3 exercises to take your Chinese tones to the next level

  1. I’m assuming that you are at the level where you can hear the difference between the four tones, and realize when you’re saying them incorrectly.
  2. I’m assuming that you are familiar with pinyin to the point where you can pronounce nearly all 407 sounds accurately, without thinking too much

Imagine you’re a musician — how would you practice?

  1. Practice playing individual notes with perfect intonation
  2. Practice scales at different speeds, maintaining perfect intonation
  3. Practice variations of scales, like arpeggios and other exercises at different speeds, maintaining perfect intonation
  4. Practice playing sheet music pieces from start to finish with perfect intonation and no wrong notes
  5. Imitate and practice advanced licks that other musicians play, and adapt them to your own style
  6. Combine licks and phrases that you’ve practiced to craft an improvised solo
  1. Practice all the individual tones (4), maintaining perfect pronunciation of the pinyin
  2. Practice all the two-tone combinations (16) at different speeds with perfect pronunciation of the pinyin
  3. Practice all the three-tone combinations (64) at different speeds with perfect pronunciation
  4. Practice small sentences or phrases at different speeds with perfect pronunciation
  5. Practice reading short passages out loud at different speeds with perfect pronunciation
  6. Imitate and practice authentic speech that you hear from native speakers
  7. Combine phrases that you’ve encountered and practiced before

The Ultimate Resource for Practicing Tones

Checklist for effective tone practice

  1. Are you doing a lot of reps?
  2. Are your tones and pinyin pronunciation accurate?
  3. Does your speech sound fluent? Have you eliminated all stutters, hesitations, and pauses? Are you speaking at an even pace?
  4. Are you feeling the mind-mouth connection? Are you feeling your muscle memory improve with each rep?

Level 1: Practicing specific tone patterns

  1. Pick a tone combo, for example, “4–2”
  2. Generate a random set of words that follow the “4–2” pattern using the spreadsheet.
  3. Say each word out loud, paying attention to your tones as well as your pronunciation of the pinyin. Keep practicing until you can say the words continuously at a steady rhythm.
  4. Optional: time how long it takes you to say all the words and try to get your time down to 0.5–1.5 seconds per word
  5. Optional: record yourself saying the words and listen to your pronunciation

Level 2: Random tone patterns

  1. Generate a set of random single, double, or triple words
  2. Say each word out loud, paying attention to your tones as well as your pronunciation of the pinyin. Keep practicing until you can say the words continuously at a steady rhythm.
  3. Optional: time how long it takes you to say all the words and try to get your time down to 0.5–1.5 seconds per word
  4. Optional: record yourself saying the words and listen to your pronunciation

Level 3: Short passages

  1. Find some accessible text written in pinyin. I recommend Zhongwen Red, which has many sentences that use very common vocabulary. You can also checkout Chinese at Ease, which has short children’s stories written in pinyin. Let’s checkout Lesson 21 from Zhongwen Red.
  2. Practice each sentence individually until you can say them at an even speed with no hesitations or stutters.
  3. Practice until you can say all the sentences from start to finish fluently with no pronunciation errors. If you make a mistake, start over from the beginning.
  4. Optional: time how long it takes you to say all the sentences, and try to decrease your time
  5. Optional: record yourself speaking and make improvements to your pronunciation

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Data scientist, global health researcher, language learner

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Akshay Swaminathan

Akshay Swaminathan

Data scientist, global health researcher, language learner

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