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Learning to pronounce Chinese, part 4 – Tones

Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.

This is the fourth article about pronunciation and I will continue writing about this subject as long as I think I have something worthwhile to share with others. So, far this small series consists of these articles:

Part 1 – Introduction
Part 2 – Attitude
Part 3 – Identification
Part 4 – Tones (this article)
Part 5 – Analysis

A new way to identify tone problems in Chinese

Studying Chinese (or any other language), it’s sometimes hard to assess the quality one’s own pronunciation. People in your surrounding might understand what you are saying, but how do you verify how clear your pronunciation is? In an ideal world, it would be easy, you could just ask a qualified teacher and given enough time it would be possible to figure out most of the pronunciation-related problems.

However, the world in which we live is far from ideal, at least in this regards. Teachers sometimes tend to be complacent, lazy or just unwilling to point out mistakes, especially once your language level is good enough to communicate without too much trouble. I’m not trying to blame the teachers here, because this situation probably arises because students are different (I probably have loftier goals than most, for instance). Therefore, as I have said earlier, it’s really up to you as a student to take responsibility for your own learning.

A brief introduction

What I am going to talk about in this post is an ingenious way of checking if your pronunciation is clear. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it’s perfectly correct, but it will take you a long way in that direction.. I first heard this idea from my class mate, Arnaud Laraie, and even though I have added and expanded it a bit, this is more his idea than mine. Credit where credit is due!

This is what the method can achieve:

  1. Identify errors for closely related sounds.
  2. Prove whether your pronunciation is clear or not.

The second point needs some further explanation.Couldn’t you just ask someone if your pronunciation is clear or not? Of course you can, but most of the time you will get a misleading or even wrong answer. People don’t like pointing out the mistakes of others, especially if you’re a foreigner and a guest in their country. They might also have wildly different standards than you, so if you strive for a close-to-native-speaker level, they might just think that you are slightly better than the average foreigner, which is far from enough. In other words, don’t trust random people when they say your pronunciation is good!

The method consists of the following steps:

  1. Define a number of sounds you find difficult to distinguish
  2. Draw a diagram of them or just write them down in a list
  3. Read the various sounds and let a native speaker guess the word.
  4. Repeat until you make sure that no chance is involved.

In this article, I will use the tones in Mandarin Chinese as an example, but there is no reason why this method could not be useful for other languages or other aspects of learning Chinese. I will write more about this towards the end of this text, but now over to the tones in Mandarin.

The five tones in Mandarin

In Mandarin, there are five tones, numbered one to four with a fifth tone called neutral. These are different changes in pitch for a given syllable that is essential to determine the meaning of a word. It is hard for us Westerners to handle, but tones are most of the time more important than other parts of pronunciation.

For instance, if you’re in the lift going up to your apartment and you say the word “四樓“ (si4lou2, 4th floor) correctly, but with the wrong tones (let’s say you say si2lou2), the other person is most likely to hear something like 十樓 (shi2lou2, 10th floor), because those words are quite similar, especially in southern dialects of Chinese, but the tones are different. Chinese people listen to the tone more than the other sounds!

On the other hand, if you get the pronunciation slightly off (like switching sh and s, you say shi4lou2 instead of si4lou2), but get the tones right, you’re almost guaranteed to end up where you want to go. In other words, tones are something alien to us, but which is of paramount importance when studying Chinese. It’s also the perfect example to demonstrate this method of verifying clear pronunciation.

Getting started

From here on out, it’s assumed that you know how to pronounce the tones in Chinese independently and in theory, because I will deal with the real problem, which is tones in combination and in context. If you’re not clear about the tones in the first place, you can check this website.

This is a diagram showing all the possible tone combination in Chinese. I used a table almost identical to this one when I tried this out with native speakers and if you can’t come up with any smarter idea, you should try the same:

This is a simple way of rpresenting all the combinations of two syllables in Chinese. First look at the column to the left and select a tone, then combine it with any of the five available tones that can follow it. If you do this with native speakers, it might be a goo idea to use symbols instead of numbers.

Now comes the clever bit. Since native speakers tend to understand what people say even if they are pronouncing the tones incorrectly, you are now to choose a sound that has no specific meaning. There are many ways of doing this, pick one you like:

  • Use a single syllable in Mandarin (I used “ma”)
  • Use a word in your native language (“Paris”, “parloir”)
  • Use a sound without meaning (such as “mm”)

Analyse those tones!

Now, start pronouncing the chosen word or sound using the different tones! Let’s say you chose option two above and that you are using the word “parloir” to practice. Separate the word into its two syllables “par” and “loir” and add the tones. The goal is to check if the tone combination you pronounce is the same as the one the native speaker thinks you want to pronounce. Follow these instructions:

  1. Select any of the twenty combinations at random.
  2. Add these tones to your word (e.g. par2loir3, par4loir4, par1loir3)
  3. Let your friend/teacher point on the combination she hears
  4. Repeat at least twice for all combinations
  5. Repeat using a different friend/teacher

Of course, if you want to monitor your pronunciation in detail, you need to do this in a systematic manner and make sure you cover all the tones. Write it down! After you’ve practiced for a while so your friend/teacher is aware of how this works, you can also use reaction time to determine how good your pronunciation is.

  • If she points to the correct tone combination without the slightest hesitation, you can be quite sure your tones are good.
  • If she points to the right tone, but hesitantly, then you might have a problem.
  • If she points to the wrong tone, you obviously have a problem.

The really clever part here is that there is no way your friend/teacher can cheat or try to make you feel better about your language skills. If you pronounce something incorrectly or unclearly, you will know. Of course, you can still cheat, but that would defy the purpose of this exercise in the first place, so don’t do it.

Wider usage and some problems

This is a clever and very powerful way to identify and analyse pronunciation proeblems with the tones in Chinese. However, the same method can be used to teach and/or learn other languages as well. Any sounds that are close to each other in pronunciation can be used, such as n/ng in Chinese. If you want to check a students pronunciation in English, give her the following words to read:

  • World
  • World
  • Whirl
  • Were

As before, you guess which sound the student is pronouncing and thus lets her know what (if any) problems are present. However, it should be noted that this is a self-analysis tool more than it is a method to test someone else. In the setup above, it’s possible to cheat, even though this could be avoided by having a predetermined order of the sounds.

A problem with this method is that it doesn’t actually test correct pronunciation, only clear pronunciation. For instance, the sounds might be wrong, but as long as the teacher can tell which one is which, this system is useless. Let’s say that someone can’t distinguish “world” from “word” and starts pronouncing the “l” as a separate syllable. That would be extremely easy to recognise, but it doesn’t mean it’s right!


I wish someone had introduced me to this method (or something similar) about two years ago. I’ve spent an enormous amount of time and energy to correct my pronunciation and if would have known about my problems earlier, it would also have been a lot easier to correct them.

I tried this roughly a month ago and found that as long as I concentrate and stick to two syllables, I have almost no problems whatsoever. This is reassuring, but also a bit sad since I know I would have found lots of interesting things a lot earlier if I had used this method before. Please read this not as complaining, but as an encouragement for you to try this out earlier than I did! How good are your tones in Chinese, really?

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  1. Anonymous’s avatar

    happy to read you on this article.
    Write down all your ideas the way you do is really a good job, and quite impressive. If i join the Master of chinese as a second language, i will certainly keep on reserching in that direction.

    Thanks for your Passion!!