Archive for the ‘Tones’ Category

We’ve all heard of the typical “American in China” joke, whereby the aforementioned tourist will make a tonal error leading to something embarrassing/offensive being said.  The one which sticks in my mind is an American who wants to order 水饺 (boiled dumplings), but instead asks the waitress to 睡觉 (sleep).

Developing a mastery of Mandarin tones, therefore, is not just an exercise in nitpicking; it’s essential.       

As Jing and I have emphasised in the past, practice with a native speaker is essential.  Note that not just any native speaker will do, you have to find someone who is willing to correct you. 

For instance, Jing is never afraid to correct my mispronunciations (making 打板球 (to play cricket) sound like 打棒球 (to play baseball) seems to be a recurring error ><), even if it may not seem the most “polite” thing to do.

From my own experience, I’ve found a quick way to solve some tonal irritancies.  In addition to practicing Mandarin tones using the “tone pair theory” (mentioned in a previous article), one can rapidly improve tonal accuracy by focusing on the “final” sound of the tone.

Allow me to explain.

Written in pinyin, Chinese words have two parts: the “initial” sound and the “final” sound.  For instance, 甜 (sweet) is written as tián in pinyin.  The “initial” is the “t” sound, and the “final” is “ian”. 

The placement of the tone is always located within the final sound.  As such, segregating the final sound and practicing the correct tone isolates the tone too.   Then, add the initial sound and practice a little more. 

If this is done with every new word learnt, then the accuracy of pronunciation (tone included) is strongly emphasised from the start of the learning process.

I’ve had a lot of positive results with this method.  I hope it works fantastically for you too.



It has been advanced for some years that a mastery of spoken Mandarin Chinese can be achieved by the successful grasp of “tone pairs”. 

The “tone pair” theory is thus: spoken Mandarin is entirely composed of tone pairs.  For instance, 普通话 is three individual tones, but two groups of tone pairs;  a 3-1 pair (普通) and a 1-4 pair (通话).  The tone pairs overlap to form the three syllable word putonghua (Mandarin Chinese).

It is alleged that if one masters the various tone combinations, individually at first, and then in succession, faultless tones will be the result.  

Likewise, inaccurate tones can be corrected by paying attention to the specific tone pair, rather than a single “problem tone”.  To illustrate, imagine that you cannot pronounce 汉语水平 (Chinese ability).  If the tone in 平 is pronounced incorrectly, then the problem will be remedied by addressing the word 水平 as a whole, rather than a focus on 平 itself.  “Good” or “accurate” tonality, therefore, is a measure of correct pronunciation of tones in combinations, rather than on an individual basis.

I recently stumbled across this list of tone pairs while perusing the internet.  They are in order of increasing difficulty.

1-1 <–easiest

4-4, 2-4

2-2, 4-2, 1-4

2-3, 3-3, 1-3, 2-1

3-4, 3-1, 1-2

4-1, 4-3

3-2 <–hardest

Note that the difficulty of these tones may shift from person to person, and the list is merely a general guide.  However, the lesson remains the same: no tone exists in isolation, so why practice them in isolation? 

Michael and Jing