Those Mandarin TONES

So I’ve been listening to Glossika and Linguaphone Mandarin a lot over the last couple of days. I haven’t been trying to understand meaning, just to see whether (this time!!) I can get my bone-head around those demon tones.

It seems to me that the stuff they teach you in the myriad of online videos on tones is purely theoretical - what the tones sound like in a kind of artificial isolation, if you will. It seems to me that something different is going on in natural whole-sentence contexts??

My impressions:

1st tone_ always sounds higher (if only slightly.) It remains even but also makes the word more drawn out by a couple of milliseconds, perhaps?

2nd tone_ sounds just “normal” to the English ear UNLESS it is followed by the 4th tone - in which case I definitely hear the pitch of the whole compound word rise then fall again.

3rd tone_ sounds low but doesn’t seem to rise UNLESS it comes at the end of a word - then one can hear it rise a little bit right at the end, maybe?

4th tone_ to my ear it doesn’t so much fall, rather it has a shorter, slightly terse quality - rather like a curt monosyllabic answer to a question in English (“No!”, “Yes!” “Sure!”, etc)

Those are my impressions anyway. But then maybe I’m tone deaf… :-0

(It’s such a shame I have this problem with tones. There are so many things about Chinese that seem logical, simple and mentally very satisfying. And I don’t feel at all intimidated by the characters - I have a pretty good visual memory and I know I could learn them over time without too much pain.)

I’m under the impression that you’re getting tone learning completely wrong.
I don’t think you have to learn to recognize which tone is which in every syllable in order to learn Chinese.
Of course, everybody’s different and some people may be very good at recognizing tones from the start but, in my experience, that’s rare. I’ve lost most of my Chinese now (it never was all that great) but when I was in China, tones were not the biggest obstacle to understanding and I certainly didn’t try to recognize each tone in order to get the meaning.

If you ask a random native Chinese speaker which tone is a particular syllable, s/he oftentimes will pronounce it aloud like a hundred times and then tell you what s/he thinks it is as a more or less “wild” guess.

My own “tone strategy” (and I think it’s typical of most learners) is:
A) avoid those exercises that ask you to decide which tone such and such isolatede sylllable has: most people never got that quite right and certainly not in the begginning stages of learning.
B) Do learn to pronounce the tones.

EDIT: And the two-tone combinations! (That’s especially useful in the beginning). In that channel they address all your doubts about how each tone’s supposed to sound: Yoyo Chinese - YouTube

Usablefiber suggested a wonderful video channel for that. Use it! As in many other cases of foreign phonemes, you learn to identify tones with your mouth: if you can pronounce them, you’ll end up identifying them though it’ll take a while. I once read that you don’t learn Chinese with your eyes: you must pronounce aloud and (for the characters) write them (as large as possible). Again, Chinese people very often write characters in the air, in order to remember what they meant.
C) As understanding goes, your main goal is to be able to imitate, then recognize, the general pattern of intonation of whole phrases and sentences., That is way easier and much, much more useful. I learned to never say isolated words in Chinese: they’re mostly incomprehensible, even to natives: provide some context, both for meaning and for intonation.
D) Because whole phrases are your main goal, pay attention to the changes that happen to the tones when in a phrase: they may be dramatic. Besides the “sandhi” rules there are other changes. One of the foreign service books mentions a useful one: a sequence of second tones “sandwiched” between a first or second tone and followed by another full tone become first tones. Worded differently: once you move the tone up (first or second) you don’t go down to rise it again: you keep it high until the last tone in the phrase. However, I’m sure there are many other phenomena like that. Again: your best bet is to imitate phrases/sentences.

My Chinese friend and I often joked that the only time you hear “proper” pronunciation of each tone in a sentence is on the subway DDD:
Xia de zhan Tian Nan Men

Another piece of information: Most educated Chinese people can write pinyin fluently. However they write pinyin without tone indications. They find it very difficult to indicate each tone: you may be trying to achieve mastery in a task that native speakers feel difficult as a prerequisite for beginning the learning of the language. I think that’s a frequent mistake of Chinese learners.

Another example: understanding “bú yào!” (most useful expression in a visit to China, btw) with it’s characteristic rise then drop intonation and overall impression of disdain is very easy.
In contrast, trying to tell whether a “yao” pronounced in isolation is third or fourth tone is (at least for me) next to impossible.

Another tip: when pronouncing phrases: use your hand to mark intonation: where your hand goes, your voicde folloes


Thanks - there are a lot of useful suggestions there. I think you may be right about the tones.

As for the characters, there is a school of thought that says it is quicker as a beginner to start learning the characters using ones native language (or another well known language) as the base for reference?


是 = sein
城 =Stadt
我 =ich/mich/mir

…and so on.

It seems counterintuitive, but I can see that it might allow one to make progress more quickly when learning the most important single characters right at the beginning? Of course, at some stage one needs to know the Mandarin sounds too in order to start reading and making sense of compounds words. (So if 肉 is “rou” and 炖 is “dun”, then “dunrou” will be written as 炖肉, etc.)

I have to admit, I love the characters just for their own sake! :slight_smile:

Well, the “remembering kanji/hanzi” method (Heisig method) proposes to learn characters separately from the pronunciation, as “meanings”. It’s not exactly learning them in a language you know. As a matter of fact, many characters don’t have a proper “translation”. The idea is to learn what they tend to “mean”, a typical meaning that they convey or they are related to.
You learn the characters like that (using a story that relates meaning and character shape). And, later on, you learn the words in which they appear and, thus, the pronunciation. The idea is to learn characters as “letters”, just as you know the alphabet, independently of how you pronounce it in a given word.

As a system to memorize characters, it sounds good (a further feature of the method is to learn them in an order that allows you to build on the knowledge of simpler characters
The “learn the meaning without sound” part is more useful for Japanese kanji (the original application of the Heisig method) than for Chinese hanzi, because kanjis can have quite a few different pronunciations (only over a hundred usual Chinese characters can have two, as opposed as one pronunciation).

In this method, you learn characters separately from the language. Again, it does sound interesting: do get Heisig’s book if you’re interested, part 1:

Anki decks to match: James W. Heisig - Remembering Simplified Hanzi 1 & 2 - AnkiWeb

I don’t think I’ll ever go back and learn Chinese properly (I only got to learn a few hundred characters, using the old-fashioned “write them until you bleed” method) but, if I did, I think I would learn characters as I learn the language, by reading in pinyin over characters and getting used to them as I go.

And a further, very important part of the method is to decompose characters into a set of “primitives”, whose “meaning” or “nickname” you also learn. The primitives are not characters themselves but are frequently encountered motives in them. They’re a generalization of the concept of “radicals”.

More on the kanji version of the method:


  • two tone drills (5 mins each day)
  • record yourself speaking simple natural dialogues/sentences/phrases and compare against native speech (5 mins each day - use a program like audacity)

Between beginner and advanced:

Native like:

Tones will sink in by themselves through lots of listening (around 10k hours) , and through critical, constant feedback on your pronunciation for the first 2-3k hours of speaking.

Chinese kids have much higher rates of perfect pitch than English speakers, mainly because of time of exposure to tonal language sounds.

You can accelerate the teaching of perfect pitch (and Mandarin tones) by following drills similar to those outlined above.

For example, see the study by Sakakibara, in the Psychology of Music , on teaching perfect pitch to children.

Musicians and actors do best at learning Mandarin (for example; Gaudfroy, Rowswell, Kos-Read) , as adults, mainly because they already have time invested in pitch control and identification.

Interesting, example video here of Julien Gaudfroy – from 1 minute 20s – 异乡·驿客Ⅱ 第二集 法国人朱力安的快乐生活 [时代写真]

I recently realized that 站 in Chinese means station(火车站). The character is made up of two parts: standing(立) and occupying(占); I don’t know how the character is pronounced. (Does Zhàn show its pronunciation?)
One the other hand, 駅(えき) is used for the English word in Japanese, and the left part of this kanji means a horse(馬). I suppose that before steam locomotives(蒸気機関車) were invented, you could see horses at 駅, which can refer to a town along highways(街道, 幹線道路) as well as a railway(鉄道) station.



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Yes, the pronunciation is zhàn
It’s very interesting to notice the difference between the Chinese and the Japanese characters

I also think you have to not worry so much about remembering the tones, especially in the early throws. “Wo” = I. Don’t worry if you can’t remember that wo has the “v” tone". It’s impossible to remember each tone for each word. Over time the more frequent words the tones will sort of start to stick.