I have had an interest in trying to learn Mandarin for a long time. However, I am apprehensive about starting this process because I don't want to end up initially learning the pronunciation incorrectly. I have trouble hearing the difference between some of the tones, especially when it is spoken quickly. What would be devastating is thinking I am learning Chinese but when I actually visit the country no one being able to understand what I am saying.

What is the best way to go about this? Is an in-person class the only real option?

  • Don't worry too much about tones in the beginning. Native speakers usually won't have problems to understand if the tones are not pronounced correctly as long as each of the tone types is consistently pronounced. This is because the actual tone value of each tone type is very different in local dialects but the tone types are more or less systematic.
    – lilysirius
    Mar 17, 2022 at 1:36
  • Are you learning the characters too? If so, they can be more useful than speech. Mandarin pronunciation is important, but it is only one of many ways of pronouncing those characters. People speaking almost any dialect in China will be able to read the characters even if they can't understand the Mandarin pronunciation. Mar 17, 2022 at 15:04
  • 3
    I strongly disagree with the idea of waiting with tones. I have met many students who were discouraged and even quit learning Chinese after ignoring tones and then not being able to communicate at all. I've also met many who didn't focus on tones, but kept going and went back to learn properly later. They all deeply regretted not doing it right from the beginning. I have never met anyone who says the opposite.
    – Olle Linge
    Mar 18, 2022 at 7:57
  • I want to do it properly from the start so I would learn tones (and pinyin initials/finals etc) and characters.
    – Joe
    Mar 18, 2022 at 20:25

3 Answers 3


Tones are probably the hardest thing about learning Mandarin as a second language, more difficult than the rest of the pronunciation or even the characters, and unfortunately in my experience it's correct what one of the other posters said that tones are not something that improves over time - I know plenty of "foreigners" who have studied and spoken Chinese for years, but never really gotten the hang of tones. What others have also said about native speakers not really caring about tones is mostly true, in that they just won't really expect you to get tones correct, but it will still cause issues in understanding - I'd say it's somewhat akin to a non-native speaker of English with bad grammar.

While there's no real substitute for hard work and practice, I do think that a large part of the problem with foreigner's tones is that they're taught incorrectly (which is nobody's fault - more on that later). I don't claim to be an expert myself but here's my understanding from 10+ years of studying Mandarin.

First of all, you won't really be able to easily hear the difference in tones until you're able to say them correctly. That might be discouraging, but it's a bit like trying to hear differences in a letter that you personally cannot say (which Chinese has a few of as well). Until you can do it yourself, you're not going to be able to easily pick up on what other people are doing, because language is a physical act and we feel the difference between sounds just about as much as we hear them. So my first advice is to focus on learning to say the tones before struggling too hard to differentiate them.

So that's great, you might say, but that's exactly my problem! How do I say the tones if I've never heard them? So here's my second bit of advice - tones occur almost entirely in the throat. I don't have a PhD in linguistics, but I believe this is also why Chinese sounds tend to occur further forward in the mouth - like you may have noticed that native speakers tend to make the "R" sound more like a "zhr", that is, not so deep and guttural when compared to the hard American "R", or even the softer British one. So put your hand on your throat when you say the letter "R", or even the letter "L", or "I" and "U" (these are also vowels and consonants which native Chinese speakers struggle with, by the way). The part of your throat that is making these L R I & U sounds (I'm assuming you're a native English speaker, by the way, as your post is in English) is the same part that you're going to use to make tones.

Now when you say these sounds, you should be able to feel which part of your throat is making the noise - R is higher in the throat, closer to the chin, whereas L should be deeper, and I higher than U as well. Somewhere around where you feel the R and I sounds is where you're going to make first tone - just hold the tone flat, and you should feel the strongest vibration high in your throat, close to the chin.

Now here's the confusing part - for second tone, the so-called "rising" tone, you're going to move the sound back in your throat, let's say from the "I" to the "L". In fact, saying the word "ill" should create a similar effect. Start with the sound at the top of your throat, near the chin, and move it back in your throat, towards the chest. Do this while also raising the pitch and you should be making a correct second tone.

For third tone, you're going to start out more or less like you did for second tone, but when the sound reaches the bottom/far back in your throat, you reverse direction - almost like you're clearing your throat. You should feel/hear a kind of wobbly/gargling noise in the back of your throat, almost like a turkey's call. If you hear that sound, that's basically the sound that Chinese speakers are listening for when they hear third tone.

Fourth tone is clipped, forceful and sharp. You make it by doing essentially the opposite of second tone, moving from somewhere in the back/middle of the throat up toward the chin, like a forceful expulsion of air. Think a bit like yelling a command at somebody, like in the military - you're pushing the air out.

We do actually use tones in English, just in a different way, although I didn't find the concept quite as helpful with improving my tones. Second tone is a bit like the questioning tone of voice, or maybe like how somebody with the stereotypical California valley-girl accent raises the end of every sentence? Y'know? Whereas fourth tone can sound kind of angry. The reason I didn't find this so helpful is that tones in English are made really obvious when we use them, because we're trying to express emotional content and so want to make sure we're being absolutely clear, whereas tones in Chinese are much more subtle. So if you're listening for every second tone to sound like a question and every fourth tone a command, you're gonna have a bad time.

Also, I didn't mention neutral tone but it's pretty obvious, just say the sound normally, without any inflection.

Anyway, hope that helps! It makes sense to me but I'm not sure if it will make sense to anyone else. It definitely helps to have an in-person class but like one of the other responses said, you just have to find somebody patient. There are Chinese speakers everywhere and in my experience they're very friendly and eager to teach somebody who wants to learn about their language or culture. Good luck and 加油!


I'm going to copy/paste what I wrote some time ago:

Tones must be perfect from the start!

Chinese is a tonal language. For those speaking English, mastering tones is a big issue, it's a concept that generally takes some time to be understood. Some people immediately associate Chinese tones with the concept of tone of voice or with music, and then finally grasp it in its entirety learning to speak in this new, previously unknown way.

IMPORTANT WARNING: if you think that tones can improve over time and so minimize the inevitable initial mistakes, then I tell you to stop saying anything else in Chinese! You would only harm yourself by letting the mistakes make in your brain deeper and thicker grooves. It's not just a matter of accent. You'd say something completely different!

If this is your problem, first meditate on the need to remove this belief that I would at least define as very limiting... and then resume speaking in Chinese, having yourself corrected by those who love you and do not consider you irrecoverable ;-)

Fluency, comprehension and correctness would naturally improve over time, but NOT tones. On the contrary, the more time passes, the more difficult, if not impossible, it is to unlearn what has been strongly impressed between the synapses!

It is like trying to lose the accent or regional inflection. It takes long and very demanding diction courses and not everyone succeeds anyway. It is therefore imperative to immediately correct even the smallest pronunciation errors (especially errors in the tones), otherwise, I assure you, it will be too late or at least extremely difficult to do so later.

What is the best way to go about this?

What I personally believe to be the best way is to initially focus only on pinyin and make your pronunciation perfect.

About the tones, I do suggest to learn how to pronounce the four tones and all the 20 possible combinations of tones:

1ˢᵗ-1ˢᵗ, 1ˢᵗ-2ⁿᵈ, 1ˢᵗ-3ʳᵈ, 1ˢᵗ-4ᵗʰ, and 1ˢᵗ-neutral
2ⁿᵈ-1ˢᵗ, 2ⁿᵈ-2ⁿᵈ, 2ⁿᵈ-3ʳᵈ, 2ⁿᵈ-4ᵗʰ, and 2ⁿᵈ-neutral
3ʳᵈ-1ˢᵗ, 3ʳᵈ-2ⁿᵈ, 3ʳᵈ-3ʳᵈ, 3ʳᵈ-4ᵗʰ, and 3ʳᵈ-neutral
4ᵗʰ-1ˢᵗ, 4ᵗʰ-2ⁿᵈ, 4ᵗʰ-3ʳᵈ, 4ᵗʰ-4ᵗʰ, and 4ᵗʰ-neutral

At this stage you don't need to know the meaning of what you say, you just need to pronounce it correctly (especially the tones).

Is an in-person class the only real option?

What you really need is someone able and patient enough to correct you.

  • By "stop saying anything else in Chinese" does it include sub vocalization?
    – Jimmy Yang
    Mar 25, 2022 at 17:49
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    @JimmyYang Hi! Yes, because normally what you subvocalize would be as incorrect as what you voice. The object would be to momentarily focus all the attention on tones, not even bothering with the meaning of what you say practicing tones. Mar 25, 2022 at 18:16

IMO, the best way to learn a foreign language and be able to speak as the natives (concerning tones/accent) is by persistent listening of the standard teaching audio/video (for the beginner), and to listen to the local "news report" on TV or radio station in a compulsive manner. In the beginning, you might not understand most of the words, after you have accumulated/learned enough vocabulary, the capability will grow fast.

I consider the "TV News" the best resource for beginners, because of ease to learn and gain understanding by guessing the pictures on the screen. But, listening to radio news is more convenient, as radio can follow you everywhere, even at sleep :)

In parallel to listening, it is imperative to practice speaking whenever you can. It helps to pick up your mistakes through correction by others and to exercise your oral muscle to accustom to the oral movement required to produce the pronunciation/sound that could be lacking from your native language. Start with short sentences, and always ask "how it sounds" and demand the listener to repeat the sentence if it is polite to do so. Note, a good practice partner could be school children, albeit their vocabulary capability is limited, they master and speak their language naturelly.

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