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The most difficult for me in learning Chinese is memorizing the correct tone.

I tried to find on web what the most frequently used tones are, but it seems to be hard to find.

I suppose if one tone is used 50 % of the time, I will just need to memorize the other ones. For instance tone 4 seems to be very frequently used, and I will just have to memorise perfectly tones 1, 2 and 3.
added 4th February 2023, because the list of Hanzi in 3rd tone was deleted by Someone...
So, now, i try to memorise perfectly hanzis pronounced with the third tone. i began to write a list of the most commonly used. what i need now are a few sentences easy to memorise and using part of these hanzis. the list : : dropbox.com/s/ypf6div37m0c34i/third%20tone.docx?dl=0

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  • There is no default tone. Even if there was, you might have problems. Because meanings are different for different tones.
    – FortCpp
    Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 4:41

3 Answers 3

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I did some searching for tone distribution chinese and found this post ("What is the distribution of tones in Mandarin Chinese?") on Quora.

One person who responded took a list of characters and extracted, with some programming, the tone(s) for each character. (Multiple pronunciations are permitted and counted separately.) The result he got was:

  • First tone:
    • 24.2% (counting by characters)
    • 26.9% (counting by appearance in words)
  • Second tone:
    • 28.1% (counting by characters)
    • 24.7% (counting by appearance in words)
  • Third tone:
    • 16.3% (counting by characters)
    • 18.3% (counting by appearance in words)
  • Fourth tone:
    • 31.4% (counting by characters)
    • 30.1% (counting by appearance in words)

However, I am not sure what exactly was counted as a "word".

More importantly, there is also the presence of a tone sandhi. This allows for a "neutral" tone (e.g. in 妈妈) and in a sequence of two repeated third tones, for the first third tone to shift to a second tone (e.g. in 你好). (There are also some more examples with the behaviour of specific characters.) As a result, working off of dictionary entries may not reflect actual frequencies of tones, and moreover, the specific tone used will depend on context.

In any case, this and my experiences with Chinese indicate that there's no one tone that comes up overwhelmingly frequently. However, there are some pointers in this question for tone memorisation, and I particularly like the idea here.

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  • thank you so much, i will take a look to all these links :-)
    – faure
    Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 17:27
  • thank you ! so, from now i will try to memorise perfectly third, first and second tones. for the hanzis which are noy yet fixed, i will memorise short sentences in which i will use them. but the idea you mention is interesting as the use of colours. i will try also...
    – faure
    Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 6:51
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Even more useful than learning the individual tones is their learning their combinations.

One combination many English-speakers seem to have trouble with is 3 + 2, as in

  • Měiguó 'America'
  • hěn máng 'busy, quite busy'
  • xiěwȧn 'to finish writing'
  • liǎnpén 'basin for washing the face'

etc. This combination is particularly useful because it helps people grasp the correct sound of both tone 2 and tone 3, by juxtaposing them and so highlighting their differences.

The advantage of learning all 4 * 5 = 20 combinations reasonably well is that each two-syllable word you know serves as a model for new words that have the same pattern.

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This is an interesting question and I actually counted a small number of characters and tried to get a sense of it last year.

It turned out that the fourth tone is the most popular one in my sample characters, which are 320 of them, 30%.

I only counted characters, not characters appearing in texts. Also, characters with multiple reads and neutral tones are counted.

I realised how tones change when surrounded by different tones.

I wrote an article about this experiment and published it here:

https://www.mslmaster.com/index.php/teaching-learning-resources/10-resources/193-tones-a-fluid-and-dynamic-concept

I’m not sure if the percentage still holds if a larger number of characters are studied.

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