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In practice, are Mandarin listening skills based more in tone or context?

My name is Mike, and I’m a newbie (about 20 lessons in + some of the SIR series). I’m wondering how much native speakers are keying in on context vs. keying on tones when passively listening. I’m starting to do ok at understanding what is going on with Newbie lesson prior to translation, but that is knowing what the title of the Newbie lesson is at the start. What I’m also noticing is that I’m picking up on word differences on context more than tone… by a pretty fair margin. In a vacuum I don’t notice any difference in the sound “shi” from 老师, 是, 时, or, 十 other than “expecting” what sound may come up next and why. Is this my predominately my English ear trying to pick up the language, or do a lot of native Chinese speakers work in context interpretation vs. tone interpretation?

Speaking as a learner and not a native, I would say it was mostly context. Especially for myself. It’s easier for the brain to rule out options and narrow it down to 1 or maybe 2 possible characters, rather than differentiate the tone said, and work from there. Obviously if you are only saying a few words, then tones are very important because the listener has no context to go on, but if you said a long sentence, with a key word that had bad tones, it would be easy to discern.

That being said, every now and then, you will say something that has two equally likely possibilities, and that can lead to hilarious situations. For an English example, when fiona went to a wedding in OZ, the bride told fiona she could borrow her thongs. In the UK, a thong is a type of underwear, but in Australian, they are flip-flops/sandles. She was very confused.

Likewise, in Chinese, I once asked about someone if their monthly salary had come in early, but they heard it as getting their period early! I’m sure our users have lots of stories like this!

I used to be more like that, but I think in time the tones start be more useful to you. I find my brain first seeing if the tone I hear makes sense, then trying other tones in case I misheard. It’s the same way when I hear someone with a 四川 accent. If they say “我sì一个学sēn” I’m like…that doesn’t make sense, oh let me convert s->sh, n -> ng and see if it makes more sense.

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