Four tones

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Also known as: 四声 (sìshēng).

One of the first concepts you need to learn when tackling Mandarin Chinese is tones. You'll often hear that there are four main tones, although there is also a "neutral tone," so you sometimes hear it said that there are five.

Tone Diagram

Below is a standard tone diagram that you will see in most textbooks and traditional Chinese courses.

4-Tones standard cropped.png

(The numbers 1-5 on the right side of the diagram refer to relative pitch differences; they're not absolute values, and will vary from speaker to speaker.)

Here's a more fun version of the same diagram:


(If the little illustrations don't make sense to you, read on...)

First Tone

The first tone is high and flat. Some feel that it sounds "robotic" because it is monotone. The first tone can also be a bit longer in duration compared to the other three tones. (This helps make it more obvious to the listener that the tone is flat.)


Second Tone

The second tone is rising. Some feel that it sounds like you're asking a question, and if that helps you make the tone properly in the beginning, do it!


Third Tone

The third tone is low. It is often called the "falling-rising" tone or the "dipping" tone, but it's more important that the tone be super low than that it rises. Keep it low!


Fourth Tone

The fourth tone is falling. To many learners, it sounds angry. Several 4th tones in a row might sound like an angry staccato to you. Don't be afraid to emphasize the 4th tone by making it sound a little angry. The 4th tone also tends to be shorter in duration than the other three tones.


Neutral Tone

This tone has its own page, so we won't cover it here. As a quick rule of thumb, just keep it short and light. Don't emphasize it.

Updated Tone Diagram

These days, more and more Chinese learning resources are representing the 3rd tone in a different way: as a low tone (which doesn't actually rise very much, but also isn't as flat as the 1st tone). This is because 3rd tone is normally only pronounced in its full "rising and falling" form when it is pronounced in isolation (e.g. as a single, one-syllable word). Most of the time 3rd tone precedes other tones, and is pronounced as a "half-third tone" which doesn't rise again after it goes low.

4-Tones revised cropped.png

Remember: the key thing about third tone is that it is low. Focus on that!

The Process of Learning Tones

Quoted from (with permission):

  1. Stupefied

    In the very beginning, when you hear the different tones juxtaposed one after another, you can hear that there’s a difference, but articulating the difference or reproducing the tones seems like an impossible task. It will take some time for the “stupefication factor” to wear off to the point that you’re actually willing to try to pronounce the different tones.

  2. 3-Second Memory

    After prolonged exposure, you can hear the differences between the tones, and can even reproduce them, somewhat. Memory of tones lasts only about 3 seconds, however, after which if you don’t hear them again, recalling them is hopeless.

  3. Individual Tone Success

    After a lot of hard work and even more exposure, you will be able to produce a given tone in an isolated context when making a deliberate effort. Congratulations! This is actually no easy task! At this stage, however, you will still make TONS of mistakes when actually trying to use words in conversation. Except for the most common words/phrases (“ni hao,” “xie xie,” etc.), you can ONLY pronounce isolated syllables correctly, when concentrating. You still cannot correctly identify the tones in a new word that you hear, though.

  4. Familiar Double Tone Success

    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. You probably still let English sentence intonation affect your tone pronunciation, too. (See Sinosplice’s Tone Pair Drills for more help in this area).

    If my own learning experience is at all typical, 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 <–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

  5. Complete Double Tone Success

    After you learn to pronounce all the unique tone combinations for words you know, you will soon be able to apply them readily to less familiar words. This process gets easier and easier with time.

  6. 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. (such as a 1-3-2 combination is like a 1-3 overlapping a 3-2).

  7. Consistency

    Congratulations, you can pronounce Mandarin’s tones accurately consistently now, and it feels natural. You now have the Holy Grail of Mandarin study. (There’s still plenty to work on, though, such as entire sentence intonation and narration techniques…)

Source: The Process of Learning Tones

Sources and further reading