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I find it a great struggle to try and remember tones for all the new vocab I learn, and aside from gradually picking up tones by listening and talking with native speakers, I can't really remember tones. Does anyone have any suggestions for good techniques to do this?

12 Answers 12

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There is a technique I started to use and actually, I've seen it also in other dictionaries, so maybe I wasn't that original...

But anyway, the answer is colors! When you're studying new Hanzi or vocabulary, just color each character according to the tone... It's very helpful to remember the tones, because after a while, you visualize the tones in your head through the colors. For example:

enter image description here

The tones obviously indicate the tones of the single characters1, it doesn't take into account the tone changes in spoken Mandarin2.

Obviously these tones are just mine, which means you can change the colors according to your taste. This technique is very useful for the computers, since you can use the colors. Concerning something handwritten, I can suggest using colored flashcards for each tone, for example, or using different pen colors.

For color blind people an alternative solution is needed. For single Hanzi on actual flashcards (not digital ones), a good idea would be the shape of the paper. Or the border style. For example an undulated border for the first tone and so on.

For expressions instead you could add a symbol below each Hanzi. I know that it sounds too complicated, but right now I don't have a better idea.


1: dictionary tones
2: tone sandhi

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    不 should be 2nd tone. Edit: sorry didn't see you said "The tones obviously indicate the tones of the single characters, it doesn't take into account the tone changes in spoken Mandarin." – StarCub Dec 14 '11 at 10:15
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    @StarCub Yes. I chose to ignore that in my studying because I can always do that by myself, since I "know" the rules, but seeing the actual tone of the single character comes in handy when you start studying hard characters and not basic ones likes these. :D But obviously, it's a customizable method, everybody can change the rules. – Alenanno Dec 14 '11 at 10:21
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    I'm colour blind, so I guess this won't help me much ;) – Cocowalla Dec 14 '11 at 10:31
  • @Cocowalla Oh... I didn't consider that... Give me some time, I'll think of something for that too! – Alenanno Dec 14 '11 at 10:32
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    @龚元程 Well, you can't expect this to work for the 100% of the human population. Everybody has a different method, and that's why you'll find many methods in the internet. This is mine and it was an idea also to inspire the readers to create theirs or modify this (or use it as is). When I use it, I don't even think about the mental process you said, it's instantaneous from color - tone. When I try to speak later, I visualize the colors so I exactly remember the tones for that expression. Sometimes it makes me remember the pinyin too, not just the tone. – Alenanno Jan 11 '12 at 15:10
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For people who tell me they "don't get" the tones, or who can say them but quickly forget them, I usually explain them as listed below. I imagine you're well past this point, but the visuals might help remembering them:

  • 1st tone: Sing it --
  • 2nd tone: Like a yes/no question -- ?
  • 3rd tone: Low, creaky. -- Still can't think of a good symbol >_<
  • 4th tone: Like a one-word command -- !

So, for instance, you might have:

  • = ma♪ (or ma# if you require ASCII friendliness)
  • = ma?
  • = ma!

If this is useful at all, great. If you think it's crazy nonsense, just ignore it. Different strokes for different folks.

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I've been developing and using the TOP (Tonally Orthographic Pinyin) system since 1995. There's a free online converter available at http://www.chinesepronto.com/triple/flashfix.php.

The TOP system is redundantly marked for tones: with colors, with capital and small letters, and with the standard Hanyu Pinyin tone marks.

The color system is simple and consistent: BLUE for first tone (high like the sky) Green for second tone (grows UP like a plant) black for third tone (low like dirt on the ground) Red for fourth tone (an angry sound in English, which is often associated with red) Neutral tone is gray and adds an asterisk (*) to the third tone form.

The scheme of capitalization and small letters is also simple: FIRST TONE -- all capitals (voice is high) seconD tonE -- lasT letteR capitalizeD (voice rises) third tone -- all lower case (voice is low -- 3rd tone does not really dip) Fourth Tone -- First Letter Capitalized (voice falls)

So a sample sentence would look like this:

xia1ren2 chao3fan4 hao3chi1 ji2le5! XIĀréN chǎoFàn hǎoCHĪ jÍle*! (I can't figure out how this system would allow me to post colors, but the converter gives both colored text for use in word processors and in HTML pages. It works on my sites.)

The other useful thing to do with tones is to assign a directional gesture (another Mandarin-teaching extension I've been working on for some years now) to each new word. Yes, this is pain. But it really works. The gesture you choose (which can be arbitrary) must have both a meaning element and a tone element. As in ASL, which uses different areas of space to express past or future tense, with directional gestures we use areas of the body to indicate the tone of the syllable.

All first-tone syllables are gestured at the chin level or above; all third-tone syllables at the waist level or below. All second tone syllables must have a gesture that rises, and all fourth tone syllables must have a gesture that falls. Combining two syllables with two separate tones and getting a "meaningful" gesture in there can be challenging but it's worth it. I've had students actually forget the word and remember the tones -- which had never happened before we started experimenting with this method.

The combination of color-coding (we also color-code characters in our reading materials for students using the same color scheme, to reinforce when they are reading characters as well), tonal spelling and directional gestures works wonders with students' tones, both in knowledge of what is the correct tone and in their performance. Students are far more aware of tones when they are part of the syllable (you have to start writing a TOP syllable all over again if you get the wrong tone -- you can't just scratch in another tone mark as you can in Pinyin, and you know we are all guilty of that, at least I certainly was for many years!) and when the class cries out when you accidentally write a syllable using the wrong marker on the whiteboard, you know things are going in the right direction.

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  • Maybe just me, but I find it much easier to rean with tone marks than with capital letters. – Cocowalla Jun 21 '12 at 2:33
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I feel this is a pedagogical shortcoming. New words should be introduced using pairs of words with the same sound but different tones, for example {天、甜},{湯、糖},{上海、傷害}. This might help the learner make remembering tones a prioity in his efforts to learn the language.

For example, in a lesson with 20 new vocabulary words, perhaps there should be two pairs of words with the same sound but different tones.

In my early struggles with Chinese it seemed that there was no placeholder in my brain for the tone associated with a word. I think exercises like finding words with similar sounds but different tones helped to "create" that slot in my brain to hold the tone.

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If none of these work for you, there's a Romanization system that takes tone into account. It's called 国语罗马字. I know ditching Pinyin can be tough, but some people find this very useful to learn the tones.

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  • I find acquiring Pinyin to be tough - and I know half a dozen totally different alphabets fine \-: – hippietrail Nov 17 '13 at 6:15
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I don't speak Mandarin and never will, but I was faced with the same problem as you in Cantonese -- and we have a couple tones more, and no real rules for tone sandhi.

So my first step was to stick to jyutping and learn the reading(s) of sinograms as a "full set": sound+tone number. So I wouldn't just learn "gwok" for 國 but "gwok3" (gwok three, and later gwok saam, in my head).

The second step was "musical" -- in the sense that I was memorizing the tone contours of a word, an aural memory of my voice going up/down while pronouncing (hopefully correctly) the word. I am gifted with a very acute sense of hearing and musical memory, so this may or may not work for you.

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Depends on your method of memorizing characters. If you are using a story, it would be easy to append the tone somewhere in there. Even if you are not, I would recommend using this method, works well!

Update: So far, I was largely ignoring tones when memorizing new words. Not a good idea, but it did help in giving me a good momentum. Now, I have switched to using bopomofo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bopomofo) and not pinyin which I was using earlier, this thing really helps as when you are typing characteres you actually have to key in the tones to get to the final set. I like how it reinforces the association.

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I use my fingers whenever I say the character.

Tone 1 -- index finger

Tone 2 -- middle finger

Tone 3 -- ring finger

Tone 4 -- pinky

Tone 5/neutral tone -- thumb

I also use color-coding, just as the others have shared.

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I am keen to share my tips with you - colour coding to master tones.

What is the commonality between the below pairs of characters? (i) mother 妈 & horse 马; (ii) field 田 & sky 天; (iii) king 王 & net 网; (iv) mother 妈 & sky 天; (v) field 田 & king 王; (vi) horse 马 & net 网

Chinese Colour Example

Answer: The first three pairs of characters share the same spelling in PinYin: (i) ma; (ii) tian; (iii) wang. The following pairs of characters share the same tone: (iv) 1st tone (high); (v) 2nd tone (rising); (vi) 3rd tone (falling-rising).

See more at http://www.chinesecolour.com/

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When writing pinyin on flashcards or annotating text, write the tone number before the onset and rime.


I used to write out words in pinyin when trying to memorize them, but my handwriting is bad so all the tone diacritics except 3rd tone ended up looking the same.

Now, I write the tone number first, and write the spoken tone in front of the citation tone if a tone sandhi rule applies. I use a 0 for a neutral tone rather than a 5 or . or the absence of a mark.

   你   好
 23ni  3hao.

Taking the example from another answer

 我   不    是    中    国    人,  你   呢?
3wo 24bu 4shi 1zhong 2guo 2ren, 3ni  0ne?
I'm not Chinese, are you?

I think this works well for personal use, even if it looks a little odd. It's also very easy to type if you replace ü with v.


Writing syllables with a tone number first isn't my idea, I got it from this lecture on Tangut (西夏语) a Sino-Tibetan language with a complicated writing system. The professor in the video uses leading numbers to record reconstructed tones for Tangut, the final numbers are used for grades, a concept specific to historical Tangut phonology.

Writing tone sandhi rules this way is inspired by how Irish spelling works. Irish constants change under certain circumstances, and this is reflected in the spelling by putting the new sound in front of the old one.

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I use this way to teach my students: use finger motion accompanying your memorizing of the new character.

Index finger, moving (in front of you, form you view), left to right fully: flat all the way: tone 1 left bottom to right top: tone 2 left top downward half way to center (important) then right top, the motion should be quick: tone 3 Left top downward all the way to right bottom: tone 4

After you practice several times, you can minimize your finger movement to just in front of your chest.

By the way, I already stop asking students to include tone marks in Pinyin. Let them spend the time on most important part of language learning: how to communicate using language.

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I dislike the idea of using colours.

A general technique that often works for me is to relate the character in my mind to other characters, which have identical and/or similar pronunciations, that I have already learnt really well, i.e. whose pronunciation and meaning are clearly known to me. But it's a slow, gradual process.

Lots of characters are picto-phonetic (aka semantic-plus-phonetic) compounds, and that also can be very helpful in learning them.

For instance, to learn 趣 in 有趣 (yǒuqù(r) / interesting; fascinating; amusing) - assuming you already know 有 of course! - first of all you have to look at 趣's components. (This can be done with the Pleco app, or various online tools.) Then you can relate 趣 in your mind to its sound component, 取 (qǔ / to take). Then you can use the fact it also has 走 (zǒu / to go; to walk; to run ...) in it to link it in your mind with another verb with the meaning of going somewhere: 去 qù, which is pronounced exactly the same as 趣. So thinking of 去 can help you remember how to read 趣.

I really think that making these links in your mind is a better technique than using artificial techniques like mental association with colours. (I also avoid using mnemonics in general - I think it's a technique that can be overused).

Having said all this, I still very frequently forget the correct tone for newer vocabulary. I think there may be only one way to master this and that is frequent repetition and regular practice. Reading a character should be semi-automatic exercise where you don't need to think about it for very long.

(Edit, added after my first draft:) For another example, today 迭 came up in my flashcards (meaning: alternate, change; also 书面语 as a. repeatedly; again and again; or b. in time for). I remembered its pinyin, “die” but I forgot if it was the first or second tone. One way I can try to remember it would be to associate it with 轮流 (lúnliú, to alternate), which was given as a synonym by one of my Chinese-language reference dictionaries. I'm more familiar with the readings for 轮 and 流; in general I will remember they are second-tone characters. Still, doing this means I have to be able to make the mental jump from 迭 to 轮流, which is quite hard.

Another notable point is, after checking I see that there are only two first-tone “diē” characters (爹 “father” and 跌 “to fall”). So I can associate diē, as a verb, with falling (跌).

In this way, trying to remember that 迭 uses the second tone can also help me get more familiar with other vocabulary. Indeed, writing this has made me look up the characters with readings of “die” in third and fourth tone. I discovered that there are only rarities that for now I judge to be outside of my current scope of study. So now, “die” vocabulary seems much simpler to me. There are just two first-tone characters, 爹 and 跌, and then all the others are second-tone: 叠, 碟, 迭, 蝶, 谍. So from now on, if ever I see a character that I know has pinyin “die” I'll know it's a second-tone “dié”, unless it's 爹 or 跌. (Except, and there often is an exception, apparently 跌 has the second tone in Taiwan...!)

Anyway, my number one basic technique for learning is, try to hear the sound in my head, repeat a few times, and use spaced repetition/memorisation techniques (I recommend a tool with flashcards like Anki) to get it learnt by rote. Without thinking about it much more. Sometimes it's only when I've gotten it wrong dozens of times that I then look into it more deeply! Of course this is a fairly slow way to go and with this method you have to accept being wrong dozens of times, but I believe ( / hope) that this way I'll end up getting real profiency and fluency with the vocabulary I'm studying.

Here are some more tips I have written about studying Chinese: https://goplayerjuggler.blogspot.com/2019/08/tips-on-studying-chinese.html

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