Chinese tones. The enemy of the native English speaker.
Most students are unaware that Chinese is a tonal language prior to the first time they enter a Chinese classroom or crack open a Chinese textbook.
Who knew that four or five words that all sound the same to the untrained ear could actually mean four or five wildly different things?
Nobody wants to accidentally call their mother a horse. You have to really understand and memorize tones and their respective 拼音 (pīn yīn) — Chinese romanization if you want to speak even passable Chinese.
While it may seem like a daunting task that’s just impossible for non-tonal speakers, tones aren’t actually that difficult.
In fact, grasping the basics of Chinese tones is probably one of the easiest, albeit intimidating, aspects of the Mandarin language.
With a handful of super useful online resources, you can get the hang of Chinese tones in no time.
Don’t believe us? Let’s look at how online Chinese audio resources can help you learn Chinese tones.
How Can Listening to Audio Resources Improve My Mandarin Skills?
- Listening to spoken Chinese can help you pinpoint nuances in tone pronunciation. Tones are important, and you won’t be able to effectively memorize how they sound unless you hear them spoken audibly. Listening to spoken Chinese will drill their correct pronunciation into your mind so you can have a conversation on the fly with ease.
- Spoken Chinese has its own unique speaking speed and slang. Listening to audio can help you identify those little attributes to improve your own fluency. As with any language, including non-tonal ones, there are little nuances in how things are pronounced and what slang is used. With Chinese, true fluency doesn’t just mean memorizing the basic tones of the language. It also means learning about how different Chinese speakers actually pronounce things in real life.
- Associating pinyin with verbally spoken Chinese can be difficult if you aren’t used to tonal languages. These resources are specially designed to help non-native speakers connect pinyin with spoken Mandarin. It’s totally understandable if you’re an English speaker who’s having serious trouble getting used to tones in Chinese. Luckily, these resources were made with you in mind.
Tone Your Mandarin Muscles: 6 Resources for Learning Chinese Tones with Audio
Every Chinese learner should bookmark this resource from Yoyo Chinese! This user-friendly, simple chart has every type of pinyin you’ll ever use in the Chinese language.
Click on a particular pinyin and you’ll be presented with an audio file list of different tones for that word. The audio clips are super crisp and clear, so you’ll be able to correctly study Chinese tones without error.
Any level of learner could use this chart, but it’s especially valuable for beginners.
Another handy audio resource from Yoyo Chinese is definitely their “Learn Chinese Tone Pairs: How to Practice and Master Mandarin Tones” video on YouTube. This video breaks down everything you could need to know about Chinese tones as well as how to properly study them.
This is another useful resource that every Chinese learner should bookmark. If you appreciate quizzes and games as part of your language-learning routine, this tone drill is perfect for you.
Simply press “play” and listen to the word. Then select the correct tone from the multiple-choice list provided. You can also challenge yourself with words that have multiple syllables. It’s very simple but really practical for testing your skills and improving your listening and comprehension abilities.
Yes, we’re plugging ourselves here. But only because FluentU’s videos can be incredibly useful for memorizing tones.
Here’s how our application works. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. Select your appropriate level (FluentU provides material for all levels of learners), and start watching!
Corresponding with the Chinese dialogue will be English, pinyin and 汉字 (hàn zì) — Chinese character subtitles at the bottom of your screen. If you come across a word with a tone that you don’t understand or even a word in the pinyin subtitles that doesn’t make sense to you, you can click on that specific word. You’ll be taken to a separate window that goes in-depth to define and properly pronounce the word with authentic, clear audio files.
There are a ton of benefits to using FluentU, and learning tones is just one! You can access the full video library on your web browser or, better yet, take it on the go by downloading the app at the iTunes store or Google Play store.
Sinosplice is a pretty big name in the language-learning world—and for good reason! Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills is a type of Sinosplice software that takes a radical, unique approach to teaching students tonal Chinese.
According to their product’s webpage, “Many learners can pronounce a Chinese syllable correctly in isolation, but when stringing syllables together into words, phrases or sentences, it somehow all falls apart. This is because pronouncing successive tones is much more difficult than simply pronouncing individual tones one after another. Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills addresses this problem by encouraging students to focus on tone pairs.”
You’ll need to have some foundational knowledge of tones before using this product, but it can certainly help you forge a more fluent bond with tones through regular use.
Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills is designed specifically for beginner and intermediate learners, so advanced learners may want to look elsewhere.
This cute little game has pretty substantial value when it comes to learning Mandarin tones.
It’s the all-too-familiar matching game. Select one of the bottom boxes in the game to hear a spoken Chinese word. Then select one of the top row’s boxes to reveal the pinyin and hanzi of a particular word. The purpose of this game is to improve your memory while also improving your tone-pinyin relational skills.
All levels of learners can benefit from this resource because it focuses on the memorization aspect of learning tones. Beginners can use this to get familiar with tones and pinyin, while advanced learners can use the game to brush up on their listening skills.
This may seem like just a simple Chinese tone video on YouTube, but it’s certainly one of the most useful videos you’ll find on the subject of correct Chinese pronunciation.
This video lecture covers several aspects of the Chinese language:
- All of the simple vowel finals
- Five different tone basics
- Spelling rules for selected Chinese syllables and tone changes
There’s also a premium “full” version of this lesson that covers even more about tones, including all of the initial consonants, simple and compound vowels, spelling rules for syllables, tone changes and much more.
Getting the hang of tones doesn’t have to be so scary!
In fact, mastering tones can actually be a fun step in learning Chinese. The myth that Chinese is impossible to learn is just that—a myth!
Em Casalena is a published author, freelance writer and music columnist who writes about a lot of stuff, from music to films to language.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.