For a while now I've been noticing and trying to figure out how to correctly pronounce several first tone characters in a row. Examples:

機車 jīchē 公車 gōngchē

The speech synthesis of Quizlet pronounces 機車:

High pitch
4 ji
3    che
Low pitch

That is, the first syllable is pronounced at a higher pitch than the second. But in school, when my teacher speaks slowly I notice she pronounces:

High pitch
4 ji che
Low pitch

At which pitches should I pronounce several first tones in a sequence?

  • 2
    I believe that the answer is that you should pronounce all the syllables at high pitch when clearly articulating the word or sentence in the spoken language, but acknowledge that this is done less in rapid speech, and accommodate for people that slightly drop the second syllable. Also, the second syllable shouldn't be dropped if it's part of another word. A vernacular sentence like 哥哥車壞了, where 的 is dropped for brevity, can be comprehensible if the second 哥 has a lower pitch but is not comprehensible if 車 is spoken with a lower pitch - because it's part of another word.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 17:27
  • @droooze , in your example 哥哥 - gēge the second 'ge' prononced in zero tone (a.k.a fifth tone, a.k.a. 轻声), also like e.g. 谢谢, 弟弟... the second same character is prononced in zero tone. Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 8:04
  • @IvanGerasimenko hmm..you're right, I didn't think about this clearly enough..I should mine some vocab data lists for some examples..
    – dROOOze
    Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 13:09

5 Answers 5


According to some researches there is a declination effect (pitch lowering) in Mandarin Chinese. Fundamental frequency (F0) of a speach is decreasing as a speach goes on, with greater downsteps of pitch at the beginning of phrase.

In sequence of first tones, e.g. "老王蒸冬瓜" (...zhēng dōngguā) the first syllable [zhēng] has higher pitch then the last one [guā] in native speakers' speach.

Here are some examples:

From "Declination in Mandarin" (Chilin Shih)
Bell Labs – Lucent Technologies, 1997

This study shows overall lowering of pitch from start of the sentence to its ending. The sentence that was used (in some variations) is "老王蒸冬瓜" [Lǎo Wáng zhēng dōngguā] (so you can see here several first tones in a sequence)

There were four speakers: two females and two males, two from northern China and two from Taiwan). And all fourspeakers show a clear decline in tone 1 pitch values.

This figure shows F0 (tone 1) declination for different speakers (B, C, D) on different sentences (solid and dotted lines):

declination of pitch, different speakers, LHHHH pattern

From "Downstep and Pitch Range of High-Low Tones in Chinese" (Maolin Wang and Wei Xiong)
International Journal of Social Science and Humanity, 2015

This study uses only sequences of HL tones (High and Low tones, only tone 1 and tone 3 used), the patterns are HLHL, HLHLHL, ... And the authors also come to the result that there is a prominent gradual lowering of H tones strongly resembling downstep throughout the utterances.

Decreasing of pith in HLHLHLHLHL pattern

To answer your question

When you (or children in China) study Chinese, intonation is supposed to be perfect (but the world in not perfect). So you study "how it should be" (5555555* - tone 1 pitch level) and later it is turning to "speak as everybody does" (5443333...** - tone 1 pitch level)

* five-bar scale of pitches is used here, going from lowest (1), to highest (5)

** scale is not correct, just to show declination of the first tone!!! Five-bar scale is not enough to show correct declination, see pics for correct scale

  • First tone should be 5 rather than 4.
    – Mou某
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 6:18
  • @user3306356 , I am reffering to the pitch levels 1 to 4 suggested by author of the question, where 4th level is the highest one. Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 6:56
  • Yeah, but that is incorrect to begin with, the scale is 1 to 5 not 1 to 4. Your footnotes are fine tho.
    – Mou某
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 7:30
  • @user3306356 , you are right about it, five-bar scale is the common one Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 7:59

It could be “theory versus practice”. I noticed this happening after a year or so of learning Chinese, mostly self-study. AFAIK it's quite common in everyday normal speech. I remember a textbook with an audio CD where the speaker very clearly put the 鲜 in 新鲜 about a tone lower than the 新 (here by "tone" I mean "a whole tone; the sum of two semitones" in the sense of Western classical music).

There are many optional tone change rules in Mandarin: in this blog post Olle Linge describes a few but he doesn't mention this particular case (of successive first tones).

I like this example he gives:

When several second tones appear in a row, the middle one (and sometimes also the first one if speech is very fast) turns into flat, high tones. For example, my name ought to be líng (35) yún (35) lóng (35), but turns into líng (35) yún (55) lóng (35).

I suspect that this case (successive first tones pronounced lower than the first first tone) is a good example of such an optional tone change rule.


Your teacher is correct they should both be high and flat - but technically it’s be 55 not 44.

The only time it might sound like there is a drop on the second character is if it is a first tone followed by a neutral tone.

  • Hmm, but I think that I often hear native speakers saying it like 4-3 in the example above, the two first tones not being in the same pitch. Do you mean that's an exception, and they're commonly the same pitch? Commented Jan 8, 2018 at 2:04
  • @PetaspeedBeaver Is what you're saying like on forvo.com/word/%E4%BB%8A%E5%A4%A9/#zh ? The first one 今天 pronunciation Pronunciation by Rei1110 sounds like 55 + 55 but the second one Pronunciation by wangdream sounds like 55 + 44?
    – Mou某
    Commented Jan 8, 2018 at 14:00
  • Yes, exactly! On the page you sent me also user "witenglish" says it like that, both are not the same tone. Seems quite common if you ask me. Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 0:46
  • 1
    I think rather than wrong, it is more about natural speech patterns converging onto laziness. Properly speaking, yes, you do articulate the two first tones with the same tone, stressing both equally - but in practice, the second syllable can be dropped slightly, but only if it's part of the same word.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 16:15
  • 1
    @drooooze I think this may also be a northern vs. southern thing - in the South you’d never hear a half-assed second first tone, but in the north, for sake of naturalness you might get a slight drop in tone.
    – Mou某
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 17:15

Here are two examples of sentences made up of first tone characters:

  1. 今天吃蒸包(子)。
  2. 今天喝高汤。

You can read out loud examples in 1st tones (like a TV announcer) without sounding weird at all.

With native speakers, things don't follow strict rules. For example, a Beijing native might add an "er" here and there or drag out a particular sound so that he/she would not sound monotone.

If you are learning the language, learn it whichever way you can--mimic your teacher or follow a recording. As you get deeper into the language, especially once you have spent some time among native speakers, you will naturally figure these things out--and depending on which part of China you are, you may figure things out quite differently.

  • 1
    You can add one more example of first tone sentances: 多吃些西瓜。 :) Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 7:39
  • Good example. I'd advise, though, the "些" really to be close to a neutral tone (and no higher than any of the other characters) or else one'd be speaking in monotone.
    – YCode
    Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 16:46

Really depend on multiple fatcors, first of all if you want to accent a concept or a word you must mantain every single tone at the same pitch, but normally speching when you pronunnce multiple first tones, the first tone gradually low each tim you pronunce it.

  • 1
    good point about accentuation Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 7:22

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