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)


Learning Chinese pronunciation as a beginner

Image credit: flickr.com/photos/edgeplot/

Some aspects of Chinese aren’t particularly difficult (see this article for examples), but for most students, pronunciation can be very difficult. Various learners have difficulties in different areas; some think the tones are difficult, others find it hard to distinguish between the many sounds that simply don’t exist in their native language.

I think good pronunciation is very important when learning any language and  Chinese is certainly no exception. In this post, I’m going to share with you some experiences and reflections about learning to pronounce Chinese properly from the beginning, rather than getting it wrong and then having to correct even some very basic things later on, like most students (including me) have done.

Mastering pronunciation takes blood, sweat and tears

First, you need to accept that learning to pronounce Chinese will take some time and effort. Reaching a level where you can communicate isn’t that hard, but advancing beyond that is quite a different endeavour altogether (as it is in any language).

As a beginner, the most important thing is that you understand the sounds you’re trying to learn; do not be fooled into thinking that you can learn pronunciation simply by repeating a word somebody else says! There are a few people who can do this accurately, but the likelihood is that you’re not among them. You might think that you’re saying the same thing as the target model, but it might very well be the case that you can’t hear the errors you’re making.

If you study Chinese in your home country, it’s probable that you will have a teacher who can at least make him or herself understood in your language. This is good, because it means that you can learn the tones and the sounds, how they are made and what’s the difference between them. If your teacher doesn’t share a language with you, try to find somebody who knows how to explain it to you.

I haven’t done much research, but New Concept Mandarin’s page about pronunciation is extremely useful, and Patrick Zein’s page about Mandarin Phonetics is also good. Regardless of what you do, make sure you’re doing it right from the start. It’s incredibly hard to change a pronunciation pattern you’ve learnt incorrectly.

Being taught pronunciation

Most teachers’ default attitude isn’t to try to teach every student perfect pronunciation, because they know that most people are not interested in that or feel that it’s embarrassing to be corrected in class. Therefore, it’s imperative that you tell your teacher(s) that you want to focus on pronunciation, and you might have to remind them again after a while so they don’t forget.

I spent two years studying Chinese pronouncing some tone combinations incorrectly. Nobody told me. How are we supposed to learn if we don’t even know we’re making mistakes? Make sure the teacher tells you what you’re doing wrong and what you can do to improve. Take responsibility for your own learning and adopt a healthy attitude towards being taught!

In general, do not trust native speakers who say your pronunciation is excellent. You need an impartial judge or a teacher who is really after teaching you Chinese rather than making you happy. In my experience, most natives will praise your pronunciation, regardless of how bad it is. This is encouraging, but it shouldn’t be used as an assessment of your ability.

Practising pronunciation

There are many ways you can improve on your own. Read texts and read them slowly, making sure to pronounce everything correctly. Speed will come later. Listen to somebody else reading, preferably the audio recording that comes with most textbooks. Record yourself, compare, adjust, improve. Keep focusing on the areas you know you’re having trouble with and if you find yourself saying something wrong, repeat it slower and make sure you get it right.

Better than this is of course if you can find a native speaker to practice with, but keep in mind that you probably need to remind them about what you want, because they are usually a little bit uneasy about correcting your pronunciation, especially if they can understand what you say anyway, even though you say it wrong. I strongly suggest this game to help you master tones, even though it’s also useful for other things.

Speed is fairly important for pronunciation. If you speak very quickly, it’s easy to cheat, which will probably be good enough for communication, but it’s no good if your aim is perfect pronunciation. Speaking slower than you can allows you more time to think about what you’re doing and it’s also easier to spot mistakes. Speaking slowly is very difficult, but I’m convinced it’s very good for a number of reasons, reaching far beyond the realm of learning pronunciation. Learn by exaggerating: Slow, then fast; big, then small.

A few words regarding the third tone

To be honest, it’s only the third tone that caused real trouble for me, the others were fairly easy to handle. I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that the third tone changes according to what tone comes after it, so naturally it’s harder than the others.

Secondly, I think the traditional way of teaching the third tone is deeply flawed, resulting in many students misunderstanding how it’s supposed to be pronounced. In fact, many native speakers (including some teachers!)  cannot describe the third tone correctly in combination with other tones, even though they of course pronounce it correctly themselves. Some will actually tell you that you should go up on a third tone followed by a first, second or fourth  tone, which is wrong and in defiance both of their own pronunciation and the theory.

The third tone is almost never a falling-rising tone in flowing speech

The problem is that the third tone is usually pictured as being a v-shaped tone, first falling and then rising again. This is hardly ever the case in natural speech. Instead, only the first half of the third tone is used before a first, second or fourth tone, which means we end up with a tone starting low and going even lower, i.e. completely different from the long down-up v-shape of the textbook. Third tone plus another third tone naturally results in something similar to a second tone plus a third tone, but I think most people get that.

Please read this article for a suggested different way of picturing the third tone, along with some other thoughts on the teaching of the third tone.

If you think it’s difficult to understand how the third tone changes depending on the following character, try to draw tone diagrams for sample sentences, i.e. draw a line representing the tone of each character as it is truly pronounced, not the way it’s written in pinyin.

Using some sort of physical representation for tones can also be useful, such as letting a finger follow the tones as you read/speak. I’ve encountered people who use their heads for this, but I’d advice against that because it looks quite silly and it might be hard to get rid of the habit later.

Some final remarks

Learning to pronounce Mandarin requires conscious effort and diligent studying. You are at the beginning of a long, challenging and fascinating journey. It might be possible to reach your goal simply by immersing yourself in a Chinese-speaking environment, but that’s definitely not the most effective way, and I doubt everybody can do it. If you want to improve your Chinese pronunciation, you need negative evidence (i.e. someone needs to point out your mistakes for you). There are many ways of learning good pronunciation in Chinese, but finding someone who can spot your errors and help you correcting them is perhaps the most important part.