Daniel Goldman



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Mnemonics for Learning Tones

March, 2014

As a Westerner, I find it far easier to remember the pinyin of a character or word than the associated tone(s). Nobody forgets for example that the Chinese capital is Beijing, but whether it is spoken Běijīng or Bēijǐng or one of 18 other combinations is a different matter. It’s one thing to know that tones are important, but retaining this seemingly random piece of information, one that has little or no function in Western languages, is something of a mental leap.

I’m no expert on memory experts, but what I’ve gathered is that people who do this competitively can easily recall huge amounts of meaningless information. The do so by creating an elaborate substitution system in which for example people or objects are substituted for numbers, and when they want to remember a number, they tells themselves a story using the substitutes. The idea is that the story, particularly if it is visually peculiar, is much easier to remember than the number. Up until now, the idea seemed more trouble than it was worth (who wants to remember random information?) but in the case of tones, it is surprisingly easy and practical.

Inspired by an article on Hacking Chinese about tone pairs, I’ve constructed a system primarily to remember two-syllable words. This is how it works: For the first syllable, I have four characters (people) who in my mind I have associated with the 4 tones. I picked them by characterizing the tones as representing a certain quality, and thinking of a person who to me exemplified it. For example, the third tone which is low and deep seems to me somehow meditative, and for this I chose Buddha. For the second syllable, I chose five actions that were directionally similar to the tones as well as five associated objects. Here are my current mnemonic objects:

Tones Person Action Object
First Superman Throwing Frisbee
Second Marilyn Monroe Shooting Arrow/Rocket/Bird
Third Buddha Diving/Digging Pool/Shovel/Yo-Yo
Fourth Obama Stomping Rock
Neutral Kissing Pickle

Thus, to remember the tones for 北京, I imagine Buddha throwing a frisbee in Tiananmen square. This is a fairly easy image to remember, and pops quickly to my mind when I think of the word Beijing.

This also works for abstract concepts. Buddha kissing a facebook “like” for 喜欢 (xi3huan5). That is – if it they were words that I had trouble remembering. In practice, there are plenty of words whose tones stick and I don’t have to bother, but if I find myself looking up the tone of a word for the second or third time, then this seems like a pretty good solution. I must have looked up the tones of 欢迎 (huan1ying2) 20 times, but now with the image of Superman shooting an arrow through a welcome mat, if I forget it again, I won’t need a book to look it up.

It remains to be seen whether the method proves valuable in the long term, but it seems promising. Remembering the sound is hard – this isn’t. Perhaps this idea could be of use to others as well. Let me know if you try it or improve it!

November 2014 edit :

I’ve been using this now for more than half a year, and I still am finding it quite effective.   I tend to remember if I have used the technique for a particular word, and the image usually pops quickly into my mind.   I have however noticed that aside from the kiss for the neutral tone, I don’t find myself using the actions much.  Also, I’m not really satisfied with some of the imagery.   The rock for the 4th tone doesn’t feel evocative enough of the drop in tone.  Maybe an egg would be better, or a heavy suitcase?  Also I haven’t been needing the pickle for the neutral tone, because the kiss works quite well.

Translated NPCR lessons

New Practical Chinese Reader Textbook 2 Lesson 15 Text 1

Note: In some cases, words in parentheses are not included in the original text, but are nonetheless implied. In other cases, words in parentheses are in the original text, but not needed in English.

Lina: Libo, you are here so early!
Ding Libo: Right now there are not many people at the bank, and you don’t have to stand in line. Lina, you are dressed very nicely today.
Lina: Is that so? I’ve come to the bank to change money. This afternoon, I want to go to Wangfujing to shop.
Ding Libo: What is the exchange rate today of English pounds for Renminbi?
Lina. One pound is eleven Chinese dollars and 57 cents (5 mao and 7 fen). Tomorrow I want to take a trip to Shanghai, and I’ll need to use Renminbi.
Ding Libo: What? You are going to Shanghai tomorrow? You just got back to Beijing from Xian. You really do like to travel! Was it fun in Xian?
Lina: I had a great time!
Ding Libo: How was the food?
Lina: The food was ok. This time the accommodations were not so great.
Ding Libo: Did you go see the terracotta army?
Lina: I did go see the terracotta army. I also bought a lot of postcards – come over to my place to have a look.
Ding Libo: Sure. I would also really like to take a trip to Xian. You can give me an introduction to it. Look, it’s your turn.
* * * *
Lina: Miss, I would like to exchange English sterling for Renminbi. Here is five hundred pounds.
Clerk: Good. Here is five thousand seven hundred and eighty-five Chinese dollars. Please count it.

New Practical Chinese Reader Textbook 2 Lesson 15 Text 2

Ma Dawei: Good morning, Lina! Long time no see. Did you go back to England?
Lina: I didn’t go back to England, I went to Shanghai. I just got back to Beijing yesterday.
Ma Dawei: Song Hua just came by, he asked me where Lina had gone.
Lina: I sent Song Hua a letter – how come he doesn’t know? Where is he now?
Ma Dawei: He went back to the dorm. How was Shanghai? I heard that Shanghai has developed extremely fast over the last two years – is that so?
Lina: Yes. Shanghai is big and also extremely beautiful. There are a lot of banks there, a lot of markets. I really like Shanghai.
Ma Dawei: Are things in Shanghai expensive?
Lina: Things aren’t too expensive. The clothing made by people from Shanghai is very good. I bought quite a few items (of clothing).
Ma Dawei: People from Shanghai like to speak the Shanghai dialect – how is their Mandarin?
Lina: They speak Mandarin very well, and young people can speak English fluently.
Ma Dawei: Have you studied the Shanghai dialect?
Lina: I did. I can say a1 la1 wa4 dong3
Ma Dawei: What did you say? I don’t understand.
Lina: That’s Shanghaiese for “I don’t understand.”


New Practical Chinese Reader Textbook 2 Lesson 16 Text 1

Note: in English one applies for and gets a library card, and the librarian might make it or take care of it. In Chinese, the word used throughout this lesson is 办, so I’ve translated it below in various ways.

Song Hua: This is the Beijing Library. Let’s go in.
Ding Libo: This library is really big.
Song Hua: The office is on the third floor, let’s go up and take care of* (your) library card first.
Ding Libo: May I take out books today?
Song Hua: Yes. In a while (we will) go down and borrow books
Here is the third floor. Let me see…it’s this office.
Ding Libo: Sir, I would like to apply for a library card
Staff person: Did you bring a photograph?
Ding Libo: Yes, I did
Staff person: Please fill out the (application) form.
Song Hua: Libo, take a form from there, I’ll tell you how to fill it out.
Ding Libo: I write Chinese too slowly, how about if you fill out the form.
Song Hua: No way. You live in China now, you should fill out the form yourself.
Ding Libo: Allright. I’ll write myself. “Name?”
Song Hua: “Ding Libo”
Ding Libo: “Gender” What should I write?
Song Hua: Think for yourself.
Ding Libo: Look … for … yourself.. ? Ah! I should write “male” for gender. What about “Profession?”
Song Hua: Write “student.” Ok. Hand in the form and the picture. In a short while that man will give you your library card.

New Practical Chinese Reader Textbook 2 Lesson 16 Text 2

Song Hua: How long did it take to get* our library card?
Ding Libo: It took 15 minutes to get done. It was taken care of quite quickly.
Song Hua: There aren’t many staff people to make cards today. Libo, I heard that you had an exam last week. How did it go?
Ding Libo: I didn’t do bad with the speaking texst, but the translation test did not go so well, there were also problems with the grammar. I want to borrow a new Chinese textbook and check it out.
Song Hua: We’ll go borrow books now. We go out here. First, I have to return the books I borrowed last time.
Ding Libo: How long can you take out books here?
Song Hua: You can take them out for a month. Sir, I’m returning these books.
Staff person: Good. … Your books are overdue. you have to pay a fine.
Song Hua: I’m really sorry. I was too busy this month, and I forgot about this matter. How much is the fine?
Staff person: Twenty Chinese cents (2 毛) per book per day. You borrowed four books, ten days have past, so you should pay eight Chinese dollars.
Song Hua: Here is eight Chinese dollars. Excuse me, Where are the Chinese textbooks?
Staff person: There is a computer there. You can look it up first.
Ding Libo: Do you have textbooks for foreigners studying Chinese?
Staff person: Yes. Look for “New Practical Chinese Reader.”

New Practical Chinese Reader Textbook 2 Lesson 17 Text 1

Ding Libo: Xiaoyun, where does one buy Chinese clothes?
Wang Xiaoyun: Don’t you know? How long have you been in Beijing?
Ding Libo: I came to Beijing half a year ago. But you’ve already been in Beijing for twenty years: you are a Beijinger. Of course you know more than I do.
Wang Xiaoyun: You’re right. Right now in Beijing there are lots and lots of shops and malls. Things from the big malls are more expensive than things from the small shops, but the things from small shops are not necessarily worse than the things from the big malls. Why are you thinking about buying Chinese clothes now?
Ding Libo: Starting next week, I will be studying Tai Chi, so I’ll need to wear Chinese-style clothes.
Wang Xiaoyun: That’s wonderful! You will look quite handsome in Chinese-style clothes. What color do you like? Black or red?
Ding Libo: I like white.
Wang Xiaoyun: I also like white. White is pretty. Do you want to buy good ones or cheap ones?
Ding Libo: I don’t want anything too expensive, but also not too cheap. Where do you say we should go to buy them?
Wang Xiaoyun: Let’s go to Wangfujing. There is a lot of stuff there – perhaps it’s a bit more expensive.
Ding Libo: A bit more expensive doesn’t matter. We can go in the afternoon. I still want to take a walk in the park.

New Practical Chinese Reader Textbook 2 Lesson 17 Text 2

Song Hua: It’s been two hours and you still haven’t bought the clothes you want.
Lina: Who says I haven’t bought anything? I already bought a shirt.
Song Hua: What about the cheongsam you wanted?
Lina: The ones I was just looking at aren’t bad, I’d really like to buy all of them.
Song Hua: We still have time. You can check them all out again. How about this green one?
Lina: Oh! This one is really pretty! The color and the style is nicer than the ones I was just looking at.
Salesperson: You can try it on.
Lina: Ok. I think this one is a bit big, no?
Salesperson: I’ll exchange it for a small one. This one is a thirty-eight. it’s two sizes smaller (compared to the other one). Try it on.
Lina: This one fits me better than that one. Song Hua, what do you think?
Song Hua: I think this one is too short.
Salesperson: True. You are taller than me and have to wear one that’s a bit longer. I’ll look for another one for you. I have one. This red one is two cm. longer than the green one. Try this one on.
Lina: Miss, I’m sorry to have caused you so much trouble. This one fits well.
Song Hua: This red cheongsam is prettier than the green one.
Lina: But it’s also much more expensive.
Song Hua: How much more expensive (compared to that one)?
Lina: It costs ninety Chinese dollars more.
Song Hua: Silk is a bit more expensive of course.
Lina: Allright, I’ll buy this one. Song Hua, now we should go buy your stuff. What is your size? Would you like to try on this piece of clothing?
Song Hua: Ok, I’ll have a look.

New Practical Chinese Reader Textbook 2 Lesson 18 Text 1

Ma Dawei: Miss, I would like to send this package.
Staff person: Sure, let me have a look.
Ma Dawei: These books are all new. These four books are Chinese, Those two books are English. This big dictionary is old…
Staff person: Ok, ok, please wrap them up.
Ma Dawei:Sorry, this is what I’ve just been learning in my texts, I want to practice.
Staff person: You speak Chinese fluently. Where do you want to send it to?
Ma Dawei: America.
Staff person: Are you sending it by air or by sea?
Ma Dawei: Airmail is more expensive than sea shipping, but it’s a lot faster. I’ll send it with airmail.
Staff person: Postage is 106 yuan. Please write your name here.
Ma Dawei: Miss, I’d also like to pick up a package.
Staff person: Please give me your delivery notice. Sorry, you can’t pick up your package here at our post office, you have to go to customs to pick it up.
Ma Dawei: Excuse me, where is the customs office?
Staff person: It’s at Jianguo Men. Don’t forget to take your passport.
Ma Dawei: Thanks.
Staff person: You’re welcome.

New Practical Chinese Reader Textbook 2 Lesson 18 Text 2

Ding Libo: Dawei, we should go the customs now to take care of your matter. How do we go to customs from here?
Ma Dawei: Customs, I’m thinking. It’s called something Men.
Ding Libo: Look. Here is the route 803 bus, it goes through Qian Men.
Ma Dawei: Right, I think it was Qian Men. Here comes the bus, let’s get on first.
Conductor: Everybody please come in. Next stop, Qian Men. Passengers getting off the bus please take your belongings; passengers just getting on, please swipe your card. if you don’t have a card, please buy a ticket.
Ma Dawei: Miss, excuse me, is customs at Qian Men?
Conductor:Customs is at Jianguo Men, not at Qian Men.
Ding Libo: We got on the wrong bus.
Conductor: No problem. You can get off at Qian Men and there you can change to the subway to go to Jianguo Men.
Ma Dawei: We didn’t get on the wrong bus? Excellent! We’ll take two tickets to Qian Men.
Conductor: A ticket is one yuan. You gave me five yuan, your change is three yuan. Please hold on to your ticket.
Ding Libo: Dawei, you said that the post office staff person told you yesterday, didn’t you understand?
Ma Dawei: I understood, but I remembered it wrongly.
Ding Libo: I have to check. Did you take your passport?
Ma Dawei: Of course I took it. You can rest assured.
Ding Libo: And the package delivery notice?
Ma Dawei: Oh no! I forgot the package delivery notice.

1 Comments on “Chinese”

  1. Oh, Daniel! It is so fine to see how you come up with/explore such interesting solutions. Maybe just a corner of my mind is going “hmmmm- how can I use that approach….”. Well, I am not studying a language, but the idea of finding “assistant strategies” is useful.

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