Learning the third tone in Chinese

As frequent readers will have noticed, I’m usually writing articles about how to learn rather than what to learn, not because I don’t think what is not important, but because I think that many other websites and books already explain this adequately, whereas how is a neglected question that deserves more focus. Today,

I’m going to make an exception, simply because the third tone in Chinese causes so much trouble for learners. I think this is aggravated by the way the third tone is taught, which is why an article about the third tone is warranted.  Most of what I say here is extracted from the thesis I wrote last spring, see details at the very end.

The third tone

Just to make sure that everyone is on the same page, here is how the third tone should be pronounced. There is no or little controversy surrounding this (the exception might be the third tone in final position, but research suggests that even well-educated native speakers with good pronunciation do not go up at the end, even when reading):

  1. Before a 1st, 2nd or 4th tone, the 3rd tone is pronounced as a low, falling tone
  2. Before another 3rd tone, the first 3rd tone is changed into a 2nd tone
  3. In final position, the 3rd tone is often (but not always) realised as a low, falling tone
  4. In isolation or when stressed, the 3rd tone is usually pronounced as a falling-rising tone

There is much evidence suggesting that the way we teach the third tone is not good enough, or at least that the third tone causes much trouble for learners of Chinese. Below, I’ll try to explain what’s wrong and I’ll also propose a step towards finding a solution.

The third tone is an essentially low tone

Falling-rising vs. low-falling T3

Of the above cases, the first is by far the most common, the others do appear, but much less frequently. This means that the third tone in Chinese is an essentially low tone, and that in a majority of cases, it is pronounced as a tone starting low and then going even lower (right in the attached picture).  This means that the only time a third tone is actually produced in a falling-rising manner is in isolation or stressed position and sometimes when occurring at the end of an utterance (this depends slightly on region, but it’s common even for TV anchors with very high standards not to raise the end of third tones even in final position).

So, rather than giving students the false impression that the third tone is mostly a falling-rising tone (left in the attached picture), I advocate teaching it as a low tone. In the picture, the traditional way of representing the third tone can be seen on the left, the low-falling variety that is most often the way it is pronounced can be seen on the right.

What’s the big deal?

This might sound reasonable, but why do I make such a big fuzz about it? Because it really is a big problem for many people and I think part of the reason is the way the third tone is taught, both in classrooms and textbooks. I hear very few foreigners speaking Chinese with correct third tones, even some people whose Chinese is otherwise very good still go up when they should go down.

Here are some examples:

  • 可能 – kěnéng
  • 想要 – xiǎngyào
  • 老师 – lǎoshī

Correct pronunciation of the third tone here is to start low and go down, without going up. I’ve lost count on the number of people I’ve heard going up on the first part, pronouncing America (美国) as méiguó. Don’t do it! If you’re not sure if your pronouncing this correctly, make sure to test it thoroughly with a native speaker and make sure they cannot cheat.

Some words of advice

You will sometimes hear people say that tones aren’t particularly important in Chinese and that the Chinese themselves don’t use tones anyway; if you can just speak fluently and quickly, you will be okay. This is wrong. There is some truth in that tones aren’t always pronounced the way they are described in textbooks, but that is not an excuse to ignore tones when you learn Chinese. Speaking quickly is definitely not a substitute for clarity and will lead to disastrous results in the long-run (please read Learn by exaggerating: Slow, then fast; big, then small). Also, there is a huge difference between a native Chinese speaker being sloppy with pronunciation and a foreigner being sloppy. A native speaker is sloppy in a way that others are used to, whereas most people aren’t used at all to foreigners bad pronunciation.

I think the reason some say that tones don’t matter is that they’ve spoken Chinese in an environment where the listener can guess what they are going to say. If you are in a bar and ask for a beer in extremely bad Chinese, you will still get your beer. Try doing the same thing when you want to go by taxi and you will find it very hard to make the driver take you to the right location. Try discussing or expressing something fairly complex using more advanced vocabulary, and you’ll find that wrong tones makes people unable to understand what you’re saying. I’ve written more about this here: The importance of tones is inversely proportional to the predictability of what you say.

We’ve talked a little bit about what not to do, so what should you do instead?

  1. Understand that the third tone is a low tone in a majority of cases
  2. Practice pronunciation diligently even if you’re at an advanced level
  3. Use tone pairs to practice the basics
  4. Check your pronunciation with native speakers regularly (using this game, for instance)
  5. Record yourself, you will hear mistakes yourself surprisingly often
  6. Practice speaking slowly, which makes it impossible to skip sounds and/or tones
  7. Don’t give up! 千里之行,始于足下!

Further reading

Most of this article is based on the bachelor thesis in Chinese I wrote in the spring of 2011, so rather than spamming this article with references, I simply refer to the thesis itself for those of you who are really curious.Here is the abstract, a link to the thesis itself is provided at the end. Before you check this out, though, you might be interested in having a look at an article over at Sinosplice which also deals with the third tone. Now the abstract:

The goal of this paper is to examine various representations of the third
tone in Standard Chinese, both in academic literature and textbooks for
beginners, and then evaluate what consequences the choice of
representation has for tone instruction. It was found that linguists primarily
prefer two models, even though slight deviations were found: either a
traditional approach describing the third tone as a falling-rising tone or a
model representing the third tone as an essentially low tone.

A survey of fifteen textbooks showed that a huge majority used the
traditional (falling-rising) representation of the third tone; only one textbook
described the third tone as an essentially low tone. Except for this
discrepancy, tone instruction was found to be homogeneous across the
spectrum of textbooks analysed.

After a careful discussion of the various flaws and merits of the two
different methods, it was found that considering the third tone as a low tone
would be beneficial for learners of Standard Chinese, mostly because it
conforms to the wide distribution of low pitch third tones in natural speech
and thus leads to easier rules for tone sandhi that need not be applied as
often as those applicable to traditional representation of the third tone.

Finally, it is suggested that the third tone should be described as a low tone
for beginners, but that more empirical research is needed in this direction
to confirm the theoretical analysis. There is also much research left to be
done in the realm of practical tone instruction and how to best convey tones
to beginner students of Standard Chinese.

Teaching the Third Tone in Standard Chinese: Tone Representation in Textbooks and Its Consequences for Students (PDF, 464 KB)