Mastering Tones in Mandarin: Your Practical Guide

tones... you will encounter them again and again and learn more nuances about this part of Chinese language.

As a budding learner of Mandarin Chinese, you are likely to encounter tones twice in your learning journey. 

First of all, in the very first lesson or even before that you are aware that Chinese is a tonal language – similar to Vietnamese. In the first lessons, you will focus on learning the tones, often in a very simplistic, single tone way with the help of visualizing falling or rising tones. 

And then again, tones might come back with a vengeance on the intermediate plateau. Your Chinese will be pretty good at this point, but nevertheless, you have a strong accent and you understand that even if only 10% of the tones are wrong, this will strongly influence the perception of your Chinese. 

Kungfucius says: Make sure to grasp the flow of Chinese with tone combinations and correct pronunciation!

In this article, we will provide you with strategies and resources to conquer this challenge.

I. Understanding Tones:

Mandarin Chinese uses four different tones plus a neutral one, which can significantly alter the meaning of a word. For an introductory understanding, check out Sinosplice for a comprehensive guide about the basics of Chinese tones. 

In practice, there are more than these 4 tones. Here is why: The third tone is a falling and rising tone. In a combination or in spoken Chinese, this is rarely pronounced that way, but there is often just a part of it. A rising tone in some combination and a falling tone in others, but less strongly compared to fourth tone. 

II. Recommended Apps:

  1. Pinyin Trainer by trainchinese (Free, iOS & Android): This app offers a game-based approach to learning tones.
  2. Pleco (Free, In-app purchases, iOS & Android): The dictionary feature of Pleco is widely known, but its tone drills and pronunciation exercises are equally impressive.
  3. Chinese Pronunciation Wiki (AllSet Learning): This is a free, detailed guide on pronunciation and tones, complete with audio examples and study suggestions.
  4. Chinesepod has some lessons on improving tones. Plus: The recordings itself help with acquisition of the right pronunciation! 

III. Effective Techniques:

  1. Shadowing: Try to imitate native speakers’ rhythm, pitch, and intonation as closely as possible. Using podcasts or Chinese language shows for this exercise is very effective. Chinesepod is a great tool, especially once you advance to advanced level which has pure Chinese lessons in great quality. 
  2. Tone Pair Drills: Regular practice with tone pairs can be highly beneficial in learning to differentiate Mandarin’s various pitch contours. Also have a look at Youtube like Mandarin Corner to get additional exposure to natural, spoken Mandarin.
  3. Singing: A rather unconventional yet effective way of learning tones is by singing Chinese songs. You can find many suitable songs and rhymes on YouTube.
  4. Correction: Correction should be a rather small part of your way to improve tones. Still, sometimes it is good to work with tutors in order to get your tones right and correct often made mistakes. Check out italki for that.

IV. Navigating Tone Changes:

Tone changes in Mandarin can appear complicated initially, but understanding the rules can greatly simplify them. The AllSet Learning Grammar Wiki offers an excellent explanation.

V. Consistent Practice:

Learning tones is all about training your muscle memory and tuning your ear. Practice consistently, even if it’s just a short daily session. Basically, you should create the habit of listening to Chinese for at least 5 minutes every day! 

VI. Importance of Tone Marks:

Learning new words with their corresponding tone marks can significantly improve your memory of Mandarin tones. Pleco is an invaluable tool for this due to the spaced repetition system.

VII. Record and Listen to Yourself:

Recording and replaying your own pronunciation can help you spot and correct any discrepancies. Apps like italki allow for easy comparison with native speakers.


Mastering tones in Mandarin may seem daunting initially, but with practice and the right tools, you will certainly make significant progress. Always remember, even the most proficient speakers were once beginners. Embrace the learning process and keep moving forward.