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Is learning tones necessary?

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There are lots of non-Chinese people in China right now who are not using tones and ignore this particular aspect of the language. This is because they are generally using Chinese in places where context is already provided, for example:

If you enter Starbucks and order a coffee your tones are not hugely important because the staff already know why you are there. When you ask for 咖啡 then it does not matter how you said it. The context is already set in place and so anything said will be understood providing that it is related to buying a coffee or a muffin. Context is the most important thing when speaking toneless Chinese.

You might be thinking now that you can skip your tones and, realistically, if you are visiting China for a week or two and only need to learn some survival Chinese this is mostly correct. Anyone who wants to just get by in China can generally make do with learning some set phrases because Chinese people will understand the context that the words are spoken in.

If you are serious about learning Chinese beyond the bare-minimum you should know that learning tones is mandatory . The tonal differences to a Chinese person’s ears are as wide as the difference between the English words dog 狗 and enough 够.

To summarise – if you want to avoid saying the wrong words and having people constantly guessing what you were trying to say then tones must be very high on your list of priorities when it comes to Chinese.

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