If you look at two-character words (and most Chinese words are two characters), there are 16 possible tonal pairs. Or rather 20, since we have 4 main tones + neutral fifth tone.
(If you pronounce individual tones well, that doesn’t count. For beginners, two tones together are somehow harder than those two tones individually.
That is, you know the first tone in 吃, the third tone in 小, but pronouncing 小吃 correctly already causes difficulties.)
So, you need to remember 20 tonal patterns. How?
For each tonal pair, memorize the pronunciation of ONE word. You need to choose one that you always pronounce with the correct tones.
It doesn’t have to be the simplest word. For example, the basic 明天 doesn’t sound right in my head. I know the tones, but they don’t come through clearly (for me). Whereas 回家 – “to return home” – sounds right! This is my “checkpoint word” for the 2-1 tonal pair: huí jiā.
When you’re not sure what tones you’re hearing, or how to properly pronounce a new word, just say your “checkpoint word” from your arsenal and copy the intonation. (Or several checkpoint words if you’re figuring out which tones you heard in someone else’s speech). This makes more sense from my video.
Of course, at first this will take time, and you’ll be hesitating. And there’s no need to run every single word this way – you choose which words you want to work on.
How did I practice? It’s convenient to train your tonal listening comprehension with ChinesePod podcasts. They often pronounce words separately, then say what tones they had. I have 3-5 seconds to “guess” the right tones myself.
As for training my own pronunciation, I tried to work on words where I often made mistakes – my Chinese teacher would point them out, or Chinese people simply wouldn’t understand me.
If I didn’t guess the tones in someone else’s speech (say, listening to podcasts), I’d pronounce that word several times with the correct tones. So it would get “recorded” in my subconscious 🙂
Now about quickly adding to your arsenal of checkpoint words. There are some examples of tonal pairs online, but they only give one word per pair, and not all of them seemed suitable to me.
So I made my own list, where anyone can find one perfect checkpoint word for each tonal pair.
I have different words for beginners and continuing learners. The first line has simpler words, the second – slightly more complex, for those who have studied Chinese for a year or more. Although continuing learners may also find the words for beginners suitable – just choose what’s convenient for you personally.
Your choice of a checkpoint word depends on which words you hear most often, and your ear is used to. For example, if you study in Taiwan, you’ll probably choose the word táiwān.
I didn’t include phrases with numbers, although those are also good options – all kinds of 七点,二号,周五,六月 etc.
Some pairs are harder to distinguish from each other.
For example, I personally confuse the fourth and neutral tones in the second syllable, the third and second (in either syllable), and the third and first.
But this can also be trained. You need to compare the sounds of these pairs, ideally using similarly sounding words. I tried to pick combinations for especially tricky pairs:
Devious third tone
1-1 vs. 1-3
The first and third tones are pronounced at the same level – the first is flat and high, while the third is flat and low. Surprise!
We’re taught that third tone goes down then up, but in speech flow it’s more like low and flat (there is a tone increase, but not as strong as we’re taught, and sometimes it’s not audible at all!). This isn’t something I came up with, experienced Chinese teachers (YoyoChinese) and learners (John Pasden from ChinesePod, Olle Linge from HackingChinese) have been saying this for a while.
That’s why it’s not always clear if you’re hearing first tone or third.
Here’s a good example for comparison:
参观 cānguān (“to visit”) 餐馆 cānguǎn (“restaurant”)
1-4 vs. 3-4
多放 duōfàng (“to add more” /often about spices/) 少放 shǎofàng (“to add less”)
1-2 vs. 1-3
The second and third tones are also easy to confuse. Above, I already revealed the secret of the third tone – it’s not really as rising as they keep telling us. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t rise at all. I feel like the rise of the third tone is almost imperceptible when it’s at the start of a word, and more audible when at the end of a word/before a pause.
Practice with the following pairs:
中文 zhōngwén (“Chinese language”) 中午 zhōngwǔ (“noon”)
帮忙 bāngmáng (“to help”) 搬走 bānzǒu (“to move house”)
发达 fādá (“developed”) 发展 fāzhǎn (“to develop”)
高级 gāojí (“advanced”) 高考 gāokǎo (“college entrance exam”)
2-2 vs. 2-3
I always mix up the second and third in this combination. Although when I compare them in pairs, I can hear the difference. The second rises much more strongly and noticeably than the third.
没来 méi lái 没有 méiyǒu
完全 wánquán (“completely”) 完美 wánměi (“perfect”)
2-1 vs. 3-1
Probably because you’re always unconsciously expecting the third tone to give a strong rise in intonation, you confuse it with the second.
南方 nánfāng (“south”) 北方 běifāng (“north”)
文章 wénzhāng (“article”) 紧张 jǐnzhāng (“to worry”)
2-3 vs. 3-2
Many Chinese learners complain that this is their “favorite” tricky pair. Do you mix them up too?
美国 měiguó (“America”) vs 美女 měinǚ (“beauty”)
白酒 báijiǔ (“vodka”) vs. 导游 dǎoyóu (“tour guide”)
Another tricky thing is neutral tone. Because not all words (and syllables) in speech are stressed equally, it’s easy to get confused – was that a weak fourth tone or just neutral? Here are some excellent examples for comparison:
3-4 vs. 3-5
老是 lǎoshì (“always”) 老实 lǎoshi (“honest”)
眼镜 yǎnjìng (“glasses”) 眼睛 yǎnjing (“eyes”)
In conclusion, sometimes all these exercises don’t help: you listen closely but stubbornly don’t hear the “correct” tones. This happens because not all tones are pronounced equally clearly in speech. Only the words the speaker emphasized stand out clearly.
This is how people speak in all languages – they emphasize key words with intonation and stress. Therefore, the intonation contour of the phrase is more important than pronouncing every single word with the correct tones.
Once you can clearly distinguish tones in individual words, it makes sense to start training with whole sentences. A good technique for this is shadowing – you find an actor/character whose pronunciation you really like, play the video, and repeat everything they say without stopping. Of course, at first you miss many words, but eventually you catch up. The idea is to try and perfectly copy their pronunciation and intonation.
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