Tone pair

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Tone pairs are an important unit of pronunciation to focus on as learner's tones gradually improve.

The concept

Most learners can accurately pronounce the tone of a single syllable after enough practice. But they find that once they try to pronounce two tones in a row, it all falls apart: they get the second one totally wrong, or the first, or even both. Stringing tones together is a skill that needs to be practiced, and the foundation for this skill is to practice every combination of tones in the smallest unit possible: tone pairs.

The logic here is pretty clear: if you can string two tones together accurately, you can build on that, stringing more and more together, until you can do whole sentences. This is not a quick process, however. You're going to need quite a bit of practice, and you should expect this practice to take up a good chunk of your pronunciation practice as an elementary (A2) learner.

The 20 pairs

There are 20 tone pairs because there are four main tones and one neutral tone, but a neutral tone can never be the first syllable in a word or phrase.

+ 1st Tone + 2nd Tone + 3rd Tone + 4th Tone + Neutral Tone
1st Tone 1-1 1-2 1-3 1-4 1-0
2nd Tone 2-1 2-2 2-3 2-4 2-0
3rd Tone 3-1 3-2 3-3 3-4 3-0
4th Tone 4-1 4-2 4-3 4-4 4-0

❋ You might be tempted to think that 3-3 doesn't count, because after the tone change it's the same as 2-3. But actually, you really need to practice this tone change as part of a tone pair, so you'll definitely want to practice 3-3 pairs, just like all the others.

Sources and further reading

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