Chinese Pronunciation: Practicing Tones in Isolation

Most Chinese words are two characters, not single characters. The exceptions are:

i) pronouns like 我, 你

ii) grammatical particles like 了,过, 吗 and

iii) words with classical Chinese origins like 马 and 笔.

Because words not characters are the basic units of spoken communication it’s important to learn to pronounce words. That means working on the pronunciation of words, specifically 2-character words. This means that getting a grip on tone pairs is vitally important for your Chinese pronunciation.

What’s a tone pair? It’s a fancy way of talking about the combination of two tones in a two character word. 今天 jīntiān for example would be a 1-1 tone pair because it is two first tones. 你好 nǐhǎo is a 3-3 tone pair because it is two third tones. 北京 běijīng is 3-1, a third tone followed by a first tone. You get the picture.

The cool thing is that there are only 20 of these tone pair combinations. Learn these 20 combinations and get used to the sound of them and you have a framework from which to hang the majority of Chinese words from. Very powerful.

This is a chart of all the tone pair combinations possible with two characters.


You can find a lot more about tone pairs in this blog article . There’s also a larger downloadable version of this chart and bunch of other resources there.

How to practice tone pairs? The blog post linked above has a lot of ideas but here’s a summary:

  1. With a native speaker on iTalki or another conversation exchange service.
  2. Check out the Sensible Chinese Pronunciation Package which has a whole book + audio package dedicated to Tone Pair Drills.
  3. Use the Tone Pair Drills built into WaiChinese to practice directly with a teacher ($2.5 for the first month).


The main thing is that you get native Chinese feedback, without which it’s very hard to improve. That’s the topic of the next section.