How to memorize Chinese pinyin tone marks | TutorMandarin

 How to memorize Chinese pinyin tone marks?

Chinese is a tonal language with 4 tones and 1 non-tone! For someone that’s never learned a tonal language before, this can be quite difficult to get used. It means you have to add pitch to every word you say and be able to do it smoothly and fluently. Maybe even hard is when listening to a fast native speakers say all new words you don’t know quickly with multiple tons. Aiya!

Here’s a quick guide to learning the tones and memorizing them fully.

1. Learn the Chinese Tones

This picture shows the four main tones. On the Y-axis on the right side it goes from Low to High pitches, and if you know some music, this is about the same range as from Do to Mi. That means the first tone is the highest (mi) and just stays there. Almost like you’re singing it! The second tone raises up from Re to Mi and sounds like when you ask a question. Are you sure? That’s ok, yeah? The third tone dips down to Do and goes back up past Rein something similar to a Southern Drawl. Howdy. The fourth tone goes from Mi down to Do and will often sound a bit angry since it’s doing a fast descension.

2. Learn the Chinese Tone Markings in Pinyin

Now, when you learn Pinyin (E.g. The Chinese Alphabet) then you’ll learn a system that shows how to pronounce Chinese words with English and use the correct tone. The word for mother 妈妈 is pronounced “mama” and with tones is “māmā.” See those 2 dashes above the a’s? Those signify each of those words is the first tone (looks just like the picture above, yeah?). Try saying it now, “māmā.” Easy, huh?

Similarly, the other tones also have marks that go above the English pronunciation in the pinyin system. Here’s an example of each tone.
  • 1st tone: 妈 mā

  • 2nd tone: 什 shén

  • 3rd tone: 老 lǎo

  • 4th tone: 不 bù

The only tone marker that might look a little different is the 3rd tone, which makes it look like an even drop and rise (even though it isn’t quite). Anyway, these markers should be easy to figure out once you understand the system. When practice tones, sometimes it’s even helpful to “draw the tone out” with your finger in the air as you’re saying it. It looks a little silly but it reinforces good habits early on. As long as you don’t do once you become a more advanced speaker… that would just look silly.


3. Alternative tone learning strategies

If this isn’t working for you, some other apps and systems use color coding. This tells you the tone based on the color of the word. See Hanping Chinese Blog – Chinese language-learning apps for Android! for a good example of this. The basic premise is that each color is a different tone. Blue is 1, Green is 2, Orange is 3, Red is 4, and Gray is no tone. So a color sentence like the picture below is really telling you how to say the correct Chinese tones. Of course, this is separate from pinyin and so you don’t have the tone markers and English pronunciation to help you.

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