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Teaching Tones First when Teaching Chinese

When teaching Chinese language, can teachers teach the tones firstly? The answer is definitely yes with very simple reasons. First of all, just as those who attend to school to study Mandarin all know, there are 21 initial consonants and 40 simple or compound vowels in Chinese language. But there are only four tones, implying that the tones are easy to teach in certain degree. Secondly, there are 1200 syllables in Chinese language and each tone covers about 300 syllables. We can see that the tones have very heavy burden and also very important to learn for mastering Chinese.

Since the tones are easy and also important to learn why don‘t we put it in the first place to learn? As a matter of fact, the initial consonants, the simple or compound vowels and the tones are three elements analyzed in Mandarin. Chinese people often say them in this order is just a kind of habit and it doesn’t mean the teaching should also follow this order.

When teaching Chinese pupils, we can follow the order b, p, m, f… a o e…because Chinese language is their mother tongue and they have equipped with whole or basically whole Chinese phonetic system. However, this order should be avoided when you teach Mandarin Chinese to foreigners. Most overseas students think the tones are really difficult to learn. One of the reasons is that the traditional teaching put the tones at last places to learn.

Just imagine that how much attention you need to pay when you learn the tones after learning all initial consonants and simple or compounds. In Chinese language teaching, only by teaching the tones first can make it easier for students to form the habit of feeling and articulating the tones as soon as possible. The later the students learn the Chinese tones, the more difficult for them to correct the errors in tones.

As for which one to be taught first, it depends on the conditions of students from different countries. Of course, much attention should be paid in teaching arrangement and teaching techniques when teaching tones firstly. If those foreign students who study in Mandarin learning courses have common native language background, the teachers can add some points to learn. If the learners are various in mother tongue backgrounds, teachers should try to teach the easiest consonants and vowels. 

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