Learning Chinese Tones with WaiChinese | A Review by @Eurolinguiste Shannon Kennedy

Today we are happy to be able to share Shannon Kennedy’s excellent review of WaiChinese and how it helped with her Chinese tones.
Shannon Kennedy is a language lover, traveler and musician sharing her adventures and language learning tips at Eurolinguiste. Shannon is currently learning Mandarin Chinese and has been providing lots of advice on her blog. Be sure to follow Shannon on Twitter (@eurolinguistesk) for more language learning insights. 
This is an shortened version of the full review. To read the full text check head to Eurolinguiste : WaiChinese a Review.

Learning Chinese Tones with WaiChinese | A Review

In my opinion, tones are one of the (if not the) most difficult aspect of learning Mandarin Chinese. Even after close to a year of study, they are still something that I struggle with as a language learner.

Without a private teacher or language exchange partners (who sometimes let your pronunciation slide), there’s really no good way of knowing whether or not you’re correctly pronouncing the tones.

For all you know, you could be telling someone that you want your kids to brush a Chinese guy, rather than telling them that you want them to speak Chinese (Yes, I admit it, that was me. I was horrified.).

It was frustrating, having to speak at a pace so slow that I’d forget what I wanted to say before arriving at the end of a sentence. It was embarrassing.

Working on tones through slow and deliberate reading, or combing through tone-pair charts was both boring and demotivating. Focusing on my tones easily became the most dreaded part of my Chinese study.

That is, of course, until I stumbled across WaiChinese.


I started using WaiChinese because I have a habit of at least trying out almost every new language learning method or application I stumble across. Most don’t stick because they don’t work for me personally, but WaiChinese did.

When I first signed up with WaiChinese, I didn’t quite realize just what I was getting into. For me, it was simple, I saw that it was a way to improve my tones (something I really needed to do) and thought it would be worth experimenting with.

I would soon find out that it was so much more.

After visiting the WaiChinese website, I created my account, took a quick look at the dashboard on my desktop and decided to try out once I was able to download the mobile app when I got home later that day.

But then I received an email from my “coach.”

I was a bit confused at first – was this an automated message? I supposed it was something like most membership based language learning tools send new users. Just another welcome message. As I read through it, however, I realized that my coach was, in fact, a real person who had taken the time to look me up and made a point to mention our shared interests.


It seemed too good to be true. A real-life coach assigned to help me improve my pronunciation of tones?

I was immediately intrigued and decided to download the app right away rather than wait until a later point.

Upon exploring, I discovered more about what the app had to offer and I was more than pleasantly surprised.

Here’s what you get with your WaiChinese account:

  • Voice recognition technology that allows you to see a visual graph of your pronunciation
  • Evaluations from real-life teachers
  • Speech evaluation reports
  • Tons of vocabulary and sentences to practice with
  • Example recordings of each word or phrase from native speakers
  • Grades within 24 hours
  • Premium accounts get custom lessons


Once you open up a lesson, you have the opportunity to listen to the words or phrases spoken by a native speaker before trying it out on your own. If you mess up, you can record again before submitting the lesson to your teacher.

After submitting your recordings, you only have to wait 24-48 hours to get feedback from your teacher! I receive both an email from my teacher with personalized and specific advice for improving my pronunciation, and as you can see below, scores (on a scale of 1-5) within the app.


My two favorite features are definitely 1) the graph and 2) the emails from my teacher. I find that being able visualize my pronunciation with the graph feature has helped me improve as much as the corrections from my teacher have.

I can actually see where I’m making mistakes, rather than try to listen for them. This feature is extremely beneficial when your ear isn’t quite trained enough to pick out the sometimes subtle difference between incorrect and correct pronunciations. (Subtle to a listener new to the language. To someone who has studied Mandarin for some time or is fluent in the language, the difference isn’t as difficult to pick out.)


Although I found the app extremely helpful, there are a couple things I think that they could do to improve its usability and boost its chances of becoming a “must-have” for any and every Mandarin language learner.

The first would be the a feature that allows the student to download a PDF copy (or excel sheet) of the vocabulary they’re working on for future reference. I would love to have access to the written, pinyin and English translations of the expressions I’ve been learning to continue to study beyond pronunciation and outside of WaiChinese.

Or, upon clicking the “translate” button, the option of adding it to a flashcard deck (either within or outside of the WaiChinese app) for further study would be incredible. If the words in your flashcard deck could be exported for printing or saving outside of WaiChinese, that would be even better!

*Update: I spoke with Kyle over at WaiChinese and they said a flashcards feature is definitely on their list of things to add to the app.

The second would be a way for users to see what lessons they’ve already recorded. This feature is available once the teacher has graded the lessons, but until then, there is no way for the student to see what they’ve already submitted. For someone who might open the app up a few times a day to work on pronunciation (like me!) rather than in one sitting, this would be a great feature. Especially for the lessons that have some twenty-odd words or phrases.


I was incredibly surprised by the dedication and the response from those behind the scenes at WaiChinese. Syd, the founder, replied to the emails that sent to him and the teachers always get back to you with any questions you have – like adding new lessons – rather quickly.

I was really impressed by their desire to interact with customers to continue to improve and develop WaiChinese. It’s really great having a company that takes your feedback into consideration, looking to ensure that their product is something that truly fulfills the needs of those using it.

Full article text at Eurolinguiste : WaiChinese a Review.


  • Interesting dichotomy.

    As a musician, my absolute favorite part of learning Chinese is the practice and refinement of my proper use of the proper tones when speaking Chinese. And a big part of my fascination with learning the Chinese language is the requirement that the use of tones be close to perfect in order to be understood well by native speakers of Chinese. A big part of listening comprehension is of course being able to hear the ascending, descending, high continuous and dipping tones when they are spoken by native speakers, and then to discern when some tone is neutral. Some native speakers are very subtle with their use of tones and present with a highly constricted frequency range even though they use tones extremely well, and that’s difficult to hear and interpret or understand with accuracy, especially rapid accuracy. When we listen to a native Chinese speaker who might use the range of a perfect fifth for almost all of their tones, (a compressed tonal range, or flatter vocal affect), that then gets to be very difficult for the listener especially if the speaker has a gentle or soft voice, or especially if the speaker is elderly.

    And as almost all native English speakers who attempt to learn to speak Chinese have a difficult time mastering tones, (and most do a poor job), as tones come naturally to me and I embrace them joyfully, (I perform and record with violin, viola and cello and sing), I know I have a huge advantage over those with no native exposure to Chinese or any tonal language, (and are not musically trained or gifted). I don’t have perfect pitch but I have excellent relative pitch, and I practice my tones by literally singing them, pronouncing the words very, very slowly and exaggerating tones and using the framework of the major minor system, (chromatic system), and attempting to stay in a one octave range with the subdominant being my “home note”, or neutral tone, (de). And I have a long way to go, but I’m having fun on the journey.

    I find that the majority of native Chinese speakers to whom I listen in my lessons, (Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, YouTubers, etc …), demonstrate very musical presentations, (theoretically musical), of the tones when they speak. Often, indeed almost always, I can hear relationships, musical relationships between the tones of words that one speaker utters as half steps, or whole steps or some very well defined interval, a perfect fourth, fifth, minor sixth, etc … For example, the word in Chinese for “ma ma”, or “elder brother”, 妈妈 or 哥哥, I hear expressed with the relationship of an octave or a perfect fifth, (or nearly both qualities at he same time).

    The characteristics of tone and use of tones by Chinese native speakers are at once extremely personal to the speaker, somewhat standardized by the history of the spoken language, and influenced as to whether the speaker has relative pitch and a good sense of that, or perfect pitch.

    One will find as they mature as a Chinese speaker where their use of tones within their dominant vocal range feels most natural and most comfortable. While we might pursue some system and analysis to learn to speak with tones, after some time it becomes natural to who we are and how we approach the use of tone in any type of utterance.

    I have identified some native Chinese speakers that obviously have perfect pitch, for example, one in particular almost always starts on exactly the same pitch when saying the Chinese word for “I”, (wo), and the tone drops a perfect fifth, and then rises back to exactly where they started, and they always start on the same pitch to say that word, and the tone always drops a perfect fifth. The more I listen to them, the more it sounds as if they are literally singing when they speak.

    With 5,000+ years of development having been invested by the Chinese people in their tone based language it comes as no surprise that perhaps not only is the Chinese language, the written language, the picture-book of their entire culture, their entire history, but it is the symphony of their entire culture as well, one big, giant, huge, long song that is performed over these 5,000 years by many hundreds of billions of people.

    When I hear two characters pronounced one after the other and both are marked as first tones, often I hear the second tone a half step below the first tone, or a whole step below or above the first tone, and that’s an exact half or whole step as measured and presented within the major-minor tonal system.

    • Kyle Balmer

      Sorry for the late replay Pat!

      My comment system didn’t ping me a notification so missed this until now!
      Interestingly enough both Shannon Kennedy and Syd Evans (my cofounder on WaiChinese, a system to teach tones by showing a visual tone graph) are saxophonists. There does seem to be some draw for musicians!

      Also, as you mention, there are definite changes when tones are combine. They elide together in quite complex ways. Because WaiChinese allows us to “see” the pitch we’re seeing interesting patterns. The traditional charts that are used now (especially the third tone falling rising) are pretty flawed!
      As we build up more and more data from our recordings we hope to be able to draw more insights from what we’re seeing. We’e also approaching univerisities and offering the data for analysis – no full pitch analysis has been done yet and we’re hoping that we can give away our data corpus to help researchers in this area.
      What you are saying about the half step differences and the relationship to the major/minor scale is fascinating. What an interesting area for further exploration!

      • I most often hear the half step movement when 1st tones are repeated, like in, 星期. There are some speakers that say, 星期, where “期” falls a half step and does this quite precisely.

        I can only guess that the half step movement is done to differentiate the use of the 1st tone in one character from the other, I don’t know if the difference in pitch has anything to do with the context of that word when it is spoken.

        In some two character words, like 医生. I have found that exactly and precisely the same pitch is used for both characters, and it seems that an effort is made to use exactly the same pitch. And I pour over these analysis, it’s not like I just listen once, I listen intensely, many times, and I sing along to confirm.

        When practicing speaking, I sing, I say the words in a sentence very, very, very slowly, starting with a full breath and I exaggerate the tones, as if I was singing. The 2nd and 4th tones then become a glissando in my practice.

        The 5th, or neutral tone, it’s pitch is sometimes clearly specified, but for some words with a 5th or neutral tone I’m finding the real tone that is applied to it in context varies considerably. I think the actual pitch at which the supposed neutral 5th tone occurs is very dependent on “tone context”, what has come before the use of the 5th tone word or character and even what might be coming after …

        And these observations at this point are certainly not rules, and I don’t rely on them except to assist me in remembering the proper tones for some character, they are sort of like a tonal mnemonic.

        If there were rules for all of this then native speakers of Chinese might begin to sound like an 8-bit Atari video game bank of sound samples, and of course native Chinese speakers do not sound like that, at all.

        I’ve tried to use software, like audacity and sonar, to view the pitch of the words but viewing the pitch of a singer who is striving to hold long notes out is rough as it is, as we view the wave form, so I just rely on my ears.

        The word for radio, 收音机, is another good one to study as different native speakers say it. I find often that, 收, and 音, are pronounced with nearly exactly the same pitch, and the last character in the word, 机, tends to fall a half step, or, by the time the pronunciation of the character is complete, it has then fallen a half step in pitch from the pitch of the first two characters.

        There are other words where only the first tone is used for all the characters in the word, and they tend to exhibit some of the same characteristics, the last character falling a half step.

        I would only be guessing at this time, but I think that what I am observing is a mixture of, (potentially), both “tone grammar” and the vagaries of both personal dialect and preference and regional dialect or “tonal colloquialism” perhaps.

        The musical qualities, the theoretical musical qualities of some string of characters all using the first tone, and how the tones might differ by a half or semi tone, or even a whole step are peculiar more to the speaker, the context of the word being spoken and many other factors, perhaps.

        But when I hear two words pronounced in sequence that are only first tones, or have characters that are only pronounced with first tones and one of the characters is pronounced a perfect fourth below the others, or one of the characters is obviously pronounced a major third above all the others, I know something is up to which I should be paying attention.

        And like I say, at this point I’m not looking for rules, or to emulate this, it just serves as a reminder to me that some character is pronounced with the first tone, and that some words that have multiple characters are all 1st tone characters.