Dear Chinese Learners,
I struggled with tones for years, and am still finding ways to improve. It takes a humbling amount of patience yet it is possible to get really good at the tones with time. Below are some of my own personal experiences with learning Chinese tones. I wish I knew some of these before I started because it would have saved some of the frustration of getting the tones right. I’m sure you’ll find some of these tips useful:
- Focus on the MUSIC of the language when you listen to native speakers speak. When I first started learning I found myself sound a bit robotic at times to get the tones down. If you try to get the tones just right you will wind up sounding like a machine (think of the way an electronic dictionary sound). You don’t want to be a machine!
- IMPORTANT: Notice where the tones start! This is especially true for the second tone. When I first started learning the tones I didn’t pay close enough to the second tone. I made the mistake with the second tone — I started it lower that I should have so it sounded more like a third tone. **The second tone starts at a mid-range and then goes up.
- The third tone is the lowest sounding tone keep it lower. Pay attention to the way native Mandarin speakers use it… ask them to slow down and you’ll really notice the low rolling sound that raises up at the end.
- Practice tones in pairs! Just pick a comic from this site, pull out two words (typically 2 characters) and say them next to each other. Repeat a few times to become more comfortable with the differences.
- Some people, myself included, like to associate a feeling with each tone. The easiest one for me is the 4th tone. I tend to think of it as an angry tone. It’s sharp an falling nature just sounds angry to me. One of my favorite words for forth done is 睡覺 / 睡觉 / shuìjiào, (double fourth tone). It reminds me of a flustered parent, grounding their child for something that happened at school. Just think of an angry mom saying: “GO TO BED!” I’ve round the other tones to put a feeling to yet I use:
1st Tone = high-pitched robotic
2nd Tone = questioning feeling
3rd Tone = serious skepticism
4th Tone = anger
- Some students have had their luck with associating a tone with color. I choose to use the same colors used for the tones in the Pleco Dictionary (The best dictionary I’ve found). If you notice in the chart above I’ve used the same color scheme:
1st Tone = Red (Like the red flag of China high in the sky)
2nd Tone = Green (Growing like a green plant)
3rd Tone = Blue (Rolling like the blue waves in the ocean)
4th Tone = Purple (Like someone pouncing on you to give you a purple nurple)
- THE BEST WAY to remember the tone is to make it personal and meaning for you. For me, if it’s a funny story that I can relate to my life I’m way more likely to remember it. To say “I love you” in Chinese, I think of love like war, a WAR between your EYE and your partner’s KNEE… WAR, EYE, KNEE. Now add the tones and you have: 我愛你 / 我爱你 / wǒ ài nǐ. Humor is memorable!
- The firth tone — or neutral tone — is short, sweet and kind of like “meh” without any emphasis or feeling.
- Keep on practicing the tones! You will forget them yet if you find interesting enough or meaningful enough connections an mnemonics to help you remember. You will find that it will take more practice than you were anticipating, I spent years struggling with tones (and still struggle) which is why I put in the research and time to create comics to help make remembering the tones a bit easier.