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How Babies Learn Tones January 3, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, Tones.

If babies are not afraid of learning tonal languages, why should we?

How do babies learn tonal languages? Obviously, they don’t learn from a list of possible tones, associate each word with one, and then try to memorize everything. Babies learn by echoing what they hear. They imitate what is said to them, both the pronunciation and the tone. In fact, tone for them is considered as part of the pronunciation.

I am sure they are a lot of theories around (such as this one). I cannot recall how I learned tones when I was a baby. Here is my own experience when I watch my baby girl learning it. I have found this audio clip recorded back in November last year when she was 16 months old. I pronounced the Cantonese numbers 1 to 10, and she echoed the numbers one by one.

If you listen to the clip carefully, you would agree that she actually got the tones more correct than the pronunciations. For instance, listen to her pronouncing the number 5 (五/m5). Apparently, she found learning the tone much easier than the actual pronunciation. If this is the case for babies, why are we adults so afraid of learning tones?

As Master Steve have pointed out, one way to learn a tonal language is not to worry too much about the tone definitions, such as 1st tone and 2nd tones. Listen and imitate repeatedly. Don’t worry about getting the tones wrong. With practice, you will get them right eventually.



1. 米蘭 - January 3, 2007

Can she remember how to say 1-10 by herself with the correct tones at a later stage?

2. edwinlaw - January 4, 2007

Hi Milan, thanks for your question.

Now, she could do short sequences. When I say 1-2-3, she would say 4-5-6. In fact, she has a tendency to say the next number after the one I just say.

Yes, she still gets the tones right by herself. This includes other words besides numbers.

3. Keith - December 1, 2007

Hi Edwin, I just found this from your Top Posts. That is a very cute recording. I enjoyed it very much.

I think tones are the same as accents, stress, emphasis, etc. Once a learner knows how the word sounds and gets used to that, there becomes no other possible way of saying the word.

For example, “chicken” in English. If you put the stress on the second syllable, it sounds really funny. In the same manner, if the tone of a word in Chinese is wrong, it would sound funny. Wouldn’t you agree?

4. Edwin - December 1, 2007

I just played this to my daughter. I asked her whose voice was it, and she said it was hers.

Now she talks a lot, mostly in Cantonese, but sometimes in English.

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