Learn The Chinese Tones in 1 Minute!

If you have ever read about the Chinese language, you will probably know that all the variations of Chinese have tones. Tones are ways to pronounce words so for example if you say dā (with an elongated sound) it means “to hang” while dá (with a rising sound) means “to answer” even though it would feel like the same word in English. All Chinese words have a tone (in one way or another)! Mandarin (the most-widely used variation of Chinese) has four tones + one neutral one. In this post, I’m going to attempt to teach you how to pronounce all the 4+1 Chinese tones in a minute. We only have a minute. Let’s start. We’ll be using ma for an example but know that this can be used for any Chinese word (da, ren… you name it) to have different meanings.

0. The Neutral Tone

Easy: simply say the word like you say it in English. For example, say ma. Done!

1. The First Tone: aaaaa

Imagine you’re at the dentist’s for a checkup. He begins by telling you to open your mouth widely and say aaaaaaaaaaaa. Well, in Chinese, it’s the first tone and it’s written like in . Pronounce any word like this and you got the tone!

2. The Second Tone: now???

Imagine a friend tells you to get ready because you’re going for the trip. Imagine you say in surprise: Now? I thought we were going to go tomorrow. Now?. That’s the second Chinese tone, which sounds just like in a question. Now? It would be written as to indicate that it is the rising tone.

3. The Third Tone: iiin!oOOOUUTTT?

Imagine you have a shovel in your hands and you are digging the ground. You dig a bit iin and then you lift the shovel to get the soil out. You go: Iin! oOUT? Iin!OOUT? Iiin!oOOOUT? This is the most unusual tone. If you still have problems with this, just know that it is a combination of the fourth and the second tones, the second one being longer. It goes like to show that it goes down and up.

4. The Fourth Tone: STOP!

STOP! No more learning! This is our tone. Imagine you are walking on the street when a pickpocket nicks your purse from your pocket and runs. You start running after him and scream abruptly: STOP! This is our last tone, the falling one. It would be written as to show that it falls down.


To solidify this info, here’s an audio file with the four tones of the word ma pronounced:
The four tones mā má mǎ mà pronounced (.ogg audio file)

Here’s a chart for you with all four tones:

The Mandarin Chinese Tones

Our mission is done. You can listen to some Chinese and see if you can identify the tones. It gets easier with time.

This post was inspired by the Mandarin Chinese course following the Michel Thomas Method (I also used some examples from it). They not only have similar instructions, they also teach hand signatures to memorize the tones easier, as well as grammar. Check them out if you are interested in learning more spoken Mandarin.

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  1. Thank you for this one-minute, unforgettable tutorial on getting the four tones in Mandarin! Us native English speakers have a hard time wrapping our brains around tones, but we forget that we do use tones, as you’ve illustrated. These real-life examples allow us to connect the concept back to something we have experience with, thus cementing the learning in our heads.

    I’d adjust the last tone from STOP! to STOP. Rather than halting a pickpocket (when I’d probably scream hysterically), I’d imagine telling my kid to stop dropping food on the floor, using your best parent voice (or imagining your parent’s voice). STOP. Very serious, more of a falling tone.

  2. When I taught English in China I liked using this lesson in reverse to show how English _IS_ a tonal language in its own way. Without using the Chinese 2nd tone, it is almost impossible to indicate that you're asking a question in English. Without using the Chinese 4th tone, it is hard to convey a sense of sternness or authority.

  3. There seems to be a problem with the title here, no one will learn the tones in one minute from this, they will just learn about them. Completely different don’t you agree. 

  4. I don’t quite see how they are different in this case. They will learn the tones that is find out what they are and how to say and distinguish them.

    They might not be able to distinguish them perfectly because it takes practice but that doesn’t mean they will not know them.

  5. The greatest problems with the learning of these tones, is that the dfferences in actual pronunciation can be rather small.

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