Monday, January 17, 2011

Whistle a Happy Tone

I am always on the alert for new ways to deal with tones in Chinese. I've got tones down pat theoretically, but in practice, well that's a different story.
Several people have offered their methods (some more crackpot than others) about tones, which they swear work for them. There is the finger-wagging method, where you write along in the air with your finger, drawing its trajectory to reinforce what you're try to say.
There is the color method, where you assign each tone a color, then when you learn a new word, you visualize it in living color, according to its tone. I tried, God knows I tried to do this. I assigned colors to tones that seemed sensible to me: yellow (like the sun) for high tone; green (like "go") for a rising tone; blue (like waves) for falling-rising tone; and red (like a stop sign) for falling tone. For me, the problem was the next step. I could never remember which color I had assigned to a word. The color became just another thing to remember, a hindrance rather than a help.
One of my teachers employed the full-body method. She went aerobic throughout class, up on her toes, dipping down, doing curtsies, as she talked us through our vocabulary.
Now, the newest suggestion comes from my linguistics dissertation advisor back in the '70s, Bob King, from the University of Texas. Bob says that the whistling method, which he found in the writings of linguist Henry Gleason, worked for him when trying to learn tones. Here's what Bob says about his experience on doing field work with tones:

Hearing the different tones was simply awful, just about impossible for everybody, me included, until I read a hint in Henry Gleason's intro linguistics book. The hint was to learn to "silently whistle" the tones when you heard a word. It's easier, though not by a lot, to demonstrate in person than by reading, but it saved my life so to speak. I learned to silently whistle the tones, and learned quickly to get them right most of the time.

We're heading back to China soon, and I'm going to try it!

(Image of a Chinese whistle, a traditional folk toy, is from


  1. Sounds like solfege. I see young opera grad students memorizing scores moving their hands up and down to get the notes.

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