I'm having trouble acquiring both Mandarin pronunciation and tones (hampered by the opacity of Pinyin for beginners).

I've learned various languages to various degrees and some people consider me to be "good at languages". I thought I was a pretty good mimic. But I find learning the pronunciations and the tones of polysyllabic words and phrases just too much at once at my beginner level.

I thought it might be worth trying to learn each independently and then combine them. I could do this to some degree when I had a local friend helping coach me but he's gone back to Beijing now.

I'm looking for a way to take a Chinese word or phrase, strip out the consonant and vowel sounds, but leave the "tone contours", something like humming or whistling or replacing every syllable with "da" but in the original tone for that syllable.

I think this might work for some Chinese learners (probably not all since we have unique ways to learn languages depending on our talents etc) since English does have similar tones at the phrase level that are only about nuances, emotions, etc, and those are easy to mimic, but dealing with the unfamiliar Chinese sounds simultaneously makes them too hard to grasp.

An answer might be how to ask a new Chinese friend to help me do this, or it might be a way I can use my netbook computer to help me with it when studying alone.


5 Answers 5


There's an animation named "喜洋洋和灰太狼" might give you a little help. It is usually for Chinese children at 3-4 years old when they start to learn the Chinese. I am a chinese native speaker, if you have any other problem,I'm glad to help.


if you want to listen to separated 聲母(initial consonant) and 韻母(simple vowel), I would suggest this swf from here https://www.mdnkids.com/BoPoMo/BoPoMo.swf

This material is made by 國語日報 from Taiwan. Just click those symbols (left 16 are vowels, right 21 are consonant) and you can listen to it.

The tone of Taiwan Mandarin is a little bit different from that of Beijing (basically, Taiwan Mandarin has weaker -ing or -er sound), but the consonants and vowels are the same.

Hope this can help you.

Update: I misunderstood that you want to listen to consonants and vowels. I found this http://blog.huayuworld.org/gallery/7001/4Tones.swf turn to page 4 (toolbar is at the bottom) click the mouths and you can listen to it.

  • It's not the initial consonant that makes it difficult to learn tones in context, it's two or more syllables next to each other. (I wrote this comment before getting to your update ...) Mar 4, 2014 at 13:31
  • Your second link isn't exactly what I'm asking about but I like it a lot anyway and it comes the closest by far. It also seems to disprove a claim I read elsewhere that Chinese is sung with the tones all stripped out. Mar 4, 2014 at 18:34
  • I think you may notice that Chinese tones are followed by each character, such as 1 2ˋ3ˇ4ˊ5˙, and get confused when tones changed while characters becoming a phrase. There are many linguists researching the changes of tone, I recommend this tts.itri.org.tw this converter has very native tones when converting text to audio.
    – Yafufu
    Mar 5, 2014 at 1:27
  • Use it at the bottom of the middle column. You can try to enter 老 (old) or 老虎 (tiger) and listen to the change of tone 3
    – Yafufu
    Mar 5, 2014 at 1:29

I'm looking for a way to take a Chinese word or phrase, strip out the consonant and vowel sounds, but leave the "tone contours", something like humming or whistling or replacing every syllable with "da" but in the original tone for that syllable.

Don't bother with it. Reproducing sounds by combining elements like consonants, vowels, pitch, etc., has been very unsuccessful in computer science, producing very unnatural sound. Hence there won't be any tools that can help.

You will be better off if you just keep imitating audio records. There are only less than 2000 syllables and 10k frequent words with an average syllable length of 2.4 per word, much less than English, isn't it?

Also, Everyone is a good mimic, but even trained linguistics have problem to correctly analyze and combine the segments of sounds without equipment's help.

As you have found, there are many factors that may influence tone contours, such as consonants and vowels, stress, speech speed, emotions, surrounding syllables, etc. Don't try to synthesize, try to imitate real sounds.

Find a textbook with audio recordings, and keep repeating after it. You don't need I saw a lot of foreigner acquired a very good accent after practicing for a few months, even though they could only use limited expressions.

There seem to be some tools which can replay, adjust the speed, record your sound, and rate your recording, but I have never tried them out.

Why are more than half answers down-voted? What's wrong with them.

  • The downvoted answers don't attempt to answer the question. They attempt to tell the OP not to ask such a question or misinterpret the question to be about visualizing tones or to be about tone sandhi, or think the OP is looking for magic or are wrong assumptions from native speakers with no experience of attempting to learn a tonal language as an adult. I've read anecdotes of even Cantonese speakers failing to learn the (much less complex) tones of Mandarin. If you can hum or whistle a Chinese sentence or imagine doing so then you might understand what it's actually asking. Mar 4, 2014 at 18:32

I know there is an app called “Allset Learning Pinyin” which can show you all the syllables in Chinese, and also show you their four tones and pronunciation. For the other functions you need, I am not sure are there some apps for you or not.

  • Does it give me audio or just show me visually? I realize now I didn't mention audio specifically in my question. Oops. Nov 19, 2013 at 5:25

Why visualize something that you need not to learn not by your eyes, but by your ears? Listen to whatever audio you can download until you feel familiar with them. And don't listen to that "Colloquial Mandarin" / "Easy Mandarin" / "Superfast Mandarin" junk. Half of the time English is spoken on the CD, not Chinese, so you are spending more than half of your time learning English, rather than Chinese. The best audio is published by the Beijing Foreign Language Universtiy 北京语言大学出版社.

Download Audacity, load the audio, select small portions of the audio and play them again and again. Speak along and sometimes record yourself and listen back. You will hear how bad your pronunciation is, because you hear the right thing, but produce something different. This is the biggest obstacle: you think you pronounce it right, but you don't.

The best exercise is to contrast the tones: compare each with one another and make sure you can make them different.

Also in the beginning listening to audio material, where the speakers are extra slow to make you less irritated about the speed, is OK, but in the long run, you don't want to listen to them. Otherwise you will never get accustomed to everyday normal-speed speech.

Remember: don't expect to make progress fast. Most likely you will need months to get these things right. I know some people who never got it right, and no Chinese understand them. I feel embarrassed when they try to speak Chinese and I have to repeat what they say to make the Chinese understand what they are trying to say. Take your time and get it right, rather than never master it and get stuck for the rest of your life (and make every Chinese smile around you because no one understands you...).

Good luck!

  • I don't want to visualize it - I want to hear it. But I want to hear just the tones to focus on them. Let me re-read my question to see if it's not clear ... Jan 3, 2014 at 13:16
  • By the way, I'm actually in China on my own in a city where I never meet other foreigners. So I'm thoroughly exposed to the unadulterated sounds. But it's proving to not be enough on its own and I'm looking for some specific study tools for my problem areas. Jan 3, 2014 at 13:23
  • With little to build upon, 100% exposure to Chinese won't help too much either. Take your time, there's no 'instant' way to Chinese phonology. Jan 3, 2014 at 13:40

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