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Tones – what you are learning may be wrong

  1. Tones!!!  Listening and Speaking

Major lessons for this chapter:

  1. Mastery of tones is very crucial for a learners ability to avoid mistakes with tone length and pitch
  2. There are many misconceptions and myths both from teachers and students which must be overcome and avoided.

There are five (5) tones in Chinese:

Tone #1 : (diagram of 1st tone) 陰平 yin1ping2 – 第一生 di4yi1sheng1

Tone #2 : (diagram of 2nd tone) 楊平 yang2ping2 – 第二生 di4er4sheng1

Tone #3 : (diagram of 3rd tone) 上聲 shang4sheng1 – 第三生 di4san1sheng1

Tone #4 : (diagram of 4th tone) 去聲 qu4sheng1 – 第四生 di4si4sheng1

Tone #5 : (diagram of 5th tone) 輕聲 qing1sheng1 – 第五生 di4wu3sheng1

The most widely-used example of the four tones and their sound difference (I’ve added the 5th tone to make it comprehensive):

媽 (ma1) 麻 (ma2) 馬 (ma3) 罵 (ma4) 嗎 (ma5)

The FLAWED tone diagram (Diagram #1)

Why is it Flawed?

Tone length

The way this diagram is visually drawn the learner will assume the “tone length” all tones are proportional to the length of the line.  Thus, the 1st tone has the shortest length, then the 2nd tone, and then the 3rd and 4th tone are similar to length.  However, this is farther from the truth.  The reality is the tone length for each tone is ordered from longest tone to shortest in this manner:  1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th.  If one was to record a native speaker say each tone, not independently but actually in natural speed and normal context, the results will prove the order of tone length.

There is also research and teaching experience evidence found in the JCLTA (Journal of Chinese Language Teachers Assn).

Mistakes made by foreigners

Tone length is too long 

Example #1:

Ai4 愛 (love) pronounced incorrectly as a1yi2 阿姨 (aunty)

Hao3好 (good) pronounced incorrectly as hao2wu2 毫無 (nothing)

Bei3北 (north) pronounced incorrectly as 北醫 (Beijing medical school)

Tone length is too short

Example1:  Xi1An1 西安 (a city in China)

If the two first tones are not correctly pronounced and given the long high pitch tone. Then Xi1an1 will sound like xian1 先 (first)

Example2:  Xi3Yi1Fu 洗衣服 (wash clothes) will be incorrectly pronounced xi2fu 媳婦 (wife)

Example3:  Li3Ang2 李昂 (Person’s name) will be incorrectly pronounced liang2 涼 (cold)

Misconception – Emphasis is on wrong vowel

Example #1: biao3 表

Because learners will place emphasis on ‘i’ and not on ‘ao’ the sound that comes out is:  bi2ao3 鼻袄

Thus, correct placement of the tone mark assists learners in emphasizing the ‘ao’ and not the ‘i’

Example #2: huang2 黃

The tone should be on the 2nd vowel ‘a’ and not ‘u’, so the word should be separated into ‘hu’ and ‘ang’.  ‘hu’ should be viewed as a consonant, and ‘ang’ as the vowel.  Otherwise it will sound like hu3ang2 虎昂

Misconception – The longer the pinyin word, the longer the tone.

Example #1:

Long-lettered pinyin words: huang, kuang, guang, zhuang, chuang, shuang

Short-lettered pinyin words: ba, na, mi, ci, su, e

The length of the pinyin is irrelevant to the length of the tone.  The tone length is completely dependent on which tone is place on the pinyin words.  The order of tone length from shortest to longest is: 5th, 4th, 3rd/2nd, 1st.

Example #2:

Ma3 馬 (horse) has the same tone length as mai3 買 (buy).  Try it for yourself and ask your teacher to pronounce these two charcters.

Hu1 呼 (breathe out) and huang1 荒 (desolate).  Since they both have the 1st tone, they are pronounced with the same tone length and pitch.

Misconception – The pinyin sound may sound like English, and the English-tonal sound is attached to it.

Pai sounds like ‘pie’, but when you add a tone to it such as 4th tone: 

pai4 pie  the same goes for tai4 太 tie.  Why?  Because pie and tie both have a long dragged out tone with a middle pitch, while pai4 and tai4 both have drastically short tone lengths and a top-to-down pitch.


I personally don’t think the 3rd tone rises that much to level 4.  I think it stops at level 2.  To be more extreme, I don’t think the 3rd tone rises in pitch.  In free-standing mode all by itself it may rise, but when put in a two-character word and in a sentence, the 3rd tone does not rise in pitch and is not dragged out as long as a 1st or 2nd tone.  The 3rd tone pitch is similar to a 4th tone pitch because the pitch ‘falls’, however the starting point of the 3rd tone is near 2/3, while the 4th tone definitely starts up high near 5.   The pitch for the 1st tone is very high and dragged out.

There is also research and teaching experience evidence found in the JCLTA (Journal of Chinese Language Teachers Assn).

THE REVISED tone diagram (Diagram #2)

Double Tone Combos

Way after your initial double tone success with words like “xie xie,” you’ll start to get the hang of tone combinations in familiar words. Pronouncing these correctly in conversation is still quite a challenge, however. If my experience, you will find the order of difficulty of tone combinations to be similar to the following (easiest to hardest, top to bottom, with combinations of roughly equal difficulty in the same horizontal row):

1-1, 4-4     <–easiest

2-4, 4-2, 1-4

2-2, 2-3, 3-3 (basically a 2-3)

3-4, 2-1, 3-1, 1-2, 1-3

4-1, 4-3

3-2      <–hardest  (hard because it’s not a full ‘3’; the rise in the ‘3’ blends with the ‘2’


Multiple Tone Success

Believe it or not, 3 characters in a row can sometimes throw you off even when you’ve got the “doubles” down pretty well. It takes conscious effort. If you can do the “doubles,” though, then with some work you can do any combination, simply by breaking it down into a series of doubles. (E.g. a 1-3-2 combination is like a 1-3 overlapping a 3-2.)

Tone Change dependent on following character’s tone.

When you pronounce a sequence of tones, the tones will not always remain the

same. The most common details to be noted are:

The word “yi” (meaning “one”) is usually of tone #1. However this word will be

pronounced with tone #2 when directly preceding a tone #4. It will be

pronounced with tone #4 when directly preceding a tone #2 or #3. Example: “yi1

ge4” is pronounced as “yi2 ge4”, while “yi1 ben3” is pronounced as “yi4 ben3”.

The word “bu” (meaning “not”) is usually of tone #4. However this word will be

pronounced with tone #2 when directly preceding a tone #4. Example: “bu4 shi4”

(meaning “is not”) is pronounced as “bu2 shi4”.

Every syllable that is usually pronounced with tone #3, will turn into a tone

#2 when directly preceding another tone #3. This rule will apply for entire

sequences of words! Example: “liang3 ben3 shu1” (meaning “two books”) is

pronounced as “liang2 ben3 shu1”.

If a sentence contains a long sequence of tones #3, the phrase may be split

into parts separated by a brief pause. Tones are then chosen within each part

of the sentence. Example: “wo3 xiang3 mai3 liang3 ben3 shu1” (meaning “I want

to buy two books”) may be pronounced as “wo2 xiang2 mai3” + “liang2 ben3 shu1”

rather than “wo2 xiang2 mai2 liang2 ben3 shu1” (spoken without any pause!).


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