Chinese Tones and Tips to Master Them

Chinese conversation

When delivering one’s words, the intonation plays a significant role in how your conversation partner understands the meaning of what you say. No matter what language you are looking to pick up, tones will undoubtedly have a part in it in one way or another. This fact remains especially true with Mandarin.

If you’re determined to ace the HSK test in Singapore or just become fluent in expressing yourself in both written and verbal Chinese, tones are something that you can’t afford to neglect. These Mandarin tones are more than just an added emphasis on different words to convey a certain set of meanings. They are the key elements that determine whether you’re able to construct sentences properly or not, especially when reading out loud.

If you don’t have the time to study more about it on your own, don’t worry. Here are some tips for mastering tones in Mandarin so you can speak the language fluently without having any problems with it later on.

Are Tones That Important in Mandarin Learning?

Importance of tones

Mandarin is a tonal language, which means that the pitch of your voice when saying words can change the meaning of the word. For example, the Mandarin words “ma” and “ma” have different meanings when said with different tones. “Ma” (媽) means “mother”, while “ma” (麻) means “hemp”. These words can be unclear for beginners who are not familiar with the Chinese tones yet.

Since tones are such an important part of the language, it’s an essential part that you learn how to use them properly before progressing any further in your studies. Asking a native Mandarin speaker to repeat themselves multiple times because of your tone inaccuracies can get pretty embarrassing.

It’s not just about getting the different tones right, but speaking them properly as well. Speaking with incorrect Chinese tones will immediately make you sound like a foreigner, which is something none of us wants to happen.

How to practice Chinese Tones?

The best way to practice tones and their accuracy is by having a progressive conversation with a person who has spoken Chinese for a very long time. Make sure that your teacher recites the words slowly and clearly so you have more chances of understanding how they should sound in Mandarin. It may be a bit nerve-wracking at first, but you’ll get used to it sooner or later.

If you’re a beginner when it comes to tones, incorporating gestures while familiarizing yourself with them is an excellent idea. This helps to keep your pronunciation of the various tones in check – the gestures associated with them trigger your memory of what type of emphasis you need to place on a given character. With that, below are the five main tones in the Chinese language and the helpful gestures to accompany them with.

First Tone

The first tone is a high level, flat tone. For example, when you say “ma” (麻) with the first tone, your voice should be raised slightly higher at the end of the word. To pronounce the first tone clearly, you can use your index finger to push down on your lower chin.

Second Tone

Tone two is similar to the second tone in English. It’s usually pronounced with a slightly higher tone than that of the first tone, but it’s not flat like the third tone. For instance, “mao” (猫), when pronounced with the second tone, should be said in a way where your voice rises at the end of “ow” in English (without sounding too exaggerated).

Third Tone

The third tone is the easiest to mess up than other tones because it can be flat or high. However, its sound shouldn’t resemble the first or second tones but in a low tone. It should be said in a plain voice that sounds like our enunciation of “ma” (马) when we say it with the third tone, which simply means that there isn’t an emphasis on any part of the word whatsoever.

Fourth Tone (Falling tone)

The way to make your voice sound like you want to smash something is by raising it 1-2 octaves higher than usual and adding some intensity into it. For example, if you want to say “ma” (麻) in the fourth tone, you should say it like you’re screaming at someone. Use the fourth tone when you need to denote anger, doubt, or other strong emotions.

Fifth Tone

The last of the Chinese tones is pronounced by saying any syllable with your voice slightly higher than that of the second tone but lower than the third one. Follow through when pronouncing this Chinese tone by speaking Chinese faster and raising your pitch at the end of each word.

Tips on How to Master Tones

A lot of factors contribute to your level of mastery when it comes to speaking Chinese, and learning these five tones is just half the battle. While these tones may sound the same when you’re still learning Chinese, you can differentiate them better after listening to a Chinese native speaker who speaks with the proper tonal inflexions.

Additionally, don’t be afraid to use gestures and facial expressions when you pronounce the tones either! This will help keep your accent in check and let Chinese speakers know that not only do you understand how these five tones should sound, but you also want them to pay attention to it. We’ll discuss more how using gestures, and facial expressions can help to learn Chinese tones.

If you’re familiar with the basics and want to become a better Chinese speaker, try using some of these effective tips:

Tip No. 1 Incorporate gestures when saying the tones.

As a beginner, it’s easy to get the wrong tone during your first weeks of learning Chinese. But, incorporating gestures when you say them can make the process of mastering these tones much easier. For example, let’s take a look at the third tone again. To correctly enunciate this Chinese tone while grasping its meaning, simply raise your eyebrows and lower your head slightly while speaking in an even voice.

You can also watch some videos of how Chinese natives pronounce the correct tones to get a better idea of how you can do it as well.

Tip No. 2 Don’t forget about facial expressions.

Young man speaking

Besides using gestures, you can also use your face to let people know how you really feel when saying the different tones. For instance, if you want to say “ma” (马), raise your eyebrows and open your eyes wide while speaking in an even tone with your mouth closed. Doing this will give your pronunciation more emphasis on the third tone rather than the fourth tone or first tone.

Tip No. 3 Practice the tones in pairs.

After enough practice, you’ll realize that the five Chinese tones are relatively easy to pronounce by themselves. However, the real challenge begins once you use a combination of multiple tones. But before you tackle more complicated tone combinations, go one step at a time and stick to two pairs first.

As a way to keep your progress steady and linear, start with the most straightforward tone pairs first, such as the combination of the first and fourth tones. Afterwards, move on to more challenging pairs that people tend to be confused with, such as the second and third tone pair.

You’ll eventually encounter varying tone combinations in your learning journey, so consider forming sentences with the Chinese words combined that you want to practice, and then proceed to recite these sentences as a whole.

Tip No. 4 Don’t be afraid to exaggerate your pronunciation.

To better remember how each tone sounds, don’t be afraid to exaggerate their pronunciation whenever you practise. Adding that extra energy will also help you learn the pronunciations by heart and, over time, bring your tone pronunciation to the next level.

Start by facing the mirror while you practice, and slowly increase the diction of the high-level Chinese tones while decreasing that of the falling-rising tone. If you can’t hear yourself clearly enough to get a good grasp on how exactly each tone sounds, try recording yourself using your smartphone or laptop webcam so you can play it back when necessary.

When these Chinese tones are pronounced correctly, remember not to force them too much in any one specific way. Rather than stressing out about whether they come out perfectly, just relax and enjoy your progress along the way.

Tip No. 5 Listen to Mandarin Chinese audios.

There are so many movies, podcasts, and music in Chinese out there, so why not take advantage of them by listening to as many audios as you can? Listening to these audio materials is a great way for you to learn the language fluently and consistently.

Not only will it help with your comprehension skills, but when you constantly hear these Mandarin audio materials, it can also be a great way for you to cultivate your ear for the Chinese tones.

Tip No. 6 Listen, listen and then listen again.

This tip should apply to every other languages that you want to learn because listening comprehension is one of the keys to success as Mandarin learners. Through regular exposure (or as frequent as possible), you can hone your sense of understanding of which sounds are associated with those Chinese characters.

When a tutor or someone who can speak Chinese gives you a recording, listen to it several times before moving on to the next recording. Listening repeatedly will enhance your awareness of the Chinese tones and make them easier for you to pick up from any situation.

You can also try to record yourself and compare it with the original as a way to put your tone skills into perspective. After all, the only way to truly master Mandarin pronunciation is by constantly challenging yourself and accepting all kinds of feedback from people who can speak Chinese fluently.

Tip No. 7 Mimic what you hear from native speakers.

Even if you know how to say the Chinese tones correctly, your accent may still be a problem. To train yourself to use the proper phrasing and hit all the key points in a sentence, try mimicking what you hear from native speakers.

For example, if someone says “Wo jiao Bobo” (我叫波波), listen very carefully and repeat it two or three times until you feel as though it’s beginning to sound natural coming out of your mouth. The same trick can be applied to mimic the intonations of Mandarin speakers.

This is a highly effective way to make your tone pronunciation more accurate and natural, as you’ll also gain a better sense of how each word functions in everyday conversations.


The tones of Mandarin Chinese are one of the most difficult things to master for any language speaker. However, you can develop your tone skills to an advanced level with proper guidance and practice.

At Linda Mandarin, we are here to help you learn how to use these tones correctly so that you can have a more fluid conversation in Chinese. With our online program, you will learn at your own pace and get the individualized attention you need to succeed in this challenging language. Are you ready to start learning Chinese tones?

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