Chinese Language Learning – After a couple years of studying Chinese I feel like I still cannot understand tones.

I have studied Chinese by myself and with some tutors for a little bit on and off, but when I started college last fall is when I started studying it much more seriously. The problem I am having is with listening to tones. When I listen to someone speak I am not saying in my head, “that’s a 2nd tone, that’s a 1st” etc. etc., and according to my professors, they don’t do that either. They just hear it apparently. My problem is, I don’t just hear it. I do not listen to the tones at all when listening (again, neither does any native speaker I’ve talked to), I do not know how I can. If someone said the infamous “我要 shui jiao” line to me I would not know what they wanted unless I had them repeat it a bunch of times so I could get the tones. It is also weird because often when I ask native speakers what tone ‘x’ word is in… they don’t know, but they must because otherwise they would have these same confusions, they don’t. Yet another thing that confuses me is… look through any Chinese dictionary and any given word with *the same* tone will have like 10 or 20 different meanings and characters. So, even *if* I know the tone, there are still like 20 shi4’s out there. I am not hyperbolizing, I can flip through pages of *any* given word while remaining on *the same* tone.

As I review I am trying to make sure I know the tones for each word (which again, is confusing because there is no shortage of words with the exact same pinyin, down to the tone) as well as I know the word and character itself, and I am making sure to force my tones even more. But, this doesn’t really help with my listening. I would have to pretty much write down what someone was saying, and the tones they were saying it with to be able to understand them. The only reason I can understand people now is because I know as much Chinese as my classmates so I can guess what they are saying for the most part, or I know the sentence pattern etc. either way, I do not focus on the tones at all.

Not to mention, there is another problem. Even after studying for a couple years I still cannot hear tones. When someone speaks in a sentence, forget it. I can sometimes understand full sentences or more when watching a Chinese movie, but I cannot understand one tone unless I play it back a few times and take notes. This isn’t unique to Chinese either. If someone asked me with what tones (pertaining to English tones such as sarcasm and whatnot) someone used I would have to purposely listen and memorize each word they said to give an answer, the only difference being that in English I can still pick up on some tones as they are happening. But it gets worse. All of this is assuming I can even tell the tones apart from one another. Especially the 1st 2nd and 4th tones. They do not sound stable to me. By this I mean that when just one word and one tone is pronounced for the sole purpose of demonstrating what that tone sounds like… it changes each time they pronounce it. Sometimes it sounds like a fourth tone and I am right, it is, other times is sounds *exactly the same* but it a first tone, other times it sounds *completely different* but is actually a fourth tone again. I am definitely better now, but I cannot tell, for the most part, the difference between the tones no matter how hard I try. And, it’s not like I am failing these classes or anything… I am usually near, or at, the top and getting A+’s on everything. The writing portions I exceed at. The only parts that I tend to lose points are T/F questions where it has nothing to do with my Chinese comprehension, but rather the ambiguity of these questions even when translated into English.

Thank you for any replies

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