Chinese Tones: Getting Started
Chinese Tones are one of the most challenging aspects of Chinese. The good news is that with enough practice, like any skill, you’ll be able to master Chinese Tones.
Additionally, you already use tones in English, just in a very different way to in Chinese – we’ll look at how to transfer these existing tones to Chinese.
To really get a grip on Chinese requires spending some time up-front familiarizing yourself with the tones followed by practice specifically tailored to tone learning, especially tone-pair based practice.
A lot of textbooks cover the tones in the first couple of lessons and move on.
This hasty and inadequate approach is part of the reason Chinese is so hard to get a grip on in the early stages of learning. Getting a solid grasp on tones will make your life a lot easier in the long run.
Why are tones important?
Tones are important in Chinese because they alter meaning at a character level. We do actually have tones in English (and other European languages) but they are used very differently to those in Chinese.
In English we generally use tone to alter meaning at a sentence level rather than the character/word level. We might call this “tone of voice” or “inflection” but the concept is basically the same.
Compare the two languages. In a ten character sentence in Chinese you have ten chances to mess up the tone and be misunderstood – in an Equivalent English sentence if you muck up the tone/inflection you may change the emphasis or the mood of the sentence but will probably still be understood.
But I will still be understood right?
You might hear the claim that even if you don’t nail the tones you’ll likely be understood because of the context of the sentence. People debate this point back and forth but I think do so misses the point.
For one, neglecting the tones is a bit irresponsible – it puts the burden of comprehension on the Chinese listener rather than on you as a speaker. That’s lazy and detrimental to your continued progress.
Even if you are understood, chances are people won’t want to speak to you as much as if you are easy to understand. Your progress is dependent on continuing to communicate in Chinese as much as possible. If you are “that guy” who is really hard to understand people won’t engage in as many conversations and you’ll progress slower.
Second, the claim that the context of the sentence will save you depends on the assumption that you’ve got the rest of the sentence correct!
An incorrect tone may be understood by a native speaker if you get all the other tones around it correct. You need to get the rest of the context correct in the first place to save that failed tone!
Chances are, if you’ve followed the advice that tones aren’t that important, most of if not all of the other tones in the sentence will also be wrong! The context you were relying on won’t be there!
This reminds me a bit of the Morcambe & Wise comedy sketch where Eric Morcambe enthusiastically plays a Grieg piano concerto, getting everything horribly wrong and making ruining the whole orchestral performance.
When confronted about his dire performance he calmly states “I’m playing all the right notes—but not necessarily in the right order”.
Don’t be the Eric Morcambe of Chinese tones!
Tone equivalents in English
If you are reading this then chances are English is either your first language or you have learned English to a high level. These equivalencies occurs in other European languages but I’ll focus on English.
When we use tone in English we apply it on a phrase or sentence based level, rather than on an individual sound. The good news is that once we realize we use these tones already we can transport them over to Chinese and work on applying them in this new context – this is one way to get up and running with the tones quickly.
The first tone is like singing a musical note, high and level. Run a quick Do, Re, Mi and chances are that you’ll be using the first tone automatically.
The second tone (rising) is pronounced as a questioning tone that we would normally use at the end of a interrogative sentence in English. For example “Do you speak English?” That rise on “English” is equivalent to the second tone in Chinese.
The biggest difficulty here is divorcing that upward lilt from the concept of questioning. Some beginners will find that they inflect 吗 upwards at the end of sentence because they are so used to inflecting questions. So 你好吗 comes out as nǐhǎo má? This is a confusion of sentence level and character level tones – applying existing English intonation to Chinese.
The fourth tone (falling) is similar to the way we express annoyance in English. Like “What?” when we are angry, the tone falls sharply.
Another (highly specific!) instance is when we are whispering loudly to attract someone’s attention – like a stage whisper: “Hey, Kyle, hey, psst, hey Kyle, over here!” Imagine you are back in school and your friend is trying to get your attention, whispering but getting louder and louder and more insistent – that’s the fourth tone “stage whisper”!
Those of you paying attention may notice that I skipped the third tone. That’s because the third tone is … tricky.
For one, we don’t have an equivalent in English. Also, the traditional falling/rising conception of the third tone is a useful approximation but not quite accurate. Here is a much more detailed article about this particular problem.
Finally, the third tone is also very liable to be changed by the tone that follows it. This means that the sound of the third tone in isolation is very different how it is pronounced in words and sentences.
This means that learning the third tone will take up most of your time when learning Chinese. One piece of advice is not to worry too much about how the third tone sounds in isolation (the rising-falling conception).
Instead focus on how it sounds with other tones inside words. This is the idea behind tone-pairs.
Update: Since the initial publication of this article WaiChinese has added hundreds of tone pair exercises. The list of content keeps expanded so I’d recommend you head over and check out their library yourself.
Once you’ve nailed the tones in isolation move as quickly as possible to tone-pair combinations. The vast majority of Chinese words are two characters so pairs of characters are the best method for practice.
When starting to learn Chinese I spent far too long focusing on sounds and tones in isolation. Because the vast majority of words in Chinese are two characters this practice was not as helpful as focusing on two-character words and tone pairs.
Lingomi’s blog has a useful table of tone pairs. This is taken from their website, which has lots of other useful tone and pronunciation information.
These are all of the tone pairs possible in Chinese. You’ll never see a neutral tone preceding another tone which is the reason why this is not a 5 x 5 grid.
The basic idea behind tone-pair drills is to practice saying these phrases until your tongue (and brain) are trained. Because these are all of the possible tone pair combinations in Chinese, when you learn new vocabulary you’ll be able to hook the new pronunciation to the existing tone pair framework that you’ve been practicing.
For instance if you learn 学习 (xuéxí) it’s tone pattern is the same as 没来 （méilái) in this chart. If you know how the 2-2 pattern sounds and feels you’ll be able to transfer it from one word to another.
Pay particular attention to those that include the third tone due to the third tone change rules. For instance 3-3 你走 will be pronounced nízǒu rather than nǐzǒu.
Spending some time drilling the tone-pairs is much more worthwhile than practicing the tones in isolation. Tone-pair drills are not taught as often as they should be and are a very valuable method for achieving native-like pronunciation.
To practice tone pairs either use the chart above and repeat, repeat, repeat. Alternatively get your own vocabulary from a textbook or other source and order it by the 2 tones in each word to make lists of words to practice.
Finally, you might want to check out Hanzi WallChart’s Pronunciation Package which contains a whole book of tone pair exercises. It’s available in print from Amazon or digitally at Hanzi WallChart.