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Tone pairs are an important unit of pronunciation to focus on as learner's tones gradually improve.
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
|+ 1st Tone||+ 2nd Tone||+ 3rd Tone||+ 4th Tone||+ Neutral Tone|
❋ 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
- Sinosplice: The Process Of Learning Tones
- Sinosplice: Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills, New Feature: Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills
- Hacking Chinese: Focusing on tone pairs to improve your Mandarin pronunciation
- About.com: How tone pairs can improve your Mandarin pronunciation