In my beginning Chinese class, many students consistently pronounce tones incorrectly when answering questions aloud. I realize this is expected of beginners, but I've noticed that it happens most frequently with the fourth tone, and even when the answer is a single syllable. My teacher has noticed it too, and said this is surprising - he expects us to have more trouble with 2 and 3.

To me (native English speaker), it sounds like my classmates are uptalking: They are not sure of the answer or the pronunciation, so they are answering with "question intonation" to solicit confirmation. It stands to reason that the effect of this would be negligible on the first three tones, where high or rising intonation is actually correct. But on the fourth tone, the error is clear.

For anyone unfamiliar, here is what Wikipedia has to say about "uptalk" or "high rising terminal". A Google search also returns plenty of media coverage and some research references. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_rising_terminal

So my question is, does anyone have experience with this problem? If you agree with my suspicions about the cause, can you suggest some strategies to address it? Better yet, some examples or references that I might share with my teacher to help explain what's going on?

I would really like to help my classmates overcome this, as we've wasted a lot of class time on it already. (Each time it happens, I desperately want to interject, "are you asking me or telling me?", as my elementary school teachers used to do.) My teacher's approach when a student makes this error is to have the class repeat various syllables in the fourth tone after him, over and over. I haven't noticed that having much effect. Uptalk is so pervasive now - my classmates also answer in English like this? - so I'm hoping to hear that this is a common problem with some established solutions.

  • 2
    I noticed it also previously, and found that the usual teacher's set of "say these tones after me" doesn't help at all--the students turn to mindless repetition, where they simply say what the teacher just said, not learning anything or associating the fourth tone with the sound they just made. One teacher, however (and this may seem a bit harsh on the student, but it did work better) would simply say, "No, say it again", and "No, again" until the student said it with the correct tones.
    – Ming
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 2:28
  • 3
    * the "No, say it again" sometimes was coupled with "What tone is [word]?" (said in neutral tones) if the student really didn't get it right several times. Leading with "What tone is [word]?" might be a less harsh way of correcting them. You, as a student, could simply ask, "what tones were those?" to make them say the sentence again, but with more attention to the tones.
    – Ming
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 2:40
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    I think the issue you have is not your classmates' uptalking, but the extra time the teacher spends on correcting them. I suggest this: when someone uptalks, the teacher just asks that student to say this sentence ONCE: 第二次世界大战正在迫近, then move on. You may have noticed that all the characters in that sentence have the fourth tone. Commented Mar 20, 2014 at 21:00
  • This is a random anecdotal aside but when I hear native Chinese speakers being uncertain (of a pronunciation or something) instead of uptalking they mumble it reeeeeally softly.
    – HAL
    Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 19:31
  • @Ming Interesting. It seems like there might be two things going on in this approach. First, the students may speak more confidently in response to a command than a question. And second, by making the students continue repeating once they've arrived at the correct pronunciation, it reinforces the lesson better than if the teacher had moved on after the first successful answer.
    – Kimberly
    Commented Mar 22, 2014 at 18:36

1 Answer 1


In class, I can see that as a problem. I agree the best approach is the teacher asking them to repeat themselves again and again, particularly while doing reading. I could really feel the pressure so I knew I had to know exactly which tone it was, and then be definitive in what I said. There was a lot of 再說一次.

However, once people are outside of class, I think it will be impossible to get around. In Taiwan, people just wouldn't understand me at all when I said a word like a question because I wasn't sure. And typically if I was definitive, the conversation would continue on normally with full (hopefully) understanding.

  • 1
    I hope that actual conversation with native speakers will force correction of many of our errors. But we are a long way from that. I do think that these students know and can pronounce the fourth tone by now; they are simply failing to communicate that knowledge. I think they just need to be reminded periodically that there's no question intonation in (beginning) Chinese, and to be definitive, like you said.
    – Kimberly
    Commented Mar 22, 2014 at 19:00

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