How to pronounce the four tones in Chinese

(All the audios in this article is in the following youtube video. Alternatively, you can also request the audio in MP3 format by sending an email to info@chinese-at-ease.com). 

How to pronounce first tone

The first tone is a very high pitch tone, so high that it sounds as if you are singing. Your pitch of voice is not changed, which means there is no change in your voice (like monotone), and you can extent this sound as long as you want. Its symbol, a straight horizontal line above a letter, tells you that it’s a flat tone with no change. Let’s have a look at some examples:

The important thing is to not be afraid of keeping your pitch at the highest. The pitch is so high that you might think you are overdoing it, but it is in fact how it is.

Now repeat after me each sound:

ā          ān             wō           yī                wū              guī            zī             qiāng              tū                  tiān

啊         安             喔            衣                乌              归            资                枪                突                  天

Now repeat after me the following words and feel first tones:

bīngxiāng

冰箱

cāoxīn

操心

chōngtū

冲突

chūshēn

出身

dāngchū

当初

How to pronounce second tone

The second tone is a rising tone. Your pitch goes up. You pronounce words with 2nd tone as if you are surprised. I call this tone a surprise tone. What helps to pronounce it correctly is to start low and slow, and then raise your pitch gradually. Pay attention the sign for this tone is a rising (from left to right) line. Tip: 1) it helps to pronounce a 2nd tone if your head goes up too. 2) remember that you are surprised. For example:

lái             ní           qiáng             léi             zú            nán              lú               tián              chuí           tíng

来            泥             强                雷             足             男                炉                甜                捶             亭

Now repeat after me the following words and feel the second tones:

chéngshí

诚实

chíyí

迟疑

chítáng

池塘

chóngdié

重叠

chóuchú

踌躇

How to pronounce third tone

The 3rd tone is in essence a very low tone. The sign suggests that when pronouncing it, your pitch falls and then rises again. It’s as if there is a dip in sound. Pay attention that even after rising, the 3rd tone is still lower than a 1st tone. A tip for effectively practice 3rd tone is to speak very slowly, so you feel the process of fall and rise.

Here are a few examples:

tǎ             mǐ             zǔ            zhěn           kě               fǎn             chǎn             zuǐ                 lǐ              qǐng

塔            米             祖               枕             渴                反                产                嘴                里              请

Now repeat after me the following words and feel the third tone:

Jiǎnzi

剪子

xiǎngxiang

  想想

Kǒuzi

口子

 mǎimɑi

  买卖

nǎozi

脑子

Pay attention:

In reality, the 3rd tone is not always pronounced fully. Many times, you only need to pronounce the falling part of the 3rd tone. This is the case when a 3rd tone is followed by a 1st, 2nd and 4th tones. We will practice this more in Chapter 6.

There are other situations you only pronounce the dipping or falling part of a 3rd tone, no rising. This is when a 3rd tone is followed by other tones.

For example:

xiǎo chī                nǐ lái                  dǎ luàn               xiǎng liàng

小吃                    你来                    打乱                   响亮

A third tone only pronounced fully when its the ending sound. Good news is you don’t need to memorize this, as normally you’d automatically want to pronounce as above.

How to Pronounce fourth tone

The fourth tone starts out from the highest pitch but drops sharply to the bottom of the tonal range. You may associate this tone with an angry command, as if you are shouting angrily about something. To practice this tone, you can be a bit dramatic.

Here are a few examples:

dà            lè              qì               zhì              qù                kù                lèi               jiù           yuè            liàn

大            乐             气                智               去               裤                 累               就            月              恋

Now repeat after me the following words and feel the fourth tones:

shìjiè

世界

lìkè

立刻

guànlì

惯例

jìxù

继续

guòlǜ

过滤

How to pronounce zero tone

Apart from the basic four tones, there is also a special tone to be noticed. This tone is often called zero tone or neutral tone.Thus, there is no tone mark on the pinyin. As the term suggests, this is in fact no tone. It does not have a defined pitch. The tip is to pronounce it quickly and lightly.

le                     zhe                   men                er                    li                      xia                   zi

了                     着                     们                  儿                    里                    下                    子

Zero tone happens usually as the last syllable. Now repeat after me the following words and feel the zero tone:

ɡùnzi

棍子

hòutou

后头

hòudɑo

 厚道

hùshi

护士

jiàshi

架势

One thing that’s important to keep in mind is: to achieve a good Chinese pronounciation means a great deal of listening practice. You can only say it right yourself after you are able to hear the sound differences. And this ability will come to you natually after you’ve done sufficient listening. So make sure that at the very beginning of your journey of learning Chinese, listen & listen! For more listening exercises to perfect your tones, get a copy of my audiobook: Master Your Pronunciation – 2,000 Exercises to Break Through Pinyin & Tones: I’ve compiled over 2,000 words with various tone combinations for you to listen and repeat!

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