If I was allowed to only use one practice method to learn Mandarin Chinese tones it would be this: tone pairs.
Tone pair drills are simply the most powerful way to get a intuitive grip on Chinese tones. Unfortunately they are woefully underused. I want to use this article to introduce the concept and show you how to use tone pair drills in your everyday study of Chinese.
What the heck is a Tone Pair?
Tone pairs drills are the remedy to the way that Mandarin Chinese tones are currently taught. Bizarrely, most of the time Chinese tones are taught in isolation.
You must know this chart (or some variation of it):
You’ll see this chart at the start of every Chinese textbook. This one happens to be from a MIT course but you’ll see it in every single Chinese textbook.
The problem with this chart is that it presents tones in isolation, that is a single tone by itself. However, the majority of Chinese words are made of two characters. Very rarely are single character/single syllable sounds used in Chinese – the vast majority are 2-character.
Words that are one character are normally pronouns like 我/你, grammatical particles like 了/过 or classical Chinese words like 马. The average modern Chinese word is two-characters long, not one.
The big problem here is the disconnect between teaching one-character tones in isolation and two character tone pairs. Because most of spoken Chinese (except classical poetry) is composed of two character words it makes sense to learn how tones sound in this context ie. a pair of tones. Instead of this tones are taught in single character isolation and then the learner is tasked with putting the sounds together later.
Because the average word is two characters long then it is really useful to learn the different ways that two tones can be combined. Here are some examples to show you what I mean:
今天 jīntiān “today” has two 1st tones, jīn & tiān. We would say that this is a 1-1 word.
你好 nǐhǎo on the other hand is 3-3 as it has two 3rd tones.
We say that 今天 is a 1-1 tone pair and 你好 is a 3-3 tone pair.
Why is this useful?
There are only 20 different tone pair combinations. By practicing these combinations we are training both our brain and our tongue to recognize and reproduce Chinese tones. Tone pair drills are ultra-focused practice for Chinese tones. We call these training exercises tone pair drills.
Once you’ve learned the basic 20 patterns you can then apply these patterns to all two character words.Your brain already knows the tones, it’s just a matter of changing the pronunciation. Try practicing tone pairs for a few minutes a day and you’ll very quickly see a difference in your ability to understand the reproduce Chinese tones. Here’s a chart with 20 words you can use to practice tone-pairs.
Running through the words on this chart with a native speaker (to correct your pronunciation) will help you nail Chinese tones very quickly – this type of practice is very focused and very efficient.
You can practice in any direction – Horizontally: 今天， 中国， 中午， 工作， 先生 or Vertically 今天， 明天， 老师， 看书 or any other route you can think of. The best way to practice is to listen to a native, replicate the sound yourself and receive corrections if you get the tone pair wrong.
Repeating this simple exercise will build a very strong framework for tones. Try these basic tone pair drills out today and you’ll quickly see how effective they are. Once you’ve got the sound of a certain tone pair into your brain and onto your tongue you can transfer it to new words. Here are some examples using 1-1:
Once you are comfortable with the basic tone pairing of 1-1 that you are drilling using 今天 then transferring these tones to 医生， 分钟， 飞机 etc. is very simple. You already have the scaffolding required to replicate this pair of tones with any pronounced sound. By drilling all 20 tone pairings you unlock tones across every 2-character Chinese word. Very powerful stuff.
If you want to read more about tone pairs check out this great article by Joe Varadi over at Dig Mandarin.
How can I practice Tone Pair Drills?
You can practice this tone pair drills by:
- sitting next to a Chinese speaker (ideal!) who gives you corrections.
- via iTalki with a free language exchange or paid teacher.
- by recording yourself and comparing your tones with a native recording.
The main thing is that you don’t simply read the words to yourself – you need some form of feedback and correction to make sure you aren’t making mistakes. Tone pair drills are very effective at burning tone patterns into your brain. You need to make sure you are learning the correct sounding tone pairs – otherwise you’ll be very efficiently forming incorrect pronunciation patterns! So please please make sure you have some way to get corrections.
If you have time then schedule time with a Speaking Partner. This could be a professional teacher/tutor or perhaps a free language exchange partner. I’ve written an eBook about finding someone to talk to and it’s available for free here:
Finally if you want more words for your tone pair drills (as well as native speaker recordings in .mp3) I’ve actually written a whole exercise book based on these drills.
The book uses vocabulary from HSK levels 1 to 3 so that the words are basic enough for you to be focusing on tone pairings and not on learning new vocabulary. It comes with recordings of a native speaker that you can listen and follow along with or you can use it with your speaking partner if you want further practice material.
Tone pair drills seem very very simple. And they are!
It’s this simplicity and focus that makes them so effective at teaching Chinese tones. So download the PDF practice sheet above, follow the study suggestions and integrate Tone Pair Drills into your language learning toolbox today!