the words and ideas in Korean.

King Sejong felt great sympathy for his people so set out to create a set of letters that was uniquely Korean, and easily usable by the common people.

The end result is the Korean alphabet or "hangul", commonly praised by linguists as the best designed and easiest writing system to learn in the world. It is not uncommon for foriegners to have a basic working knowledge of the hangul, after just a few hours of study.


10 - you don't need to know how to write to be able to type and text in Chinese


This is a big point, especially in this day and age where we use computers, tablets or phones for almost anything nowadays.

Because Chinese characters are typed out phonetically using something called Pinyin (I use jyutping for Cantonese), then one can bypass learning how to write Chinese characters all together and just focus on recognizing them.

With how easy it is to type in Chinese phonetically, this means you can quite easily become fully functional in a modern world without ever touching pen to paper.

This can save a lot of time in the long run, because learning to read and recognize the characters, takes considerably less time than learning how to write them by hand.

Of course if you want to gain a full appreciation of the history and depth to the Chinese writing system, then I highly recommend you learn to write them by hand. If not from the start, then further down the line.




With just a small amount of knowledge behind how they work, what seemed scary before suddenly seems much more manageable and can be broken down.

While on the surface the Chinese writing system looks complicated, it is actually incredibly logical and intuitive once you get used to it.

The more characters you learn, the easier it gets to learn new ones. Because essentially you are putting the same parts together in different ways to get a new character.

While you don’t need to learn characters at all with aids like Pinyin and jyutping in order to get to an intermediate level, in the intermediate and advanced stages, it becomes harder and harder to progress if you cannot read in the language.

This is why, in the long run I would highly recommend learning the writing system, and think it is well worth the time investment.

Forgetting at first is normal. When you first start it may seem like an impossible task, but I assure you. If you keep going, you will learn.

Are you learning Chinese characters? Did you learn something new today? Or perhaps I didn’t include something you think I should of? Let me know in the comments below!