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Here’s how to get the Chinese tones right, even in long sentences

So, you can say the four tones on their own, and you’ve practised saying the tones of words and you know the basic patterns, but when you try to get them right in full sentences, everything starts to fall apart…

In a full sentence with many words it can be a challenge to get the tones right , and when you actually start speaking, you find you lose control of the tones.

You feel that just being able to say words on their own has nothing to do with the way people actually speak, and you want to know how everything works in full sentences…

In this post, I’ll explain how the tones ‘work’ across full sentences, and give you a strategy to get them accurate when you’re speaking.

The good news is that if you can pronounce the tones accurately in words and you are familiar with the patterns, then you’re a lot of the way there already.

To bridge the gap between just getting the tones of individual words to getting them accurate in longer sentences and speech, you need to understand what the rhythm of sentences is like in Chinese.

Let me explain what I mean.

As with any language, Chinese sentences are made up of different units of meaning, you could call them ‘words’ if you want. You don’t just pronounce each word or each syllable with the same stress – if you did that you would sound like a robot.

When you practise the tones on their own, it’s easy to sound quite robotic, especially since some textbooks exaggerate the pronunciation a lot, much more than in natural speech. If you exaggerate all of the tones in all the characters in speech, then the result is very unnatural.

So here’s the strategy: think of what you’re saying as different blocks of meaning put together rather than a string of characters or words.

There are no spaces between ‘words’ or units of meaning in Chinese, only basic punctuation marks and a space after the full stop (period) at the end of a sentence, so you have to figure out where the ‘words’ come yourself.

Let me give you a simple example:

你是谁?
nǐ shì shéi?
Who are you?

In this sentence, it just so happens that each of the units of meaning is a single character. Therefore, we could pronounce them with equal stress, or if we wanted to stress a particular word, like ARE (the first syllable) or WHO (the last syllable), we could do that too. It would work in the same way as English.

Let’s look at another example:

我爱你
wǒ ài nǐ
I love you

Again, each of the units of meaning is a single character. But think about how you would say this in English. You would normally stress the second syllable (the LOVE) more than the other two. It’s the same in Chinese. You could change the stress point, and the meaning of the phrase would change in the same way as it would in English.

Now let’s make it a little bit more complicated:

很 高兴 认识 你
hěn gāoxìng rènshi nǐ
very pleased to meet you

In this sentence, some of the units of meaning are one syllable and some are two. It’s also a bit longer, so we have to make a bit more effort to get all the tones right.

At the very least, we also have to make sure that we’re not stuttering in the middle of blocks or splitting them up, because this would make it very difficult to understand.

In this case the hěn gāoxìng kind of goes together, and rènshi nǐ also goes together. You’d also probably place more stress on the gāoxìng (pleased) and rènshi (to meet) rather than the hěn (very) or the nǐ (you). It’s just common sense really.

Ok, let’s try another sentence, and let’s think about a strategy for how to say this right:

1) Break the sentence down into the different blocks (units of meaning)
2) Focus on getting the tones of the key words right
3) Think about which of the blocks should be stressed

我的手机是黑色的
wǒ de shǒujī shì hēisè de
My mobile phone is black

Here, the units of meaning are as follows (I haven’t put the grammar word 的 on its own, because it always relates to another part of the sentence, and grammatical characters in Chinese are always unstressed)

我的    手机         是        黑色的
wǒde   shǒujī     shì       hēisè de
My      phone       is         black

The key units of meaning would be shǒujī (mobile phone) and hēisè de (black), so we’d have to at least get them right in order to have the biggest chance of being understood.

When you break it down like this, you’ll find that the sentence is essentially made up two or three syllable blocks, and you’re already much more familiar with pronouncing the tones in single words, so it makes things much easier.

We’d probably stress the second and fourth parts, the phone and black, not the my and is, just like in English.

Let’s try another example:

我不知道你在说什么
wǒ bù zhīdào nǐ zài shuō shénme
I don’t know what you’re saying

Step 1) Break it down into the units of meaning

我      不知道          你       在说             什么
wǒ    bù zhīdào     nǐ       zài shuō     shénme
I       don’t know   you   are saying    what

Notice that I’m putting ‘don’t know’ and ‘are saying’ together, rather than treating them as single words. That’s because the ‘don’t’ clearly has to go with the ‘know’ and the ‘tense word’ of the verb clearly goes with the verb.

Step 2) Put most of your effort into getting the key words right – the key words here would be bù zhīdào (don’t know) shuō (say) and shénme (what).

Step 3) Think about which of the blocks should be stressed – here it would probably be the same blocks I mentioned in number two.

And here’s a final example:

我上次去中国是去年
wǒ shàngcì qù zhōngguó shì qùnián
The last time I went to China was last year.

Again, let’s go through the strategy:

1) Break it down into the units of meaning

我      上次            去          中国          是           去年
wǒ    shàngcì      qù      zhōngguó    shì         qùnián
I       last time   went      China        is/was   last year

2) The key words that we are going to want to pay specific attention to would probably be shàngcì (last time) qùnián (last year) and maybe also zhōngguó (China), although probably in the context that would be less important.

3) The blocks that would be stressed would probably be the same ones as in part 2.

Think about these steps whenever you learn a new phrase / sentence or whenever you speak Chinese

I know, you’re probably thinking, these steps take time, how can you do all of these for every sentence when you’re just trying to speak?

The solution is to build this kind of thinking into your learning right from the start. The sentences you will be learning will be quite short at the beginning, so it will be simpler to do, and as you carry on, everything will become more natural and intuitive. You won’t have to think so much about which the blocks are and which ones should be stressed.

The other important thing is to start off slowly and speed up gradually. You don’t have to speak so slowly that you’re exaggerating everything, but don’t expect to speak at native speed at the beginning. It takes time to build up to that.

It can be difficult to get all of the tones in a sentence right, but just remember that the blocks of the sentence are essentially single ‘words’ and if you think of them separately, they are much more manageable.

The reason I talk about concentrating on the tones of the key words is that they are the ones that carry most of the meaning of what you are trying to say.

If you can’t remember the tones for the key words, then make a mental/written note and be sure to look them up later and jog your memory.

Pay attention to these points when you listen to Chinese

When you listen to Chinese, try to be aware of the rhythm of the sentences.

Try to identify the key blocks as you are listening.

Which words/parts are stressed? Which parts are not stressed?

If you hear a particularly prominent word, see if you can identify the pattern of the tones.

The more listening you do and the more you pay attention, the more you will learn about the rhythm of spoken Chinese and pronunciation. It takes time to get into those good habits and rhythms yourself, but you’ll get there!

If you found this article useful, please help me to send it to a friend who you think could benefit from it, and as always leave your questions in the comments!