The 5 Chinese Tones and How to Master Them
Chinese is a tonal language, which means that the tone or pitch you use when you say a word determines its meaning.
It might sound intimidating, but I promise it’s simpler than you’d expect. After all, we use tones in English all the time to indicate questions and emotions.
Let’s get familiar with the sounds of Mandarin Chinese tones and learn how to master them.
- What Are Chinese Tones?
- The Five Chinese Tones
- What Is Chinese Pitch Contour?
- Chinese Tone Changes
- Chinese Tone Pairs
- How to Practice Chinese Tones
What Are Chinese Tones?
Every language has its own unique sound system. Linguists call the study of these systems phonology.
Mandarin Chinese has its own sound system too, and tones are an essential part of it.
In Chinese, the tone of a word is what gives it meaning. When you change the tone—or accidentally use the wrong one—you change the meaning of the word. Take, for example, these words:
妈 (mā) — mom
麻 (má) — hemp or flax
马 (mǎ) — horse
骂 (mà) — to scold or verbally abuse
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.
The Five Chinese Tones
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!”
- A child who doesn’t want to do something might argue, “But, moooom!” in a drawn-out, whiny tone.
- If your mom said something that offended you, you might yell out, “MOM!” with a shocked, falling tone of disapproval.
- If you’re looking for your mom, you might call out, “Mom?” in a rising, questioning tone.
The sounds of those intonations are very similar to the four major 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 pinyin, the first tone is written as a long line above the vowel or as the number 1 (for example, instead of mā you might occasionally see ma1). The numerical version isn’t near as common as the actual tone mark, so you likely won’t see it as often.
妈 (mā) — mother
天 (tiān) — sky
黑 (hēi) — black
一 (yī) — one
发 (fā) — to send
深 (shēn) — deep
瓜 (guā) — melon
猫 (māo) — cat
三 (sān) — three
出 (chū) — to go out
2. Second tone (rising tone)
The second tone is made with a rising voice. The pitch starts out low and then becomes higher. In pinyin, it’s written as a rising dash above the vowel or the number 2 (i.e. mang2):
忙 (máng) — busy
麻 (má) — hemp or flax
龙 (lóng) — dragon
喉 (hóu) — throat
来 (lái) — to come
明 (míng) — bright
难 (nán) — difficult, hard
还 (hái) — to return
时 (shí) — time
房 (fáng) — house
3. Third tone (dip tone)
The third tone is one of the hardest for Mandarin learners. The pitch falls lower before rising higher again.
In pinyin, the third tone is written as a dip above the vowel or the number 3 (i.e. wo3):
我 (wǒ) — I/me
好 (hǎo) — good
你 (nǐ) — you
很 (hěn) — very
点 (diǎn) — point
马 (mǎ) — horse
也 (yě) — also
狗 (gǒu) — dog
小 (xiǎo) — small
可 (kě) — can
4. Fourth tone (falling tone)
To pronounce the fourth tone 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, or the number 4 (i.e. shi4):
是 (shì) — to be
后 (hòu) — behind
不 (bù) — no, not
热 (rè) — hot
日 (rì) — day
四 (sì) — four
爸 (bà) — dad, father
那 (nà) — that
下 (xià) — down
去 (qù) — to go
5. Fifth tone (neutral tone)
Whether the fifth tone is actually considered a tone is up for debate. Instead of making your voice go up or down, this tone is simply neutral—which means the word has no tone.
Pinyin doesn’t mark the fifth tone because there’s nothing you have to change or emphasize, although you’ll sometimes see it represented by the number 5 (i.e. ma5).
For example, 吗 (ma) — question particle turns statements into yes/no questions and is pronounced with a neutral (or no) tone.
Other neutral tone words include:
吧 (ba) — suggestion particle (turns a statement into a suggestion)
子 (zi) — child/son (usually comes at the end of words, like 孩子 (hái zi) — child)
儿 (er) — R sound
的 (de) — possessive particle
呢 (ne) — particle for asking questions back to the original asker
What Is Chinese Pitch Contour?
Knowing the five levels of contour is meant to help you determine which pitch to use when pronouncing each tone. But if it doesn’t help (or makes you more confused), you’re welcome to ignore it.
There are five pitch contour levels:
5 = High
4 = Mid-high
3 = Middle
2 = Mid-low
1 = Low
Let’s take a look at the pitch levels of each tone:
First Tone = Level 5 to Level 5 (or, “high pitch” to “high pitch”)
Second Tone = Level 3 to Level 5 (or, “middle pitch” to “high pitch”)
Third Tone = Level 2 to Level 1 to Level 4 (or, “mid-low pitch” to “low pitch” to “mid-high pitch”)
Fourth Tone = Level 5 to Level 1 (or, “high pitch” to “low pitch”)
Fifth Tone = no pitch
Chinese Tone Changes
You should be aware that Chinese tones can change when used in specific sequences.
In other words, certain tones become different tones when paired with others.
Third tone changes
1. 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.
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 remember that you need to change the first word to a second tone.
2. 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.
一 (Yī) tone changes
3. 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.
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.
一下 (yī xià) — “a bit” becomes 一下 (yí xià)
一定 (yī dìng) — “definitely” becomes 一定 (yí dìng)
4. 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).
一般 (yī bān) — “usually” becomes 一般 (yì bān).
一起 (yī qǐ) — “together” becomes 一起 (yì qǐ).
5. 一 (Yī) 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.
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).
6. The number 一 (Yī) stays the same.
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).
不 (Bù) tone changes
7. 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:
不是 (bù shì) — “to not be” becomes 不是 (bú shì).
8. It can be neutral when in between two words.
When placed 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.
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).
Chinese Tone Pairs
You’ll rarely find full-length sentences in Chinese that only use one tone.
In fact, many Chinese words consist of two tones. When this happens, you’ve come across a tone pair.
First tone pairs
First Tone + First Tone: 今天 (jīn tiān) — today
First Tone + Second Tone: 经常 (jīng cháng) — often
First Tone + Third Tone: 多少 (duō shǎo) — how many
First Tone + Fourth Tone: 帮助 (bāng zhù) — to help
Second tone pairs
Second Tone + First Tone: 明天 (míng tiān) — tomorrow
Second Tone + Second Tone: 同学 (tóng xué) — classmate
Second Tone + Third Tone: 还有 (hái yǒu) — and
Second Tone + Fourth Tone: 前面 (qián miàn) — in front
Third tone pairs
Third Tone + First Tone: 喜欢 (xǐ huān) — to like
Third Tone + Second Tone: 警察 (jǐng chá) — police
Third Tone + Third Tone: 哪里 (nǎ lǐ) — where
Third Tone + Fourth Tone: 礼貌 (lǐ mào) — polite
Fourth tone pairs
Fourth Tone + First Tone: 信息 (xìn xī) — news
Fourth Tone + Second Tone: 地图 (dì tú) — map
Fourth Tone + Third Tone: 入口 (rù kǒu) — entrance
Fourth Tone + Fourth Tone: 现在 (xiàn zài) — now
How to Practice Chinese Tones
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 methods 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.
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 takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
You can use the interactive subtitles to learn more about each word that you hear. You can also add words with different tones to customized vocabulary lists and flashcard sets, and then practice them with fun quizzes!
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.
And that’s all there is to Chinese tones!
You’re officially ready to dive in and start sounding like a native Mandarin speaker.