How to Learn and Remember Chinese Tones for the Rest of Your Life 💡

Mastering Chinese Tones: A Comprehensive Guide to Perfecting Your Pronunciation

This post has been expertly written by our friend Samridhi who runs an excellent Instagram (@chineselanguagestudygram) and a YouTube channel that you should 100% follow if you are learning Chinese.

Take it away Sam…!
Basic Chinese Phrases

As you’re probably aware, Chinese is a tonal language.

This means that the same word can be said in a different tone to give it a different meaning.

For that reason, it’s essential to perfect your pronunciation.

So, whether you’re a beginner taking your first steps into the language or an intermediate learner looking to fine-tune your tones, this blog is your one-stop-shop to mastering tones.

Once you can differentiate between all the 4 tones, there are some methods you can try to make sure you never forget tones in your life.

How To Remember Chinese Tones || An Introduction to All the Tones

How To Remember Chinese Tones || Say Tones with Gestures

How To Remember Chinese Tones || Practice Tones in Pairs

How To Remember Chinese Tones || Exaggerate the Tones

How To Remember Chinese Tones || Mark Tones with Colour

How To Remember Chinese Tones || Always Have a Dictionary

How To Remember Chinese Tones || Sing Songs & Practice Tone Twisters

How To Remember Chinese Tones || Listen to Radio & Watch TV

How To Remember Chinese Tones || FAQs

Chinese Tones || An Introduction

Before getting into the tips to remember tones more effectively and efficiently, it’s important to be able to understand the concept of tones.

Keep in mind that no matter which language you speak, you use tones in your daily life. For example, in English, a person can say the word “mom” in many tones.

If you’re excited to see your mom, you might exclaim in a high, excited voice, “Mom!”

If you’re looking for your mom, you might call out, “Mom?” in a rising, questioning tone.

If a mom asked her child to clean their room when they didn’t want to, the child might say, “But, mom!” in a long, drawn-out, whiny tone.

If your mom said something that offended you, you might yell out in surprise, “Mom!” with a shocked, falling tone of disapproval.

You will be surprised to know, but all of these sounds make up all four of the Chinese tones.

And here’s what we mean:

Tones in Mandarin - How To Say Them

Now, let’s take a look at each tone in more depth.

Remember, there are four main tones and a neutral tone. Here’s a simplified explanation of each tone.

First Tone

Pronounce the syllable with a high, level pitch, like singing “laaaa” a high note.

It’s a flat pitch that doesn’t get higher or lower.

Here’s some examples:


Second Tone

The second tone is also known as the rising tone.

Start with a mid-level pitch and then rise. It’s just like the tone you would use to ask a question. Imagine slowly asking “Yes?” with the tone rising at the end and replicate that sound.

Here’s some examples:


Third Tone

The third tone, also known as the low to mid tone, is notoriously difficult for learners, as it doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English.

But we promise, it’s easier than you think!

Begin with a mid-level pitch and then dip your pitch slightly lower before rising back up again.


Fourth Tone

The fourth tone is often known as the ‘angry tone’ – and with good reason!

The important thing to remember when saying this tone is to sharply drop your pitch. This tone is like a firm, abrupt statement or command.

Let’s see some examples:

not, no
to go

Neutral Tone

This tone is almost like a short, soft and unstressed sound. It’s not emphasized and doesn’t have a specific pitch contour.

If often appears at the end of sentences or as the second character in two-character words (such as 爸爸 bàba)

maquestion particle
depossessive particle
basuggestion particle

And finally, here’s a video to help you recap the Chinese tones, before we go into memorization techniques!

Chinese Tones || Say The Tones with Gestures

For those that are just starting out, this strategy will keep your tone pronunciation in check.

All you have to do is mimic the movement of the tone with either your finger or your whole hand, kind of like a conductor of an orchestra.

While this may look or feel silly, the gestures provide signals on the kind of emphasis that needs to be placed on the character.

These are the gestures you can use as you’re reading characters with different tones

Learn how to use Tones in Chinese
  • First tone (—) Draw a straight line above your head to keep your pitch high and level. Notice how characters in the first tone tend to sound longer than the others, so try to draw a longer line or draw the imaginary line slowly.
  • Second tone (/) Draw a diagonal quickly from the bottom left to the top right to slightly increase the pitch of your voice.
  • Third tone (V)Draw a “V” or a “U” as a guide to scoop or drop, and then raise your pitch.
  • Fourth tone (\)Draw a diagonal quickly from the top left to the bottom right to add a hard stress to the pinyin.
  • Fifth/Neutral tone (.) Draw a dot to keep the pronunciation short and succinct.
57 Basic Chinese Phrases 🗣 LTL's Complete Guide to Chinese for Beginners Thumbnail

57 Basic Chinese Phrases 🗣 LTL’s Complete Guide to Chinese for Beginners

The Most Useful Basic Chinese Phrases You Have To Know. Download our basic Chinese phrases flashcards and learn the very basics for when you come to China.

Chinese Tones || Practice Tones in Pairs

The tones are pretty easy to pronounce when you say them individually. To improve your fluency in reading and speaking, you’ll need to start practicing them in pairs.

You’ll want to start off with easier pairs, which consist of the first and the fourth tones, then move on to more difficult pairs (first/fourth tone with second/third tone).

The second and third tones are often the ones most people muddle up, so pairing tones in terms of difficulty will help you get used to various combinations and proper pronunciations that will appear in future texts.

You’ll come across a myriad of tone combinations in your lessons, so you can hand-pick your own words for verbal practice.

However, if you’d rather have drills readily available for you, here is a table for you with 20 tone pair combinations for you.

fēi jī
fēi cháng
zhōng wǔ
gāo xìng
bēi zi
zuó tiān
tóng xué
méi yǒu
Don’t have
qián miàn
In front
ér zi
běi jīng
nǔ ér
shuǐ guǒ
mǐ fàn
wǒ men
chàng gē
Sing a Song
miàn tiáo
diàn nǎo
diàn shì
bà ba

And here are some other reasons why tone pair drills work like steroids for your tones:

  • They’re readily accessible in your brain. Once you memorize a few of them, you’ll find yourself repeating them to yourself everywhere you go.
  • They actually mirror real Chinese. In Mandarin Chinese, tones don’t exist in isolation either. So actually, you could argue that tone pair drills are just the natural intermediate step to learning complete sentences.
  • They’re more difficult and require you to think through the logic. Another challenge with Chinese tones is that they aren’t static. They are dynamic and change based on the sequence of tones. You can’t learn that from learning the tones individually.
  • They expose weaknesses. They focus you to be sharper in drawing distinctions between the four tones, so it’s harder to just muddle through.
  • They let you target weaknesses with precision. By focusing your time and energy where you need it, you can learn and master the tones much faster

Chinese Tones || Exaggerate The Tones

Whether you’re reading a passage or doing your tone pair drills, say the tones with gusto!

You might sound crazy at first, though it doesn’t really matter when you’re practising on your own, does it?

Giving that extra punch increases the chance of you actually remembering how the tones should sound, and the more you do this, the more you will improve your pronunciation.

Each tone, kind of already sounds like it’s emoting a feeling anyway, with the first tone sounding like unbridled happiness and the third like utter confusion.

BONUS – read our guide to find out How Long it Takes to Learn Chinese

All you have to do is exaggerate it a little more, turning it into a little theatrical production of your own, if you will.

Chinese Tones || Mark Each Tone with a Different Colour

This one might require more effort than the rest, depending on what kind of learner you are.

For those visual learners out there, a mnemonic device that might help is colour coding.

Saying Tones in Chinese

When a text is composed of so many characters and sentences, tones can be tough to keep up with.

To make sure you’re reading the text correctly, you can assign each tone a different colour, marking each character with the corresponding tone in order to read the passage correctly and fluently.

Remember that this strategy might not work for everyone, so don’t spend time highlighting or marking characters if you don’t find this kind of visual aid helpful.

The example above is from the invaluable Chinese dictionary called Pleco, which brings us to our next point…

Chinese Tones || Always Have a Dictionary

Don’t worry if you make a mistake when trying to communicate with a Chinese speaker.

It’s bound to happen when you’re learning.

Mistakes are what help you learn and remember the right tones for certain characters.

Having a dictionary will help you correct yourself, shed clarity on the situation and hopefully you won’t be making the same mistake twice.

Of course, a physical dictionary isn’t absolutely necessary for moments like this, as there are a bunch of apps for getting the tones right that you can rely on.

One of my recommendations, as mentioned above, will be Pleco, which functions as an integrated dictionary, document reader and flashcard system with handwriting input, so it’s fully equipped to assist you with any of your translation needs.

Chinese Tones || Sing Songs & Practice Tone Twisters

One of the best ways as a beginner to get your mouth muscles accustomed to Chinese tones and pronunciation is to sing Chinese songs and practice Chinese tongue twisters.

To speak Chinese with a native accent, students have to ensure they are always using proper inflexion and training their muscles to create sounds that are not used in English.

Tongue twisters in Mandarin will teach beginner speakers to communicate with firm, clear enunciation, creating the foundation for natural-sounding speech as they continue to develop their Chinese language abilities.

Many students at the elementary and intermediate levels do not open their mouths widely enough when speaking Chinese which results in mumbled speech.

When singing, however, students must open their mouths in order to project and to produce a pleasing tone for each syllable.

Once acquired, this habit carries over into everyday speech.

You can check out the Peppa Pig or Spongebob theme tunes if you want shorter, catchier songs with repetitive phrases!

Chinese Tongue Twisters

Chinese Tones || Listen to the Radio & Watch TV

For intermediate or advanced learners, listening to some Chinese radio or watching Chinese TV is a great way to practice tones and pronunciation.

While conversations are also great practice, one of the best things about spoken Chinese in broadcast media is that everything is enunciated with the correct tones, whereas some tones might be mumbled in real-life dialogue.

From international news stations to pop music and cultural programs, there are numerous Chinese radio stations that’ll give you opportunities to listen for real world usage of tones.

Alternatively, animated cartoons for clearly pronounced, repetitive phrases are extremely beneficial.

As you’re listening, you can either make a mental note of tones used or write them down to challenge yourself.

Whether you’re a beginner or intermediate learner, we could all use some tone practice every now and then.

Adding any of these learning strategies will get you pronouncing and remembering tones in no time!

Make sure to use this tool when watching Chinese movies online!

There we have it – a fantastic guide on how to learn Chinese Tones thanks to our friend Sam.

Do be sure to follow her Instagram (@chineselanguagestudygram) and YouTube channel for more of the same.

Chinese Tones || FAQs

How many tones are there in Chinese?

There are four Chinese tones with an additional 5th neutral tone.

Do I need to learn Chinese tones when studying Mandarin?

Absolutely yes, tones are an essential part of learning Mandarin.

This doesn’t need to sound as intimidating as you think though.

Keep in mind that no matter which language you speak, you use tones in your daily life. For example, in English, a person can say the word “mom” in many tones.

How to remember Chinese tones?

There’s a few techniques you could use to help you memorize Chinese tones, including saying the tones with gestures and over-exaggerating them.

When learning new words, you could mark different tones in different colors, to help you visualize the tone of a word when recalling it.

Which Chinese tones are typically harder for a non-native to learn?

The second and third tones are often the ones most people muddle up

Pairing tones in terms of difficulty will help you get used to various combinations and proper pronunciations that will appear in future texts.

Does every single Chinese word have a tone?

Yes they do. No matter what the word, every single one has a tone.

Is there a resource I can use to look up the tones of Chinese words?

One of our recommendations will be Pleco Disctionary, which functions as an integrated dictionary, document reader and flashcard system with handwriting input.

It’s fully equipped to assist you with any of your translation needs.

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  1. 👏👏👏

  2. Eric S

    Fantastic! Love the quick videos too

    1. Max Hobbs

      Big thanks Eric!

  3. This is so so handy. Great guest post

    1. Max Hobbs

      Thanks Mo, we enjoyed it also

  4. Thanks for the tips, great guest collaboration here

    1. Max Hobbs

      Thanks Mo!

  5. fantastic guest post Sam, I followed your IG

    1. Max Hobbs

      Super kind Russ! We’ll let Sam know.

  6. Thanks for the ideas

    1. Max Hobbs

      Our pleasure Fred, but thank Sam for the content!

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  10. Great resources. I really like the TikTok video!
    I have to also add that I find games to be helpful. I got pretty far with this app “Ka Chinese Tones” ( I guess playing a game to learn may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but to me, it sure provided a bit of amusement while trying to drill tones into that dense brain of mine.

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