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

Chinese Tones 🤔 Tips and Tricks To Become a Pro

GREAT GUEST POST ALERT! Ever been intimated by learning Chinese Tones?

Well you need not…!

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…!

Before getting into the tips to remember tones more effectively and efficiently, it’s important to be able to relate to all the 4 tones in Chinese.

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.

Tones in Mandarin - How To Say Them

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

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

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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.

TONE12345
11+1
fēi jī
Airplane
1+2
fēi cháng
Extremely
1+3
zhōng wǔ
Noon
1+4
gāo xìng
Happy
1+5
bēi zi
Cup
22+1
zuó tiān
Yesterday
2+2
tóng xué
Classmate
2+3
méi yǒu
Don’t have
2+4
qián miàn
In front
2+5
ér zi
Son
33+1
běi jīng
Beijing
3+2
nǔ ér
Daughter
3+3
shuǐ guǒ
Fruit
3+4
mǐ fàn
Rice
3+5
wǒ men
We
44+1
chàng gē
Sing a Song
4+2
miàn tiáo
Noodles
4+3
diàn nǎo
Computer
4+4
diàn shì
TV
4+5
bà ba
Dad

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

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 practicing 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.

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

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 onto our next point…

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.

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.

In order to speak Chinese with a native accent, students have to ensure they are always using proper inflection 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

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!

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 || FAQ’s

How many Chinese Tones are there?

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.

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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    Alexander Krasnov , Student Advisor

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