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3 exercises to take your Chinese tones to the next level

Tones are what makes Chinese different (and harder) than most other languages. So how do you practice your tones in the most effective way possible?

To improve your tones, you need to build muscle memory in your vocal cords and in your mouth. Just like singers do vocal exercises to train their vocal cords, language learners need to do speaking drills that maximize the number of spoken “reps” and improve the mind-mouth connection.

In this article I'm going to show you three different spoken language workouts that you can do to improve your tones. There are two important prerequisites:

  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?

To understand the best way to practice Chinese tones, it can help us to think about how musicians practice to reach their goals. Our goal as language learners is to pronounce tones perfectly whenever we speak Chinese. This is a lot like jazz musicians, whose goal is to hit every note they play perfectly whenever they’re improvising (musical improvisation is a lot like speaking a foreign language). The issue is that musical improvisation is insanely difficult--how do jazz musicians practice so that they’re eventually able to improvise effortlessly?

Throughout their musical careers, their practice regimens may look something like this:

  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

Musicians don’t start improvising right away. They start by just practicing single notes, then they string those notes together into scales, and then they practice small pieces, then longer pieces. All the while they’re trying to hit each note correctly and with good intonation. Eventually, they’ve developed a big enough vocabulary of musical phrases that they can imitate complex patterns by ear and even string together their own phrases spontaneously.

Improvisation in music and language is not about creating something from nothing. It’s about using your vocabulary of phrases that you have developed through rigorous practice to string together new combinations of notes or words.

Now let’s come up with a practice regimen for tones based on the one for jazz above:

  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

The first few steps of our tone practice plan involve practicing all the individual single, double, and triple tone combinations to perfection. Using the 1000 most common words in Chinese as well as Glossika’s pinyin and tone pronunciation guide, I’ve created a spreadsheet that contains 3,500 of the most common pinyin words and phrases, categorized by their tone combinations.

Click here to download the free spreadsheet.

This categorized list will allow you to methodically practice every possible tone combination.

You can also use the spreadsheet to generate random single, double, and triple tone words.

Now let’s get into how to use this tool to practice your tones. I’m going to lead you through three progressively difficult tone exercises. As we do these exercises, imagine you’re a jazz musician who’s practicing his scales—you’re goal is to hit every note correctly and play as smoothly as possible.

Keep in mind the following checklist:

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.