- December
Posted By : talkingofchinese
Sounding like a robot in Chinese

When I bring out my very basic Chinese and manage to be understood – ie I order 3 vegetable buns and 3 vegetable buns are what I end up with – I feel a real sense of satisfaction.

Being understood is hugely motivating.

However, recently after a particularly good moment – I think I had managed to successfully order a couple of varieties of buns and a tea egg (茶叶蛋 – cháyèdàn) – my Chinese fiance Peter said  “you can be understood but … you sound like a robot”.

He went on to say that he thought I wasn’t using tones because I was scared of getting the tones wrong. And he was right. To some extent.

Not only am I scared of getting them wrong but I also find it really hard to speak whole sentences with tones. I can say the tones in individual words but when it comes to sentences my tones just  disappear.

I have heard that the best way to overcome this is to exaggerate your tones and that they really won’t sound as exaggerated to Chinese people’s ears as they do to English speakers’ but I find this is much easier said than done.

Firstly, I find that if I do this I have to speak reeaaalllyyy sloooowly.

Secondly, I also suspect that to understand my toneless Chinese native speakers are using context as much as possible to figure out what I am trying to say so I figure the more I say the more context I am giving them.

To encourage myself I remind myself that when I first started learning no one seemed to understand a single thing I was saying – now they seem to understand me most of the time but I’d still like to sound like a person (even if it will never be a native speaking person).

I’m interested to hear if other people have encountered sounding like a robot in Chinese and how they have overcome this and become a fully functioning human Chinese speaker.





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  • Haha, I don’t know if I sound like a robot but my tones have definitely never been too good… At the beginning I guess they were atrocious, and then slowly they improved a little bit. I can always be be understood, but I know not all of my tones are correct.

    In your case, I’m sure you will see improvement, but that only comes with time and practice 🙂 And with a lot of listening how the native speakers talk!

    • Thanks for the encouraging comment 🙂 My listening comprehension is something I am really trying to improve. Sometimes I can’t even understand words I actually know when I hear them spoken. I’m hoping improved listening comprehension will really help with my tones.

  • Oh, tones are the worst! My boyfriend still tells me that I sound off. Maybe it’s something I’ll just never get right…

    I think what helped me a lot is just practice, practice, practice.

    I also remembered that my first Chinese teacher made us practice each and every sound and tone for almost two months nonstop. I was bored to tears, but now I really appreciate it. Try practicing each individual sound and recording yourself to see how you sound. That might help.

    Good luck to the both of us!

    • Thanks for your comment, I’m glad to know I’m not alone in the struggle with tones 🙂

      Generally my tones are ok in individual sounds and words (although maybe more practice would help make them more natural) it’s when I start speaking sentences that my tones really suffer.

      I don’t expect I’ll ever sound perfect either – with either tones or characters 🙂

  • Um, I can’t help you, but here’s some encouragement:

    You are brave! So impressed! Go, Cat! Never give up! Never surrender!

  • Tones are probably the most difficult to master for people who natively speak a non-tonal language like English. I do know an American girl who started learning Chinese in college who now speaks with an almost-perfect Beijing accent. When she first spoke, me and my fellow classmates turned and looked around for the (non-existent) Beijing girl speaking… only to realise it was the white girl who was giving her self-introduction.

    The first thing you need to do is not focus on speaking, but focus on listening. Can you hear and identify tonal differences when people speak Chinese to you? If you can’t, listen more. I’d suggest listening to a recording of a simple sentence, and of a native Chinese speaker saying that sentence. Then, you mimic what that person is saying, and record yourself. Listen to the recording of yourself, and then compare that to the recording of the native speaker. Figure out what the differences are. Rinse and repeat until you are able to do a good imitation.

    The reason for this is two-fold: 1) if you can’t hear the differences in tones, you won’t be able to self-correct, and 2) you can only start working on reproducing the correct sounds once you can identify the differences between what you are trying to say and what you are actually saying.


    • Thanks so much for the great advice!! I will definitely do more of the listening and recording thing – I did some of that at the start but it was more with individual words for pronunciation – I think it would definitely help with getting tones right in sentences. I dream of being mistaken as a native speaker one day – if only for a moment – but would settle for just being able to have and understand daily conversation 🙂

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