How to Remember Chinese Tones and Sound Like a Native
Conversation is a lost art.
If you don’t understand the importance of tones when speaking Mandarin Chinese, odds are everyone will be lost after your conversation.
There’s no way around it. If you want to say what you mean, you have to learn the tones.
- A Language Without Tones
- Why Remembering Chinese Tones Is Essential
- How to Remember Chinese Tones for the Rest of Your Life
A Language Without Tones
In one way or another, every language uses tone to give meaning to what we’re saying. Here’s an example. It’s a sentence in English, and before you point out that English isn’t a tonal language, read the following sentence out loud:
“I never said she stole my money.”
Which word did you end up stressing? What ended up happening, according to the way you delivered the sentence? Now read the sentence out again, this time emphasizing a different word from before. Did the meaning of the sentence change?
There are seven words in the sentence, each creating a new meaning when stressed.
Let’s briefly go through them.
- “I never said she stole my money,” implies that someone else made the accusation.
- “I never said she stole my money,” only focuses on the speaker not making the accusation.
- “I never said she stole my money,” indicates that the speaker never uttered those words, but might have implied she stole the money.
- “I never said she stole my money,” shows the speaker wasn’t accusing the girl in question.
- “I never said she stole my money,” demonstrates that she did something else with the money, perhaps just borrowed it.
- “I never said she stole my money,” indicates that she is accused of stealing someone else’s money.
- “I never said she stole my money,” reveals that she is accused of stealing something other than the speaker’s money.
As any native English speaker can see, it’s hard to tell the meaning of the statement without the intonations. Even something as small as changing your intonation of “yes” can transform it from a statement into a question. Mandarin Chinese functions similarly in that respect, that without the tones (or using the incorrect ones), it’s difficult to get your meaning across.
Why Remembering Chinese Tones Is Essential
It’s pretty obvious at this point that tones are necessary to understand the meaning of characters, words and sentences at large. And just as a Mandarin instructor shared on Quora, “If you don’t know the tones, you aren’t speaking Chinese, period.”
Sure, there are exceptions like 你好 (nǐ hǎo), which most Chinese speakers will understand that you’re saying, “Hello,” even if you end up using the first and second tones instead of the third. But with other words or phrases, you might not be so lucky. Using the wrong tones mean you might not be intelligible to native speakers, or you also risk accidentally cursing or being rude to whoever you’re conversing with.
Tones are needed for all four areas of learning the Chinese language: reading, listening, speaking and even writing.
While it’s pretty obvious why tones are an integral part of reading, listening and speaking, some people forget that tones are connected to writing as well. After all, it’s not just about memorizing the strokes—it’s also about learning the pinyin and the tones that correspond with the characters.
Besides, Chinese would sound completely monotonous without the intonations.
Now that you fully understand the value of tones, let’s get right to it. Here’s what you need to do to master those tones.
How to Remember Chinese Tones for the Rest of Your Life
Say the tones with gestures
For those that are just starting out, this strategy will keep your tone pronunciation in check. All you have to do is mimic the movement of the tone with either your finger or your whole hand, kind of like a conductor of an orchestra.
While this may look or feel silly, the gestures provide signals on the kind of emphasis that needs to be placed on the character.
We know that Chinese has four tones, as well as a neutral, or a “fifth,” tone for particles like 吧 (ba) and 的 (de) which need to be paired with other characters for them to have any meaning.
These are the gestures you can use as you’re reading characters with different tones:
- First tone (—) — Draw a straight line above your head to keep your pitch high and level. Notice how characters in the first tone tend to sound longer than the others, so try to draw a longer line or draw the imaginary line slowly.
- Second tone (/) — Draw a diagonal quickly from the bottom left to the top right to slightly increase the pitch of your voice.
- Third tone (V) — Draw a “V” or a “U” as a guide to scoop or drop, and then raise your pitch.
- Fourth tone (\) — Draw a diagonal quickly from the top left to the bottom right to add a hard stress to the pinyin.
- Fifth/Neutral tone (.) — Draw a dot to keep the pronunciation short and succinct.
Practice tones in pairs
The tones are pretty easy to pronounce when you say them individually. To improve your fluency in reading and speaking, you’ll need to start practicing them in pairs.
As we’ve mentioned in an earlier blog post, you’ll want to start off with easier pairs, which consist of the first and the fourth tones, then move on to more difficult pairs (first/fourth tone with second/third tone). The second and third tones are often the ones most people muddle up, so pairing tones in terms of difficulty will help you get used to various combinations and proper pronunciations that will appear in future texts.
You’ll come across a myriad of tone combinations in your lessons, so you can hand-pick your own words for verbal practice. However, if you’d rather have drills readily available for you, there are lots of online sources that’ll give you plenty of tone pairs practice.
From the pairs, you can then build up to full sentences that use a mix of the tones.
Exaggerate the tones
Whether you’re reading a passage or doing your tone pair drills, say the tones with gusto! You might sound crazy at first, though it doesn’t really matter when you’re practicing on your own, does it?
Giving that extra punch increases the chance of you actually remembering how the tones should sound, and the more you do this, the more you will improve your pronunciation.
Each tone kind of already sounds like it’s emoting a feeling anyway, with the first tone sounding like unbridled happiness and the third like utter confusion. All you have to do is exaggerate it a little more, turning it into a little theatrical production of your own, if you will.
Mark each tone with a different color
This one might require more effort than the rest, depending on what kind of learner you are. For those visual learners out there, a mnemonic device that might help is color coding. When a text is composed of so many different characters and sentences, tones can be tough to keep up with.
To make sure you’re reading the text correctly, you can assign each tone a different color, marking each character with the corresponding tone in order to read the passage correctly and fluently.
Remember that this strategy might not work for everyone, so don’t spend time highlighting or marking characters if you don’t find this kind of visual aid helpful.
Always have a dictionary
Don’t worry if you make a mistake when trying to communicate with a Chinese speaker. It’s bound to happen when you’re learning. Mistakes are what help you learn and remember the right tones for certain characters.
Pocket dictionaries, albeit a bit of a hassle to carry around, are really handy for those emergency situations where the person you’re talking to hasn’t got a clue what you’re trying to ask. Having that dictionary will help you correct yourself, shed clarity on the situation and hopefully you won’t be making the same mistake twice.
Of course, a physical dictionary isn’t absolutely necessary for moments like this, as there are a whole bunch of apps, from offline dictionaries and free resources for getting the tones right that you can rely on. You can also use an app like Pleco, which functions as an integrated dictionary, document reader and flashcard system with handwriting input, so it’s fully equipped to assist you with any of your translation needs.
Listen to Chinese radio or watch TV
A language partner is useful for feedback and examples of correct usage of tones, but if you don’t have one, consider listening to some Chinese radio or watching Chinese TV. While conversations are also great practice, one of the best things about spoken Chinese in broadcast media is that everything is enunciated with the correct tones, whereas some tones might be mumbled in real-life dialogue.
From international news stations to pop music and cultural programs, there are numerous Chinese radio stations that’ll give you opportunities to listen for real-world usage of tones. As you’re listening, you can either make a mental note of tones used or write them down to challenge yourself.
And if you’re not quite that comfortable with radio stations that are solely in Chinese, Easy FM has a few bilingual programs so that you have a better idea of how tones are used in spoken Chinese, but you’re still able to understand what the radio DJs are actually saying.
As for guided listening practice, many language programs make use of listening aids, like transcripts and subtitles. For example, FluentU has authentic videos with both audio transcripts and clickable interactive subtitles that supply contextual examples.
Whether you’re a beginner or intermediate learner, we could all use some tone practice every now and then. Adding any of these learning strategies will get you pronouncing and remembering tones in no time!