They’re the most notoriously difficult part of learning to speak Chinese.
They stop many would-be Chinese learners dead in their tracks.
They’re the bane of every first-year Chinese student’s existence.
They’re the hefty price of admission for learning Mandarin Chinese… the four tones.
Perhaps you’re also learning them right now.
I’m going to introduce to you a simple tip for learning Mandarin Chinese tones – follow it, and you won’t need to shy away from tones any longer.
Hold Up – Do I Really Need to Learn Chinese Tones?
You might have heard from some people that the tones are not actually needed because Chinese people can still understand you.
…How should I put this?
Let’s put it this way.
If you skip some syllables while you’re speaking English, people would also still understand you.
But would you recommend that to someone learning English?
The Best Technique for Learning Chinese Tones: Tone Pair Drills
Perhaps the most difficult part of learning Chinese tones is that there is no counterpart in English. There is no previous context for an English speaker. As a result, there’s no way to create a relationship with previous knowledge. It’s kind of like planting something on concrete.
Tone pair drills basically involve practicing tones in combination rather than individually. I think this works because it helps you create relationships between the tones faster. You learn the tones in relation to one another. It creates context.
And here are some other reasons why tone pair drills work like steroids for your tones:
- They’re readily accessible in your brain. Once you memorize a few of them, you’ll find yourself repeating them to yourself everywhere you go.
- They actually mirror real Chinese. In Mandarin Chinese, tones don’t exist in isolation either. So actually, you could argue that tone pair drills are just the natural intermediate step to learning complete sentences.
- They’re more difficult and require you to think through the logic. Another challenge with Chinese tones is that they aren’t static. They are dynamic and change based on the sequence of tones. You can’t learn that from learning the tones individually.
- They expose weaknesses. They focus you to be sharper in drawing distinctions between the four tones, so it’s harder to just muddle through.
- They let you target weaknesses with precision. By focusing your time and energy where you need it, you can learn and master the tones much faster.
Next Steps for Learning Chinese Tones with Tone Pair Drills
Basically, you should start with the basics, and move to more difficult content.
1) Start with individual tones
You should still start by getting familiar with the individual tones one by one. For example:
- chī (first tone – “to eat”)
- niú (second tone – “cow”)
- mǎ (third tone – “horse”)
- ròu (fourth tone – “meat”)
You can listen to them separately (through a native speaker, or with a resource like FluentU).
2) Start with simpler tone pairs (the ones which include first and fourth tone)
Then, you can move on to the simpler tone pairs. Most people find the first tone and the fourth tone to be the easiest, so you can learn the tone pairs which include them.
- chī là (first tone and fourth tone – “to eat something spicy”)
3)Build up to more difficult tone pairs (the ones which include second and third tone)
Once you feel comfortable with tone pairs, you can learn more of the tone pairs which include the second (rising) tone and the third (low) tone.
- měi guó (third tone and second tone – “America”)
4) Importance of Feedback
Throughout all of this, make sure that you need to make sure that you’re getting enough feedback. You should definitely get feedback through a teacher or native speaker who can candidly pinpoint the mistakes that you’re making. You don’t want a teacher who is polite, but not that helpful.
5) Tackle Difficult Sentences Which Combine Tricky Pinyin and Tone Combinations
Later, when you feel comfortable with even the more difficult tone pairs, you can move on to more complex sentences which challenge both your tones and pinyin. (Don’t neglect to continue to learn and improve your pinyin). For example, here are my two favorites:
- nĭ shì bú shì xiăng chī (“Do you want to eat or not?”)
- Note that the second word here, 不 (bù) technically uses the fourth tone, but it’s normally changed to the second tone when speaking: bú.
- wŏ xiăng măi yī liàng zì xíng chē (“I would like to buy a bicycle”)
By the time you get to the fifth step, you should be getting really good, assuming that you’ve had a native speaker to provide you regular feedback.
If you’re a beginner and would like to try a system based on these principles, you can try the course for Chinese tones on FluentU.
The FluentU course focuses on actually useful words rather than just sounds, and the content is carefully sequenced to set you up for success. Later lessons repeat content taught earlier in the course. And of course, we try to get you to start watching real world videos as early as possible.
Other Useful Resources on How to Master Chinese Tones
Hungry for more? Here are some other resources that you might find useful in your quest:
Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills: Useful charts with Chinese tone drills that you can download. They include audio.
Practice these 20 Words for Awesome Chinese Tones: A table with 20 words that captures all of the 2 character tone combinations.
Learning the third tone in Chinese: An in-depth post at Hacking Chinese on how to tackle the trickiest tone of them all – the third tone.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.