Tone Changes

Let’s face it people: Those 4 (actually 5) tones in Mandarin Chinese don’t really play by their own rules. Sure, if Chinese people are saying one word by itself, and if they’re saying it really slowly, then the tone will probably sound like the textbook says it should. But most of the time they’re not saying one-word sentences, and they’re talking fast, so the tones change. That’s why it’s important to know how the tones sound in combination and not only how they sound by themselves.

Pei-Chia Chen at University of California, San Diego has put together a Chinese pronunciation page that has all the two-tone combinations in a clickable flash grid that plays sound clips, which includes: an overview, the 4 regular tone combos and the 5th tone combos.

John Pasden, author of Sinosplice also has a handy downloadable set of mp3 files tone pairs. I like John’s choice of common, useful vocabulary for his examples.

It’s easy to tell by listening to those sets that the tones change depending on the tone of the word before and after it. It’s impossible to say the 5th tone (sometimes called the “neutral tone” or “non-tone”) correctly without understanding its unwritten tone-change rules: It’s low after the 1st, 2nd, and 4th tones, but high after the 3rd tone. The 3rd tone actually has a written tone-change rule: when there are two 3rd-tone words in a row, the first word become a 2nd tone.

Hopefully, by understanding some of those rules, and getting the sound of these tone-changes into your head you’ll be able to move along through John’s later stages of The Process of Learning Tones.

I go into much more detail about tones in combination and strategies for coping with them in my upcoming book. Please check back on this website or subscribe by email or RSS to receive updates on its publication.

Does anyone else know of any online resources for dealing with tone changes?

See also:

One Reply to “Tone Changes”

  1. Albert, I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for sharing all those great learning resources here with us! They are great!

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