Tone pairs

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Even when a learner can pronounce the four tones correctly individually, that usually does not mean that the learner can string several tones together and get them all correct. Tone pairs are an important unit of pronunciation to focus on as a 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 intermediate (B1) learner. (Advanced elementary (A2+) learners who already have a good handle on tone change rules can also start on tone pairs.)

It is a good idea to have mastered the essential tone change rules before starting on tone pairs, because all three of those different tone changes will definitely come into play.

The 20 pairs (numbered)

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 tone pair 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.

Each of the pages in the table above includes audio and video. If you're new to tone pairs, be sure to view each one!

The 20 pairs (diagrams)

Below are the core 16 tone pairs (neutral tones omitted) in visual form. Click on any of them for more information on that tone pair.

Tone Pair 1-1 cropped.png
Tone Pair 2-1 cropped.png
Tone Pair 3-1 cropped.png
Tone Pair 4-1 cropped.png
Tone Pair 1-2 cropped.png
Tone Pair 2-2 cropped.png
Tone Pair 3-2 cropped.png
Tone Pair 4-2 cropped.png
Tone Pair 1-3 cropped.png
Tone Pair 2-3 cropped.png
Tone Pair 3-3 cropped.png
Tone Pair 4-3 cropped.png
Tone Pair 1-4 cropped.png
Tone Pair 2-4 cropped.png
Tone Pair 3-4 cropped.png
Tone Pair 4-4 cropped.png

(If you're looking for diagrams for the neutral tones, please see the neutral tones page.)

Test Yourself

We also have an A2 Tone Pair Check 2 and A2 Tone Pair Check 3, where the tone pairs are in random order with totally different words.

If these A2 tone pair words are too easy for you, then definitely try out our B1 Tone Pair Checks.

Sources and further reading