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Any advice for correcting faulty tones?

In isolation, I can produce accurate tones. But as I speak faster, the tones start to be more muddled. I can produce well enough that any language teachers and most native speakers can understand, but I know that my tones are a big pain point of my spoken mandarin… I know this is a fairly common malady and that correcting tones once you’ve hit an upper intermediate level is really hard but I mean, I don’t really have any option. Gotta do it!

My current plan is as follows:

  • make a conscious effort to speak more slowly and really pronounce the hell out of tones (this is hard, though, because it is so awkward to lower you information bandwidth)
  • try and work through the hacking chinese tone pairs list (and maybe get the sinosplace tone pairs and work through those)
  • ??? your suggestions here

I have tried to tell my teachers to be merciless about this, but I think they’re just so used to dealing with foreigners with off tones that they focus on the really egregious stuff, but kind of (subconsciously?) let the rest slide. I’ve tried to find different teachers who would be stricter, but it’s sort of a continuing issue.

I’m curious for general studying strategies to try and break this terrible habit.

I can totally hear where you are coming from. I am studying at upper intermediate level now thanks to the help of ChinesePod but I have only ever been to China twice on short vacations. The last time I went was with a Chinese friend who I communicate with pretty well but I was a bit dismayed to realize that although she understands me fine, hardly anybody else did. In fact she often ended up as a translator translating my Chinese into proper Chinese! I put it down to her getting used to my messy tones.

Because of experiences like this over the last couple of years I developed a set of tools for practising tones through minimal pairs, it is like the Hacking Chinese/Sinosplice tone pairs but with a much bigger database and you can record your progress and so on, it is kind of like Skritter but for tones. You can find it at I used it myself for a few months and I was improving but I eventually got bored and stopped using it. I think the reason it was helping was that it was forcing me to concentrate on the issue, but I obviously need to find a way to make it more fun. It is still there for anyone who wants to use it.

I would also be very interested to hear any other suggestions on this issue!


I recommmend finding a sort of "voice role model " who you can copy how they speak to a degree.

As much as tones are important, the overall rhythm of the language is just as important.

Also, listening closely is probably the most important thing when it comes to producing tones. If you can’t hear it than how do you expect to produce it?

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If you have been speaking Chinese (or trying to speak Chinese) for a long time with sloppy tones, it will require extraordinary effort to improve. After you have mispronounced a word 50, 100, or 1,000 times, it is very hard to override those habits and relearn proper pronunciation. It is much harder to fix sloppy/toneless/inaccurate Chinese than it is to learn it correctly the first time around. Learning it properly the first time around requires that you have a teacher who knows how to teach tones, and that you have the patience to stick with it. Not all of us are that lucky.

Let’s face it, most foreigners don’t even pronounce nǐhǎo correctly. One must, of course, start with reading pinyin correctly, both the sound and the tone, for syllables in isolation. After you have learned to pronounce one syllable terms correctly, then you are ready to move on to two syllable words (combos). You will need to practice all the possible tone combinations: first:first, first:second, first:third, first:fourth, first:neutral, second:first, second:second, and so on. You can make up your own list from words you already know, or from words you find in the Cpod dialogs. Practicing with individual words is only the first step in learning to speak whole sentences or phrases correctly, but it is, of course, a necessary precondition for speaking well. I think a good teacher/tutor would be essential to learn to pronounce the two syllable words correctly.

When you can do that, go to the newbie, elementary, or per-intermediate lessons on Cpod. Go to the dialog or expansion sentences. Listen to the native speaker say the line, then you do your best to imitate it, reading from the pinyin version of the sentence. Read the pinyin version so the tones are all there for you. Listen to the native speaker repeatedly, and read the sentences over and over until your pronunciation, tones, and rhythm are very close to that of the native speaker model. When repeatedly reading these sentences, your goal is to speak accurately, only increasing your speed as you become more adept at mimicking the tonal contours of Chinese sentences. Reading dialogs and passages from Chinese characters should be undertaken only after one can read pinyin very, very well.

This approach works best if you have a good speaker of Chinese around to let you know how you are doing. In many cases, a good non-native speaker of Chinese will do this better than an untrained native speaker (with whatever local accent they may have) or an experienced, but burned out (native speaker) teacher.

To thejco: you also must be merciless with yourself! When speaking Chinese, if you don’t know the tone of a word: don’t say it. You are only reinforcing a mistake if you do.

To zaphekiah: It appears you have been poorly taught. Find a real teacher.

Nabeshima120: He makes a good point about listening closely. “If you can’t hear it, how do you expect to (re)produce it?”

I hope you find these suggestions helpful.

I go to the dialogue section of a lesson, and go line by line, listening to the speaker, reading the pinyin, and recording myself reading the line. I then listen to my recording, compare it to the speed, rhythm, and tones of the original, and do this as many times as I need to match it completely. Also I switch from pinyin to just the characters after a couple times. Good luck!


Yes, I think you will find that Chinese friends are usually much better than Chinese teachers at correcting tones. Teachers are too used to bad pronunciation. I remember reading one method from HackingChinese (I hope I credit that correctly). There they suggest that you list all the Tone Pairs and then say the same “words” in using each of the different tone pairs. For example, say ah1ah1, ah1,ah2, ah1,a3 ect. After practicing, go to a Chinese Speaker and then say one at random and ask them to tell you which one you said. Do about 15 of them and then see what score they got. If they didn’t do well, then you know you need to improve. The reason this is so good, is because as you get better, Chinese people are more impressed, which is a real problem because that is when you stop improving. You should aim for perfect, and keep trying to improve. Using this method will ensure Chinese people can’t lie to you :slight_smile: Give it a bash. This method gave me a very bad score, despite the fact I can communicate pretty easily with Chinese. So, it’s a really good method to see problems in your Chinese easily. Also, don’t tell them every time if they got wrong or right. Just keep going, and change your tones as you go to see what works.