Evidently, tones are a matter of concern for many learners of Chinese (see for example, this question on remembering tones). While learners struggle to describe the properties of tones (is the 3rd tone really falling and rising?), natives as well as many that choose to immerse themselves in sound more so than writing and theory can effectively bypass thinking about tones altogether and go about their days speaking Chinese.

Native speakers: If put to the test, could you write out pinyin with tones?

Non-native speakers: As your Chinese learning has progressed, do you still intentionally analyze the tones of words you learn by speaking (e.g. remember 拼音 has two first tones)? Do you even think about things like tone sandhi (which you may have learned complicated rules for at some point in your studyfing)?

My impression is that (native) Chinese speakers have a grasp of rhyme (initials + finals, as is represented in bopomofo and pinyin spelling to a degree), but that explicit tonal knowledge is limited. This is reinforced through the current way most people write Chinese on the Internet, i.e. through pinyin input which does not require tones. Learners, on the other hand, are likely to be able to easily name the tones for many words they studied via pinyin with tones.

Does this impression capture some generalizations about knowledge of tones among different types of Chinese speakers?

Related question: Do native speakers learn about 4 tones in school or do they naturally pick them up without formal education?

  • tone sandhi comes from many pronunciation experiences, if you want to pronounce it easily and/or quickly, just like English speaking ignore few syllables during pronouncing a statement (e.g. singing) quickly; and if we always enter by pinyin in words other than characters (e.g. I neng feichang shoulian de shiyong pinyin, 我能非常熟練地使用拼音), even a foreign learner can understand it without tones if he know many words. in fact, native speaker don't use pinyin directly on Internet. we just input Chinese characters by pinyin input method software instead. Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 7:09

3 Answers 3


as a Chinese native, I am not quite aware of tone sandhi. And yes, If put to the test, i will write out pinyin with tones according to the standard tones as it in the dictionary (not the rules from tone sandhi). when i read, i try to read words as the correct tones in the dictionary (although it could apply the "tone sandhi" automatically, i am completely UNAWARE of that). I would suggest reading words with standard tones while you learn. and you could apply those "tone sandhi" naturally when you speak fast i guess. This way could avoid those weirdos and misunderstandings because of those tone sandhi. Good luck with that!

  • 1
    English speakers too learn many new words and their pronunciations from reading/dictionaries; I see Chinese people have a similar experience.
    – haksayng
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 17:57
  • yeah! I am working hard in reading English stuff now. I hope one day I would get the hang of it. English has vocabulary in huge, while Chinese character 字 is relatively smaller in size. if you could grab a few thousands of Chinese 字,that will be fairly enough. This is probably the number of 字 I knew! I am still wondering how many English words an English native knows??? I have been trying very hard to read and know the new words and expressions, but it seems to me there are still a lot I don't know. I can't estimate the number of words I should learn.
    – dan
    Commented Aug 4, 2017 at 5:04

Non-Native Speaker:

As your Chinese learning has progressed, do you still intentionally analyze the tones of words you learn by speaking (e.g. remember 拼音 has two first tones)?

As my Chinese has progressed (now on HSK level 5), I have discovered that I still "analyze" tones of words by speaking to a certain degree, but at my level I am more concerned with if the word sounds right or wrong rather than analyzing. For example, if I am speaking Mandarin to a friend and I say, "I want to buy some handcrafted products" "我想买一些工艺品” (Wǒ xiǎng mǎi yīxiē gōngyìpǐn) BUT instead of "买"(mǎi-to buy) I accidentally say “卖” (mài-to sell), I will instantly have a weird feeling and notice that I said "to sell" instead of "to buy". In short, the higher level you become in Chinese the better you get at noticing if a word sounds correct or not and quickly correct yourself based on the "internalized" tones rather than analyzing everything you say.

Do you even think about things like tone sandhi (which you may have learned complicated rules for at some point in your studying)?

I personally try not to overthink about things like tone sandhi (tone-change rules) because in the past it causes more harm to my spoken Chinese than it helps. Many of these tone sandhi rules can be solved by listening more to Chinese. The principle here is, the more I listen, the more I'll be able to notice mistakes in tones just because of how it sounds and then correct them. If you want to hear a professional Mandarin speaker talk about tones, then here is an interview from one of the most famous and fluent Chinese-speaking foreigners 大山 (Dashan) discussing Mandarin tones in English. Here is a link The Most Famous Foreigner in China

  • It seems right to me that the longer a person (actively) studies Chinese, the more "native-like" they become in that what began as rules and principles turns into "internalized" intuitions.
    – haksayng
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 17:56

I'm native speaker of Chinese. If you're well-educated in China primary school and know how to pronounce a character rightly(like dictionary, without any local accent), you'll be able write pinyin of it(of course including the tone part).

Unfortunately, most people in China are not so well-educated and lots of well-educated people forget the explicit knowledge about pinyin 'cause they don't use it too much after primary school.

Pinyin or any form of transcription is only used for things like teaching kids, looking up words in dictionary, typing in computer etc, not used by natural language. Native speakers of tonal languages can easily tell different tones in their mother tongue without formal education.

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