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How to remember the tones in Chinese, forever

If you’re just getting into Chinese, one of the first things you’ll hear about are the tones.

And it makes sense, because ‘tones’ are one of the most essential and distinctive parts of Mandarin.

Mandarin actually has fewer sounds than many other languages, and so the language ‘makes up‘ for that by having four different ways in which you can pronounce any given syllable.

There are also some syllables which are unstressed. They are always the second or third syllable of a word and they are not pronounced with a tone. Some people call these unstressed syllables a ‘fifth tone’.

But don’t worry, it’s not as hard as it sounds, and you don’t have to be musical to speak Chinese.

If you’re completely new to all of this, you can start right at the beginning by watching this video, which will explain the four tones to you in detail.

Once you can pronounce and recognise the four tones, the other main issue that most beginners face is how to remember the tones of a character.

You see, each Chinese character has a tone in Mandarin, and if a word is made up of two characters, that makes two syllables, with two tones you have to remember.

From a memory point of view, it’s a similar task to memorising whether a word is masculine, feminine or neuter in another language.

Except there aren’t usually any clues from the character or the nature of the word itself that give you a hint about the tone.

It’s essentially a memory game, and the best way to succeed in fixing the tones of characters/words in your head is to keep reinforcing that knowledge as often and as actively as you can.

So here’s my strategy.

1. Focus on using the right tones whenever you say anything in Mandarin, right from the very beginning 

The most effective way to learn any skill is through practice, and it’s the same with the tones in Mandarin.

It’s easy to think that you can get speaking first and learn the right tones ‘later’, or just remember words roughly without paying attention to the tones, but you’ll be getting yourself into a very bad habit, and it will be much more difficult to correct your pronunciation later.

Even if you have to speak more slowly or things seem to be taking longer, it’s worth trying to remember and use the correct tones from day one. That way you’ll drill them into your head. Don’t worry if you forget some or make some mistakes, that’s completely natural. Start off speaking slowly, and speed up gradually, but try not to take it too quickly and sacrifice accuracy.

2. Analyse your use of tones as you speak Chinese

Forgetting the tones of words or characters is part of life for any Chinese learner. Don’t let that completely paralyse you when you speak. Just accept that you won’t be able to get things perfect, and try to learn from your mistakes as much as possible. Self-analysis is one of the most powerful tools that can help you to improve quickly.

Here’s how you can do it:

a) If you remember a word but you can’t remember the tones at all, you can try saying it in a flat voice. The chances are the other person will be able to guess the meaning, then you can make a note of it, and look it up to check the tones as soon as you can.

b) If you think you remember the tones of a word but you’re not sure, then make a note of that word or character and look it up to check.

c) If you are confident about the tone of a word but for some reason when you say it it comes out wrong (this still happens to me quite a bit), then either correct yourself by saying it again the right way, or make a mental note and try to watch your pronunciation of that character/word next time.

3. Always learn the tones when you learn a new character or word

Learning a word without knowing the tone is almost like being able to say half an English word; it’s not quite accurate.

See the tones as an integral part of the vocab learning process, and be disciplined about learning them at the same time as you learn the word, rather than ‘half learning it.’

4. When you learn a word, use that as an opportunity to reinforce the tones for the characters in it

Chinese ‘words’ are usually two or three characters. You might recognise the characters individually, but have forgotten their tones.

For example, you might know that 电话 is phone, and it is pronounced dian hua, but you can only remember that the second character is in the 4th tone. You could then reinforce the fact that the second character is also huà in the 4th tone, and refresh your memory.

5. Focus on tones when you listen to Chinese, not just words

After you have been learning Chinese for a while, you’ll find you can start to pick out words while your listening, but as you are doing so, you can also pay attention to the tones.

So, let’s say you can pick out 选择 (xuǎnzé), and you know it means ‘to choose’. But if you also listen for the tones, you might be able to recognise that it is a 3rd then a 4th tone. If you already knew that then it would help to reinforce the information in your head, so you don’t forget it, and if you didn’t know the tones already then it could help you to learn them.

Obviously not everybody speaks in a clear standard accent, so this tip works better for people who speak clearly or TV/radio etc.

6. Keep double checking the tones of characters/words in a dictionary as you speak

This works on the principle that the more times that you reinforce or come back to something, the more it will stick in your head. If you have a smartphone, install the app Pleco as soon as possible. This will give you a tool to check the tones in any given word or phrase wherever you are.

It’s important to be learn to be critical of yourself and your memory if you want to push yourself ahead! Unless you are really confident that you remembered the tones of a word right, it is perfectly possible that you have made a mistake. Just type the word into the dictionary to check.

So let’s say you are unsure about the pronunciation of 笔记本 (notebook), just type in bijiben into Pleco, and you’ll see the definition with the tones and you can even get it pronounced back to you. If you do this a lot, it will help you to tighten up your tones very quickly.

7. When you read, read out loud or say the pronunciation and tones to yourself in your head

It’s easy to just scan over characters if you recognise them, but use reading as an opportunity to revise the tones of the characters by reading them out loud or in your head.

If you come across a character that you’ve forgotten the tone for, go ahead and look it up to jog your memory.

8. Use colors and mnemonics as well as the tone symbols

If you are a visual learner, this one will work for you. If you are able to associate the four tones in Mandarin with different feelings and ideas and connect them with words, then that may help to fix them in your memory.

Pinyin uses tone marks (bō bó bǒ bò) to indicate the four tones, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t use colours to make things clearer, if you think that is helpful. When I train people in Chinese pronunciation I use 1st tone: dark blue 2nd tone: orange; 3rd tone: dark green; 4th tone: red; neutral tone: silver

But you could use different colors, according to how the tones ‘feel like’ to you. The dictionary app Pleco also uses tone colours, and you can set them to whatever you want, which is great!

Remember that the tones of words in Mandarin may seem difficult to remember, but there’s no reason why they should be any more difficult to fix in your head than the genders in French or German, or any other aspect of a language.

You may forget each one a few times before it becomes permanent, but with practice, if you continue to pay attention, you’ll get there!

Do you find it difficult to remember the tones? Do you have any other techniques? Let me know in the comments!

  • Thank you, Chris! I liked your advice to say in a flat voice it you don’t remember the tone. I think it is indeed better than trying to force a random tone.

    Also I never thought by that angle: learning tones is the same as learning gender and other grammar details in other languages. That’s a good view on tones. It comes with time!

    • Yes, if in doubt it’s definitely better to let the other person guess what tone you wanted to say than to cause confusion by putting the wrong idea into their head !