Listen Up! The 5 Chinese Tones and How to Use Them Like a Pro
According to Business Insider, it takes about 2,200 hours (which is equivalent to 1.69 years or 88 weeks) to achieve a proficient level in speaking and reading Chinese.
Why does it take that long?
Most people get scared out of learning the language for the same two reasons why it takes so long to learn it: Chinese characters and the notorious tones.
Not only do they take a little time to get used to, but the tones are completely different from the sounds in many learners’ native languages.
In the beginning, Chinese tones can be intimidating, scary and confusing, even to the most motivated learner.
You’re stuck asking a million questions:
What are these Chinese tones?
How do I pronounce them? They all sound the same!
Is getting a grasp on them even that important? It seems impossible to remember them all!
Fear not, because all of these questions (and more) about Chinese tones are about to be answered.
Why Learn Chinese Tones?
Every language has its own unique sound system. Linguists call the study of these systems phonology.
For example, Spanish has the trilled “r” and the double “l” that sounds like a “y.” In French, the “j” is pronounced much softer than it is in English.
Chinese has its own sound system too—and tones are an essential part of it.
If you want to speak and understand the language properly, learning Chinese tones is crucial to your success. Tones are simply an unavoidable part of the language. But, if you still can’t grasp the significance of learning them, here are a few important reasons why learning Chinese tones is a must.
- Tones change the meaning of words. Many learners underestimate the power and significance of Chinese tones, but this can be a detrimental mistake. If you want to be understood, using tones in your speech isn’t optional, it’s required. Why? Because the tone of a word is what gives it meaning. Take, for example, the words 妈 (mā) — mom, 麻 (má) — hemp or flax, 马 (mǎ) — horse, 骂 (mà) — to scold or verbally abuse and 吗 (ma) — a question particle. While each of these words looks as if they sound the same, they have different tones—which give them different meanings.
- Native speakers use tones. If you want to learn a language to proficiency, you can’t stop at being understood—you have to understand others as well. So, not only is it important for you to learn how to use Chinese tones, but it’s essential that you know how to listen for and comprehend them. If you aren’t used to hearing tones, you won’t be able to understand native speakers.
- You’ll sound like a native speaker. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. If native speakers use Chinese tones, so should you. Not only will you be understood, but native speakers will be impressed by your great pronunciation. It’s no secret that one of the reasons most people deem Chinese difficult is because of the tonal system, so mastering it is as a foreigner is a huge accomplishment in the eyes of natives.
How to Practice Chinese Tones
Believe it or not, Mandarin Chinese isn’t the most complicated tonal language in the world.
According to The Atlantic, the Hmong language (which is spoken in China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand) can have as many as eight tones. Saying you can get a good grasp on these four (or five) Chinese tones is an understatement—you can master them.
Although perfecting them is going to take some practice, it doesn’t have to take too long.
The key to mastering tones in a short amount of time isn’t just repetition. It’s how you practice and what resources you practice with.
Use these five foolproof ways to practice Chinese tones until they become second nature.
- Write the tones out. Not only is listening to tones important but writing them out is as well. You’ll never remember the tone for each word unless you make note of it. Plus, it makes remembering tone pairs a bit easier. A great resource for learning how to use, write and understand tones and tone pairs is the Yoyo Chinese Pinyin Series on YouTube.
- Practice repeating tone pairs out loud. A tone pair is when you have two words combined to make one, such as 星期 (xīngqī) — week, 经常 (jīngcháng) — often, 看见 (kànjiàn) — to see and 每天 (měitiān) — every day. Each of these words has two tones. Tone pairs can be “first tone and first tone,” “fourth tone and second tone,” “third tone and third tone” or many other combinations. Many learners find it difficult to pronounce each tone with perfection and often find it gets confusing and the wrong tone comes out. The best way to solve this problem is to not only practice tones by themselves but also paired together.
- Listen, listen and listen again. Hearing and recognizing tones can be just as tricky (if not more) than pronouncing them yourself. Finding a good audio source, listening to it and trying to identify tones and tone pairs is a great way to improve listening comprehension. Plus, audio is a great model for what tones and tone pairs should sound like in natural speech.
FluentU is a fantastic resource for listening to Mandarin tones used in authentic videos and audio clips.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
- Slow down audio resources. Whether you’re listening to an audio course or clicking on the first YouTube video in Chinese you can find, slow the audio down so you can better identify tones (and, if you want to go the extra mile, repeat them out loud). Podcasts are one of the best resources to use for this exercise, and you can always adjust their speed. In fact, there are plenty of podcasts specifically designed for Mandarin learners, such as the Slow Chinese podcast, where the speakers talk at a slower rate and use relatively simple vocabulary.
- Use tone pairs in your own sentences. Practice talking to yourself out loud, pronouncing each tone to the best of your ability. Since each word has its own tone, you’ll need to get used to pronouncing multiple tones for just one sentence. It might seem like a daunting task at first, but it’s not impossible, and hearing your voice make those beautiful, melodic Chinese sounds is quite satisfying.
Listen Up! The 5 Chinese Tones and How to Use Them Like a Pro
The 4 Chinese Tones… and the Mysterious 5th Tone
Now that you know how Chinese tones work, why they’re so important and the best ways to practice them, it’s time to dive deep into what these tones are and what they sound like.
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 different tones.
If you’re excited to see your mom, you might exclaim in a high, excited voice, “Mom!”
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.
Finally, if you’re looking for your mom, you might call out, “Mom?” in a rising, questioning tone.
Those sounds make up all four of the Chinese tones—the only difference is that, in Mandarin, they have names.
1. First Tone (Flat Tone)
The first tone is made when your voice becomes higher and flatter. The pitch is raised and the syllable is pronounced with a drawn-out tone that doesn’t drop or rise in between. In pinyin, the first tone is written as a long line above the vowel: 妈 (mā) — mother.
2. Second Tone (Rising Tone)
The second tone is made with a rising voice. The pitch starts out low and then becomes higher as if the voice is rising. In pinyin, it’s written as a rising dash above the vowel: 忙 (máng) — busy.
3. Third Tone (Dip Tone)
The third tone is one of the hardest for Mandarin learners. The pitch falls lower before rising higher again. An easy way to practice this tone is to make your voice go low and then high while saying a single syllable or word. In pinyin, the third tone is written as a dip above the vowel: 我 (wǒ) — I/me.
4. Fourth Tone (Falling Tone)
The fourth tone is pronounced as a falling tone. To pronounce it correctly, say the word with force, making your pitch fall. In pinyin, the fourth tone is written as a falling slant or dash above the vowel: 是 (shì) — to be.
5. Fifth Tone (Neutral Tone)
Whether the fifth tone is actually considered a tone is up for debate. Instead of making your voice or pitch go up and down, this tone is simply neutral—which means the word has no tone. Pinyin doesn’t mark the fifth tone simply because there’s nothing you have to change or emphasize. For example, 吗 (ma) — question particle turns statements into yes/no questions and is pronounced with a neutral (or no) tone.
Changing Chinese Tones: When and How to Use Them
But wait… there’s more!
If you thought you were done learning about Chinese tones, the bad news is you still have a little ways to go.
Something that gives learners a bit of trouble is the fact that Chinese tones can change when used in specific sequences. That is, certain tones become different tones when paired with others.
The good news is, there are only three major tone change rules.
Tone Changes for the Third Tone
- Third tone + third tone = second tone + third tone. If one word with a third tone is followed by another word with a third tone, the first one becomes a second tone. For example, 我很忙 (wǒ hěn máng) — “I am busy” becomes 我很忙 (wó hěn máng). Note that in pinyin, the tone change is not written. You simply must rely on your own knowledge to remember that you need to change the first word to a second tone.
- The third tone can become neutral. When followed by another tone, the third tone can become neutral or dropped. This is optional, but many Chinese speakers do it, as it requires less effort and makes speech faster. Even if you don’t use it, it’s important to be prepared for when a Chinese speaker does. For example, 考试 (kǎoshì) — “test” can become 考试 (kaoshì). Again, this tone change is not marked by pinyin.
Tone Changes for 一 (Yī)
- 一 (Yī) + fourth tone = 一 (Yí) + fourth tone. When the word 一 (yī) — “one” is followed by a fourth tone, it changes to a second tone. A little confusing, right? No worries, you’ve probably seen this happen without even realizing it. Unlike most other tone changes, many textbooks and online courses mark this tone change for you. For example, the word 一下 (yī xià) — “a bit” becomes 一下 (yí xià). The word 一定 (yī dìng) — “definitely” becomes 一定 (yí dìng).
- 一 (Yī) + any tone = 一 (Yì) + any tone. Any time 一 (yī) is paired with another tone, it changes to a fourth tone: 一 (yì). For example, 一般 (yī bān) — “usually” becomes 一般 (yì bān). The word 一起 (yī qǐ) — “together” becomes 一起 (yì qǐ).
- It can become a neutral tone. Similar to the third tone, 一 (yī) can drop its tone when placed in between two words. Dropping the tone is optional, but if you don’t, the same rules apply. For example, 休息一下 (xiūxi yī xià) — “to rest a bit” becomes either 休息一下 (xiūxi yí xià) with a second tone or 休息一下 (xiūxi yi xià) with a neutral tone. 快一点 (kuài yī diǎn) becomes either 快一点 (kuài yì diǎn) or 快一点 (kuài yi diǎn).
- The number 一 (Yī) stays the same. It’s important to note that when counting, the number 一 (yī) does not change its tone. However, the number 一百二十六 (yī bǎi èr shí liù) — “126” becomes 一百二十六 (yì bǎi èr shí liù). This is also true when counting items, such as 一个苹果 (yī gè píng guǒ) — “one apple,” which changes to 一个苹果 (yí gè píng guǒ).
Tone Changes for 不 (Bù)
- 不 (Bù) + fourth tone = 不 (Bú) + fourth tone. When the word 不 (bù) — “no/not” is followed by another fourth tone, it changes to a second tone. For example, the phrase 不是 (bù shì) — “to not be” becomes 不是 (bú shì).
- It can be neutral when in between two words. When placed in between two words to make a phrase, 不 (bù) can become a neutral tone. Although this is optional, it’s important to be prepared for when native speakers do it. For example, 吃不完 (chī bù wán) — “can’t finish eating” can become 吃不完 (chī bu wán). 差不多 (chà bù duō) — “more or less” can become 差不多 (chà bu duō). 去不去 (qù bù qù) — “will you go?” can become 去不去 (qù bu qù).
And that’s all there is to Chinese tones!
You’re officially ready to dive in and start sounding like a native Mandarin speaker.
Brooke Bagley is a freelance writer and passionate language learner. She’s learned Mandarin Chinese for seven years, Spanish for three, and Indonesian for one. Apart from writing, Brooke also runs a language study account on Instagram using her Chinese name, Jia Li.