Can people understand you if you ignore Chinese tones?

Recently I came across an interesting research paper investigating the popular claim that native speakers can still understand Mandarin learners who ignore tones. In my latest blog I look into the paper and give my take on the importance of tones for Mandarin learners: Can You Really Be Understood If You Ignore Chinese Tones? – I'm Learning Mandarin

With context and in a sentence, probably yes it’s still understandable most of the time. Though I think it’s also dependent on if this particular native speaker is exposed to non-native learners. It’s the same for English where different people from different regions have different accents, and if you’re not used to a certain accent it may take some getting used to.

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A Chinese teacher once told me not to focus so much on tones, and that people would understand anyway. I did exactly that when I arrived in Beijing, and people were struggling to understand me!

I quickly went back to focusing on my tones, even if my sentences didn’t sound very fluent.

So as stated above, it could work if the native speaker is used to talk with non-native learners, for example Chinese language teachers. Other people, maybe not so much, but that’s my experience.


Ignore them at your peril!


This issue makes me soooo grumpy, hence sorry if I sound grumpy :crazy_face:… but honestly, why learn a language if you can’t be bothered to pronounce it properly???
Maybe it’s an anglo-saxon thing. Laziness?

In my first online class at the beginning of covid there was an older guy, I was very fond of him actually, an old sheep farmer determined to learn Chinese, but bloomin’ heck! I couldn’t understand a word he was saying.

The teacher only understood because she knew his vocabulary precisely but for the rest of the class it’s excruciating. It’s like listening to Frères Jacques sung on 2 notes.
It used to wind me up so much.

Also it’s discouraging for the other students who are trying to say a correct tone and feel shy because it’s all new. You fear you might sound stupid.

The way I’ve learned, right from the start, has been by overemphasizing the tones. To the point that one teacher here on LTL had a giggle when I said 我是法国人。
She made me say it again, and declared, yes, it was perfect and very, very cute the way I said it :blush:
I think it’s because my final rising tone is rising and rising… you can’t get higher than my rising tone!

Also if you ignore the tones, not only the people around you lose the will to live but the teacher will not correct you. Teachers will stop you and correct you if you make a big mistake and say the wrong tone, big and loud, to the point you may be saying a completely different word. They have an incentive then.

PS: I have a Chinese friend in Beijing I still haven’t met, but we speak on the phone. First time I heard her voice, I couldn’t believe my ears. Her English is so good! Her accent is amazing. And she’s never been outside China, didn’t study very long. So clearly, some people just make the effort.


Haha thanks for your comment, I couldn’t agree more! I’ve had similar frustrations with incomprehensible, atonal classmates before. It’s always a tricky situation because it can feel rude to say anything about it directly but on the other hand people paying zero attention to tones when speaking can sort of ruin the classroom experience if nobody except the teacher can understand them!

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Wise words!

I enjoyed your blog post Mischa!
You do sound so fluent. I hope one day I can be fluent like that… SIGH…

I have one issue with your statement on third tones when they’re in a row. They don’t all rise necessarily before landing on the final 3rd tone. I read that it depends on whether they form one semantic unit or not. You could have 2 3 followed by 2 3 for instance, or 2 3, pause, 3, because in the context of the sentence, there are two different semantic units. And sometimes to be extra clear, or emphatic, it seems some Chinese speakers will make a minuscule pause between syllables that enables them to keep all 3rd tones in a row.

As per your blog, I’ve also heard teachers say the 3rd tone isn’t so much down-up as simply a low tone. But I’ve also read it’s likely a remnant of the glottal stop. Which I find FASCINATING!
So in the old days, it’s likely some dialects at least had a glottal stop for 3rd tone and there are still hints of it today.
Glottal stops today are in many languages but in Europe only Eastend Londoners use it I think :grin:

One more fun fact. The retroflex so characteristic of Northeast China is very alive in South West England, such as Somerset, Devon, which is why they all sound like pirates there AaARRRRRRRRrrr


Please tell me that that was not an LTL teacher :grimacing:
Mandarin without tones is meaningless and beyond basic sentences without tones will not be understood by normal native speakers who are used to speaking and hearing correct Mandarin.
For speaking Mandarin we HAVE TO learn tones - does not matter if we want to or not. Its obligatory.

It was a university teacher in France!