Whether you just started learning Chinese or you’ve already been learning for a while, I’m sure you can agree that the tones are probably the hardest, if not one of the hardest aspects of learning Chinese.
I want to tell you about something: you can learn and master the Chinese tones without using tone marks—and not only that, you can learn them faster and easier with little known method I’m about to show you. I’ve personally developed and tested this method in the trenches with my students and I can attest to its effectiveness.
So, let me introduce you to “tone scales”:
As you can see, a tone scale looks like a musical scale with three ranges: high, normal and low. I should emphasize that these ranges are within the normal range of your voice.
The advantage of tone scales is that they are much more visual and intuitive than the tone marks. Tone scales are basically a “read-what-you-see” system, so they’re far less frustrating for students, especially beginners.
Let me introduce how I show the different tones with the tone scale system:
First tone mǎ (I refer to the first tone as the “high” tone with my students)
Out of the 5 tones, the high tone is probably the easiest tone to learn and master. As the name indicates, the high tone is at the highest part of the normal range of your voice. However, I should mention that this isn’t a singing high note. In fact, I often compare the high tone to the dash in Morris Code—you’re simply holding the tone slightly longer. Imagine trying to hum a high note in a crowded sub without drawing any attention.
Second tone má (I refer to the second tone as the “rising” tone with my students)
Believe it or not, we actually have something similar to the rising tone in English. If you listen to a native English speaker asking a question, you’ll notice that his or her voice will rise at the end of the question. You essentially want to do the same thing when you pronounce the Chinese rising tone. Unlike the other tones, the rising tone is actually a combination of two tones—a tone in the middle range of the tone scale and the high tone. You start in the middle range, then rise to the high tone. The rising tone is probably on of the easiest tones to mess up because if you don’t consciously rise the tone, you’ll accidentally say the third tone, or rising tone instead.
Third tone mǎ (I refer to the third tone as the “low” tone with my students)
The low tone is probably the hardest Chinese tone for learners to master. Traditionally, the low tone uses a U-shaped tone mark ˇ. However, native speakers will almost never go down and up as this U-shape tone mark indicates. In my experience, the low tone is very similar to the high tone, except in the lowest range of your voice. Explained another way, imagine the Morris Code dash, but in the lowest range of your voice. An easy technique to learn the low tone is to simply make the sound from the back of your throat. Think of the “baaah” sound that sheep make.
Third tone sandhi (as in when there are two “third” tones in a row)
Fortunately, there is only one “rule” or exception when it comes to learning the tones. If there are two low tones in sequence, the first low tone rises slightly (as indicated above).
Fourth tone mà (I refer to the fourth tone as the “drop” tone with my students)
If you really want to reach near-native pronunciation and tone accuracy, you HAVE to master the drop tone. One critique that I often hear from native Chinese speakers is that Chinese language learners don’t drop enough or go down enough when pronouncing the drop tone. I often compare the drop tone to the dot in Morris Code—short and forceful. As indicated by the above tone scale, you’ll notice that the drop tone “drops” down throughout the entire tone scale range. The drop tone is also very similar to commands in English—No! Stop! Don’t! etc.
And finally the neutral tone ma (I refer to the neutral tone as the “tap” tone)
If you want a more in-depth explanation, please watch this video:
As you can see, the tone scales are very intuitive, and they also give you a visual reference of how you need to manipulate your voice and pitch. The easiest way to implement the tone scales into your Chinese study is to simply replace tone marks with tone scales. The best way to practice is to buy grid paper and prepare several sheets of tone scales, so you can quickly transcribe your sentences and vocabulary onto the scales. Mastery of the tones is very difficult, but using a tool like tone scales, you can learn and master the tones much faster and easier. I’ve seen it time and time again with my students. They work!
Warp Speed Chinese is an online Chinese-language education business that helps beginners learn how to speak basic, conversational Chinese in 3-6 months. By focusing solely on speaking, using a step-by-step approach and learning highly useful vocabulary, we help our students learn basic spoken Chinese very quickly.