Chinese Tones: Tips on How to Learn the Tricky Change

Passionate about language learning, translating and teaching. Graduated with a master's degree in arts from PolyU in Hong Kong, majoring in TCFL. Have an experience of teaching spoken Chinese to college students at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, which inspired her to help more people from different countries understand China. Enjoy sharing with others the Chinese culture and the secrets of how to learn Chinese.
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Every language has its own sound system. Chinese is a tonal language, which means the same syllable with different tones can distinguish between words’ meaning. Learning how to pronounce different tones correctly is an essential and fun part of studying Chinese. 

In this article, we will talk about Standard Mandarin Chinese tones. Even though Chinese tones differ by dialect, Standard Mandarin will be a great place to start!

The Basic Four Tones

In Mandarin Chinese, there are four basic tones. Each of them has a distinctive pitch contour. Pitch may vary from speaker to speaker, but you can get the general picture from the tone diagram below.

Chinese tones

Here is a brief introduction of the four basic tones. The numbers in parentheses reflect changes in pitch.

Tone Mark Description
1st tone High and flat. (5-5)
2nd tone Starting high in tone then rising. (3-5)
3rd tone Starting low, falling to the bottom, then rising. (2-1-4) 
4th tone Starting high, then falling sharply to the bottom. (5-1)

First tone

The first tone, also called high-level tone, is very easy to pronounce. It starts high and maintains the pitch the whole time, which tends to be longer in duration than the other three tones.

The first tone

Some examples:

Syllable Example Translation
/shuǐ water wave
mā 妈/ma mom
tī 腿/ tuǐ kick
yī 服/fu clothes

Second tone 

The second tone, or rising tone, starts semi-high (medium), and then goes up. It sounds like asking a question.

Some examples:

Syllable Example Translation
伯/bo uncle
má 烦/fan trouble
tí /gāo improve
yí 民/mín immigration

Third tone

The third tone, or dipping tone, is the most difficult one for most non-native Chinese speakers. It starts semi-high (lower than the starting pitch of the second tone), dips down to the bottom of the tonal range, and then goes up again. 

Some examples:

Syllable Example Translation
子/zi cripple
mǎ 上/shàng immediately
tǐ 会/huì experience
yǐ 经/jīng already

Fourth tone

The fourth tone, or high-falling tone, starts very high but sharply goes down to the bottom of the tonal range. It sounds a little bit angry but you don’t need to do so intentionally. It tends to be shorter in duration than the other three tones.

Some examples:

Syllable Example Translation
荷/he mint
mà 人/rén curse
tì 牙/ floss
yì 思/si meaning

Neutral Tone

The neutral tone is called “轻声/qīngshēng” in Chinese and often referred to as “toneless”, which does not have a defined pitch contour but is roughly in the middle of your voice range. It’s always very easy to pick up because they are generally somewhat shorter than tonic syllables and pronounced quickly and slightly. 

Frankly speaking, it’s not the “fifth tone”. Instead, it’s just a kind of tone change for certain words and can be classified into two groups: the regular neutral tone and the irregular neutral tone. Bear in mind that no word starts with a neutral tone! It usually occurs in a final unstressed syllable of a disyllabic word.

The regular neutral tone

The neutral tone can be found in many words, which can be divided into the following groups. 

  • Noun suffixes

Some characters put after a noun are pronounced with a neutral tone. They don’t have a concrete meaning, but function as an abstract indication. 

Character Example Translation
头/tóu /zhěntou pillow
子/zǐ /fángrzi house
儿/ér /huā er flower
巴/bā /jiēba stammer
  • Auxiliary particles

Some auxiliary particles, such as “得/de,的/de,地/de,了/le,着/zhe,们/men”, are very commonly read with neutral tone.

Character Example Translation
的/de /hǎo de ok
得/de 快/zǒu de kuài go fast
地/de 慢慢跑/màn man de pǎo run slowly
了/le /zǒule gone
们/men /men we
着/zhe /kànzhe watching
  • Modal particles

Modal particles, such as “吗/ma,啊/a,吧/ba,呢/ne”, used at the end of a sentence to indicate emotion or mood, should be read with neutral tone.

Character Example Translation
吗/ma ?/ hǎo ma? Okay?
啊/a 真不容易!/ zhēn bù róngyì a! It’s not easy!
吧/ba !/ hǎo ba! Alright!
呢/ne 你说?/ nǐ shuō ne? Don’t you?
  • Measure words

When “个/gè” is used as a measure word, it should be pronounced with a neutral tone.

Character Example Translation
个/gè 苹果/zhège píngguǒ this apple
梳子/ge shūzi that comb
包/ge bāo a bag
  • Duplicated words 

As for duplicated nouns or verbs, such as” 妹妹/mèimei, 星星/xīngxing, 看看/kànkan”, the second character should be read with a neutral tone. Plus, when “一/yī” or “不/bù” is used between a duplicated word, “一’ or “不” is pronounced with a neutral tone. 

Character Example Translation
妹/mèi 妹/mèimei younger sister
哥/gē 哥/ge older brother
爸/bà 爸/ba father
星/xīng 星/xīngxing star
找/zhǎo 找/zhǎo zhao look for
不/bù 好/hǎobuhǎo  ok?
一/yī 看/kànyikàn take a look
  •  Location character after noun

Some location characters, such as “上/shàng,下/xià,里/lǐ,外/wài”, always take on the neutral tone when put after a noun.

Character Example Translation
上/shàng 上/zhuō shang on the table
下/xià 下/xiāngxia countryside
里/lǐ 里/ li  in the house
外/wài 外/chuāngwai outside the window

Monosyllabic verb suffixes indicating the direction

Verb suffixes “来/lái” and “去/qù”, which indicate the direction towards or away from the speaker respectively, always take on the neutral tone.

Character Example Translation
来/lái 来/huílai come back (towards the speaker)
走上来/zǒu shànglai come up (towards the speaker)
去/qù 去/chūqu go out (away from the speaker)
跑下去/pǎo xiàqu run down (away from the speaker)

The irregular neutral tone

In some cases, the neutral tone is used even though none of the above rules apply. Learners have no choice but to learn such words by heart.

Example Translation Example Translation
/fu clothes /huan like
/xiōngdi brothers /jiāhuo guy
/zhīma sesame /ye uncle
/yuèliang moon 计/huǒji dude
/ban dress up /yàoshi key

Tone Sandhi

Chinese tones are not static: sometimes tones of individual characters change depending on the pronunciation of adjacent characters. This phenomenon is called “tone sandhi”. Those tone changes are not reflected in pinyin tone marks, so getting to grips with the rules of tone sandhi is vital for any learner of Chinese.

For T3

Among the four tones, the third tone is the most prone to tone changes. It’s only pronounced in its full “falling-rising” form when standing alone. In any other situation, rules of tone sandhi will apply.

T3 + non-T3 → Half T3 + non-T3

The third tone preceding the first, the second, or the fourth tone will be pronounced as a half-third tone, starting low then falling even lower, never to rise again.

Tone Sandhi

Some examples:

Dictionary pronunciation Actual pronunciation Translation
首先 (shǒu+xiān) 首先/shǒuxiān first of all
祖国 (zǔ+guó) 祖国/guó motherland
广告 (guǎng+gào) 广告/guǎnggào advertising
导师 (dǎo+shī) 导师/dǎoshī tutor

T3 + T3 → T2 + T3

When a third tone is followed by another third tone in a pair, the former changes to a second tone.

Tone Sandhi

Some examples:

Dictionary pronunciation Actual pronunciation Translation
广场 (guǎng+chǎng) 广场/guángchǎng square
许可 (xǔ+kě) 许可/ permit
想法 (xiǎng+fǎ) 想法/xiáng idea
可以 (kě+yǐ) 可以/ can

For T4 

T4 + T4 → Half T4 + T4

When two fourth-tone syllables are used together, the former changes to the half-fourth tone. Unlike the full fourth tone, the half-fourth tone doesn’t drop all the way down but stops semi-high.

Tone Sandhi

Some examples:

Dictionary pronunciation Actual pronunciation Translation
再见 (zài+jiàn) 再见/zàijiàn goodbye
看见 (kàn+jiàn) 看见/kànjiàn see
放弃 (fàng+qì) 放弃/fàng give up
睡觉 (shuì+jiào) 睡觉/shuìjiào go to bed

For 一 (yī)

一/yī” is probably one of the first Chinese words you’ve ever learned, but despite its simplicity, you still have to pay special attention to its pronunciation. When used in isolation, as a number, or at the end of a word or a sentence, “一/yī” is pronounced with the first tone. However, 一 changes to the fourth tone if it precedes the first, the second, or the third tone. Finally, before the fourth tone, “一/yí” is pronounced with the second tone.


Character Example Translation
一/ 第一/ the first
统一/tǒng unite
感情专一/gǎnqíng zhuān devoted love

一(yī) + T1/T2/T3 → 一 (yì)

Dictionary pronunciation Actual pronunciation Translation
一天 (yī+tiān) 一天/tiān one day
一直 (yī+zhí) 一直/zhí always
一点 (yī+diǎn) 一点/diǎn a little

一 (yī) + T4 → 一 (yí)

Dictionary pronunciation Actual pronunciation Translation
一切 (yī+qiè) 一切/qiè all
一片 (yī+piàn) 一片/piàn one slice
一半 (yī+bàn) 一半/ bàn half

For 不 (bù)

When “不(bù)” is used before the fourth tone in a group, it should be changed into “bú”.

不 (bù) + T4 → 不 (bú)

Dictionary pronunciation Actual pronunciation Translation
不要 (bù+yào) 不要/búyào don’t need
不错 (bù+cuò) 不错/búcuò not bad
不是 (bù+shì) 不是/búshì not

How to Practice Mandarin Chinese Tones

Even with the introduction above, Chinese tones might still feel like a frustrating mystery to you. The key here is practice. Increase your confidence and improve your spoken Chinese with these simple exercises!

  • Start with numbers

Chinese numbers from 1 to 10 are the best start for a beginner. They’re short, simple, widely used, and, more importantly, contain all four tones.

  • Listen and repeat with gestures

Using your hand to follow the changes in pitch will help you memorize the four tones faster and keep your pronunciation in check. 

Step 1. Listen to the character carefully and identify its tone.

Step 2. Listen again, following the changes in pitch with your hand.

Tone 1. Draw a horizontal straight line. 

Tone 2. Draw a diagonal line from bottom left to top right.

Tone 3. Draw a “V”.

Tone 4. Draw a diagonal line from top left to bottom right. 

Step 3. Try to say the tones with gestures by yourself.

Step 4. Repeat the exercise with different tones to strengthen your memory.

  • Exaggerate the tones

To an unpracticed ear, tones pronounced in fast succession are nearly impossible to differentiate, so don’t rush to speak as fast as a native speaker would. Take your time: speak slowly and exaggerate the four tones, pronouncing the lows really low and the high really high. 

This doesn’t seem like an efficient way to memorize correct pronunciation, but it will pay off in the long run. Remember: many learners who started using Chinese to communicate without mastering the tones first now find themselves struggling to correct their pronunciation mistakes. Better start off slow and lay a solid foundation for your further progress.

  • Practice tones in pairs

After practicing tones in isolation, move on to practicing tones in pairs. Tone sandhi will affect different combinations in different ways, so make sure to cover all of them for better results.

Tone  1 2 3 4 Neutral
1 (1+1) 















2 (2+1) 














come back

3 (3+1) 














sister in law

4 (4+1)  


read books













  • Record your voice

Recording your voice isn’t just a great way to keep tabs on your learning progress: you can use it to gauge if your pronunciation is off in real-time! Here’s how to do that with the Shadow Speaking feature in ChineseSkill app:

Step 1. Listen to standard pronunciation.


Step 2. Click the “recording” button on the bottom left and repeat what you just heard.


Step 3. Click the “ear” icon on the bottom right. Listen to your recording and compare it to the standard pronunciation to see if you got anything wrong.


Step 4. Click the “arrow” button on the middle right or left to see the explanation of the corresponding word.


ChineseSkill is available on App Store and Google Play. Don’t miss out!

  • Practice with a native speaker

Don’t be shy and make some native speaker friends! Mimic the way they speak and ask for honest feedback. Don’t just stick to one or two language buddies though: they might get used to your accent and stop correcting your mistakes.

  • Use online resources to practice

Once you have mastered the basic four tones and tone sandhi, make full use of modern technology and practice longer combinations of Chinese tones with the help of resources available online:

⇒ Sing in Chinese

This relaxing and fun activity is perfect for all learners, not just the ones with an ear for music. Check out the recommendations below:

⇒ Watch Chinese TV shows

⇒ Watch Chinese films

This video shows 13 of the most popular movies in China even in the world:

⇒ Listen to podcasts:

Top 10 Chinese Podcasts to Improve Your Listening Skill will tell you some fabulous podcasts.

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