Mandarin Tone Tricks

13 Dec 2006

I recently got an e-mail from Albert Wolfe, the guy behind Laowai Chinese. In the blog Albert shares his experiences learning the Chinese language. He has lots of great observations that I recommend any beginner take a look at.

What especially caught my attention was a recent post on tones. This is because Albert has employed some of the same tone mnemonics that I myself devised and relied on once upon a time.

Albert writes:

> Once you learn how to say each tone, then associate some emotion with each one. For example, here’s my own personification and characteristics for each tone:

> 1. 1st tone = transcendent, helpful, simplicity.
I love words that have the first tone because of their simplicity and how easy they are to sing out and pronounce correctly.

> 2. 2nd tone = insecure, unsure, questioning.
I sympathize with words that have the second tone because I’ve been unsure and insecure myself. I don’t blame them for sounding like questions.

> 3. 3rd tone = mischievous, mean-spirited, illusive, like a bird you’re trying to watch but he dives into the water and pops up where you aren’t looking.
I hate words with the third tone. They take more work and more time to pronounce. They change depending on the words near them. They seem to exist only to make my life more difficult.

> 4. 4th tone = angry, demanding, impatient.
I also like words that have the fourth tone because I can shout them out. These words give me a chance to vent. Usually, as a default, if I don’t know the tone of a word, I’ve found I’ll say it as a fourth tone involuntarily.

I did pretty much the same thing when I first started learning Mandarin at the University of Florida in 1998. My problem was that I could recognize tones in isolation when they were pronounced clearly, but I couldn’t reproduce them on my own if I hadn’t heard them recently. That’s why I needed to associate some kind of feeling with the tones.

Unfortunately, I don’t remember all my mnemonics, but I remember that my mnemonics for the second and fourth tones were exactly the same as Albert’s. My mnemonic for the first tone was different: I thought of a robot, speaking always in a monotone. For me, the key was remembering to keep the tone level and flat. If I could do that, I had no trouble remembering to keep it relatively high as well. I don’t remember my mnemonic for the third tone.

Albert goes on to discuss other kinds of mnemonics:

> Visual – think of pictures

> – sháozi = spoon
To remember the tone I had to make a visual image of a spoon handle sticking out of a bowl of soup rising at the same angle the second tone rises.

> – fēijī = airplane
This one was easy since I just imagined the plane needing to fly as high as possible for both syllables (high tone, high tone).

I can attest to the power of this method as well. Spend the time to create a good mnemonic for any word you consistently have trouble remembering the tones for. Two of mine I still remember are the ones for “waterfall” and “jog.”

I had trouble remembering pùbù (waterfall) because when I learned the word I didn’t really know either of the characters in it, so I couldn’t associate them with anything. The sound of the word, “poo-boo” was funny and thus easy to memorize, but I would forget the tones. Then I noticed that the tones were both fourth, like water falling “down, down…” and I never forgot again.

Even before that one I learned a similar-sounding word, pǎobù (to jog). I remembered the tones for that word by visualizing the way a cartoon character takes off running. They kind of lean back and crouch down, their legs first spinning into a whirlwind. They lean forward again as they’re about to take off. That “dipping” motion represented third tone to me. Then, as the jogger takes off, his foot comes down hard, representing the fourth tone.

You can literally think of something for every single word. All it takes is a little imagination, and the time and effort you spend devising good menonics carries over directly into how well they will stick in your memory.

Once again, I have to quote Albert:

> “Confusing cousins” – learn them in sets

> – bīng = frozen = the smooth, level surface of a frozen pond
> – bǐng = cake = my shortcake caved in and now looks just like the contour of the third tone
> – bìng = sick = I hate being sick, I’m mad when I say this word.

I did something similar because I would always confuse second and third tone, mixing up the word (rain) and (fish). I needed a mnemonic.

I did this by mentally linking rain with water. That’s not hard–rain is water. And water in Mandarin is shuǐ (third tone). That’s a word I never forgot. So , the word for rain, is also third tone because it’s also water.

Then I imagined a fish () leaping up out of the water. That upward trajectory represented the rising tone of .

In the course of this I also noted that a frozen pond would be flat, and the word bīng is a flat first tone. I even extended it to clouds (yún), which are mostly water vapor, which rises off the water–second tone.

You might think that devising these mnemonics is more trouble than it’s worth, or that the arbitrary associations on which mnemonics depend are not reliable. You’d be wrong on both counts. Mnemonics work.

Once again, I recommend you check out Laowai Chinese.

Related: Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Interesting, but I disagree: devising these mnemonics may seem helpful in the short term, but I don’t recommend it, and I think it’s a flawed approach. It’s almost as bad as using your fingers for the tones. I’ve known a few people that did that.

    IMO, it is more effective to internalize every sound as an independent phoneme and the tones will take care of themselves. But I guess the only way to really do that is by immersion, so maybe mnemonics will help for the casual learner who can’t live in China or Taiwan.

    But I can’t recall ever meeting a Westerner who learned Chinese well without having spent significant amounts of time here or in the PRC.

  2. Prince Roy,

    They’re helpful in the short term, because when you have to think to remember, they help you. They’re helpful in the long-term because eventually you stop needing them. I can’t remember all my old mnemonics (and I did have tons of them) because I stopped using them. I stopped needing them. They’re like training wheels, not a crutch for a crippled methodology.

    I actually like the finger approach as well. You wouldn’t want to use it forever, but if it helps you in the very beginning, what’s the harm?

    IMO, it is more effective to internalize every sound as an independent phoneme and the tones will take care of themselves.

    Sorry, but how is this different from “just memorize them”?

  3. For a while, I’ve been wondering whether tones in Mandarin are more than arbitrary… whether the words really do possess a quality that links them to their tones.

    By this logic, and closely resembling your and Albert’s mnemonic strategies, first-tone words are “high”, “volatile”, “sky-like”, “bright”, “constant”, third-tone words are “earth-bound”, “dark”, “grounded”…. fourth-tone words are “definitive”, “decisive”, “clear-cut”, “rough”.

    Whenever I think about this, I automatically come up with lots of examples which fit these characteristics. Think of 天, 飞, 空, 高,香, 土, 有, 水, 是, 对, 不, 会, 要… compare 小 and 大,多 and 少, 来 and 去,新 and 老, or 南 and 北 (north as “down” in the traditional Chinese conception).

    Obviously, it only works for the most common words, the “staples” if you wish; words that have been around for a while. As the complexity level rises, the connection between tone and meaning seems to vanish.

    Then again, it could all be due to selective perception in the first place. I’m interested in what others think.

  4. And yes, the “finger approach” is definitely great; it helps a lot to have a visual along with the abstract sound, especially for people who aren’t able to take a musical approach to language. I would guess that it also improves pronunciation for some. After a while you stop using it anyway.
    Language and body language are inseparable; watch an Italian tell a story to see what that means. It can’t be wrong to put gestures to something as central as tonalization.

  5. I agree with John there. Whether mnemonics work or not has to be decided by the individual learner.

    In order to learn mandarin, I have used mnemonic tricks in ways that seem to me right now utterly absurd… These damned tones and characters did not “take care of themselves”, upon my word!!

    As John says, our mind ends up discarding what is not going to be needed anymore…

  6. Uhh… how does the finger help you? Do you mean you use your finger when asking locals for clarification?

  7. I personal love watching people who bob their heads in the pattern of the tones of a word. It is much more amusing to watch than the finger. (Although if you don’t want whip lash, I don’t think it is a great way to learn tones.)

  8. I’ve always found pinyin really helpfu. I’ve tried to memorize the image of a written word in pinyin, and recalled the image to remember the tone. This sounds like borderline photographic memory, and although it takes some mental commitment, like a mnemonic, it’s been really helpful.
    Also, becuase I haven’t had any formal Chinese instruction, my appraoch has been a bit strange. I’ve been learning pinyin first, and later, gone back and learned characters. (Which I know is a method most hard-liners seem to look down upon, but hey, it works for me)

  9. @ Jason: I don’t know about the hardliners in your neighbourhood of course, but the approach you describe seems to be absolutely normal and recommended… nota bene, pinyin first and characters second is the order that (mainland) Chinese schoolchildren use themselves.

  10. When I first started learning I did what Colin describes, bobbing my head with the tone. It worked well, and I still have some urge to do it while I’m speaking, particularly when trying to recall the tones of a recently learned word I’m not particularly confident with. It’s very amusing watching beginners doing the same thing, too. 🙂

  11. I’ve spent a bit of time contrasting western and Chinese schools with some friends here. One had a teacher who made them bob their head up and down in elementary school.

    What is the finger approach?

  12. Lorean,

    The “finger approach” is using your finger to indicate the tones in the air. So when you say a first tone, you draw a straight horizontal line in the air, when you say a second tone you make a diagonal rising motion with your finger, etc.

  13. Does the “finger approach” actually help you remember the tone somehow, or do you use it when asking locals for clarification when you don’t understand a tone? Anybody?

  14. the people I knew that used the finger method did it not so much to remember tones, but they thought it would help them produce the tones more accurately. You can imagine what I thought of that theory. One more well-known guy here who does this even now is TV personality Chris Downs, and even then he still misses a lot.

    I haven’t seen the bobble head pedagogy in action unfortunately.

  15. Thanks John.

    I just remembered. A few months ago I realized that I will occasionally wiggle my index finger in sync with my tones. I’m not sure where I picked up the habit, it certainly wasn’t learned.

  16. parasite (Justin) Says: December 13, 2006 at 10:54 pm

    I love anti-mnemonic retards, their stubborn-headedness and arrogance bring me the greatest of pleasure! I can laugh to myself every time it takes ME long to learn something, because I know for the sake of their egos and precious superiority complex they must invest at least 2x+ the time to learn anything. As for me? I mastered Chinese using the most sophisticated (and Chinese-specific) mnemonic system ever developed, the system method by Callum Maclay. Good luck finding it, hah, his website disappeared circa-2001.

    Oh! And John always is writing his Uni name in English on here, so I never noticed until I flipped to the Chinese 博客 of his, and lo-and-behold I frick’in live on a 14th floor overlooking the campus! HA! Wonder when I’m gonna run into that sucker. Dude! I foiled a pick-pocket on 宁夏路 the other night! BE CAREFUL.

  17. … It’s very hard to completely erase a website…

  18. thanks Lorean.

    I read some of that guy’s site, and while I’ve never heard his Mandarin (it may be quite good), I still think the idea of associating emotions with tones is a bad idea. Tones are not emotions and do not sound the same in my opinion. In fact, one of the dead giveaways of western accented Mandarin is this very thing, I guess because this strategy has been widely adopted over the years.

    It’s a shame the Internet wasn’t around when I learned Mandarin, because I wish I had a better idea of what I went through. Truth is, I just don’t remember. I’ve always tried to internalize each sound with its tone as an independent unit. In other words, I didn’t look at ma being the same sound with four different tones, but rather four distinct sounds altogether.

    It works most of the time for me; however I have incorrectly internalized some sounds, and it’s proven very difficult for me to adjust. For example, man, the primarily southern term for ‘quite’, ‘fairly’, is second tone, but I always say it in third tone, I think because when I learned it, I thought it was the same character as man ‘completely’ or ‘full’.

    But whatever works, I guess.

  19. @ Ben
    I’m just referring to the response I get form a lot of students of Chinese and foreigners I met in China when I told them that I wasn’t learning characters alongside the pinyin. (saving that for later) They seemed to think that I was inefficient. As for Chinese kids, they totally got that from me.

  20. Interesting method. But I think it’s only better for beginners.

  21. I found that the only way I could consistently remember tones is to learn new words by ‘listening’ first instead of reading. I started learning Chinese using the Pimsleurs CDs and all the words I learned there I know the tones well without thinking. That is because the words ‘sound right’ when I say them with the correct tone. However, when I learned some other words by reading the pinyin before I heard them, I found that later I had to remember the tone when I said them. In other words, I had no ‘sounds right’ feeling to guide me. I had to remember the tone mark on the written pinyin.

    Now I am comfortable pronouncing new words correctly with the proper tone (well close enough). So when I learn a new word from reading, I say it several times to drill the sound into my head. Saying it out loud is best of course but if I am some place where I need to be quiet, I can say it in my head and that works almost as good.

  22. I just recently found a Russian mnemonic system “MAO” for learning Chinese characters. It is really elaborated. Unfortunately their site is in Russian. Just some overview.

    • you first learn ca. 200 radicals, which they associate with pictures have nothing to do with Chinese meaning of radicals, but only according to their visual similarity to some object:

    • for remembering the tone they use “marking” with colors (1- green, 2- red, 3- blue, 4- black):

    • then when you learn a new character, you just make up a funny story, which is based on the radicals combined in the character and is easy to memorize, for example CHUANG2 (bed) consists according to their visualized radicals from a CROCODILE and a TREE. –> Here a story: “A crocodile destroys a tree and makes a RED(tone 2) bed from it”. They even made funny animations for characters:

  23. Here are the 250 radicals along with their visualization acc. to their system:

  24. Prince Roy, why would you disagree with these approaches? Are you just trying to be a know-it-all. Everything helps when you’re learning and why discredit help to others for learning? Also, when you discredit anything in life, you have a responsibility of backing up your disagreement with knowledge and reasons why the other is wrong. You didn’t even come close and that makes you a, sorry to say, a moron.

  25. Duck:

    yeah, that must be it.

  26. dangerous Says: April 24, 2007 at 12:29 pm

    @Ben: you’re not wrong to say that Chinese learn pinyin first and then learn characters in school. However, that comparison is irrelevant. You forget that Chinese kids already know how to speak Chinese when they go to school. They learn pinyin in a short time, and it only serves as tool for their education when they later start learning characters. The Chinese education in writting is still largely based on memorization of thousands of characters.

  27. A bit late to this game, but I found tone marks a bit hard to visualize so I just decided to treat the numbers 1,2,3,4,5 as new letters of the alphabet and found it easy to remember tones from remembered pinyin.
    ni3 being remembered as a 3 letter word for example.

  28. Sharon ZY Says: March 6, 2008 at 10:26 pm

    Fairly enjoyed the article and the comments here… awesome! Everyone shared his/her knowledge here and readers like me do benefit a lot!

    I m very interested in developing a method – an effective method in memorising 4 tones in Chinese (actually 5 tones including the neutral one). Am still thinking about the body motion (bob your head) or some other control gestures. Picturing the tones in mind would be a good way too. It is proven that by using some exaggerated body gestures can be of great help in improving the accuracy of tones pronunciations.

    Would like to share and discuss more on it!

  29. I’m a native Cantonese speaker and for some reason Mandarin tones completely elude me. I took an introduction course and my teacher completely berated me for my lack of comprehension.
    It’s been 10 years and I have not had any urge to “relearn” this dialect, however since I am to be stationed in the PRC for the remainder of 2008 for my job, I decided that I’ll look around the internet for a (nicer) lesson. I’m so glad i found this page!


  30. This book seems to take the same approach as many of the posters hear have mentioned. I have used it for a few months and find it fairly interesting, but not my style, my brother swears by it though. the stories incorporate the character, pronunciation and the tone into each character using different recurring characters for each of the tones. quite an interesting idea.
    Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters Volume 1: A Revolutionary New Way to Learn and Remember the 800 Most Basic Chinese Characters

  31. Reversilver Says: September 11, 2008 at 5:41 am

    I’m taking Mandarin as a freshman in college, and it’s really frustrating. I feel like I sort of have the tones, initials, compounds etc., down and then I correct my audio stuff and it’s all pretty much wrong, very depressing. My chinese teacher had this to say to get the 4th tone right no matter what kind of person you are, think of any swear or f@#k. Then just say the word like you’re swearing, it works really well!:D

  32. As a language learner (First of Japanese, now of Chinese) I know what it is like to struggle in the beginning stages of learning a language. Let me be the first to say: DO NOT LISTEN to arrogant people (Which Prince Roy seems to be one of, forgive me if I’m jumping the gun) that tell you “Mnemonics are stupid, just memorize it, dummy.” Mnemonics are a means to an end. Once they serve their purpose, they will be like a small footprint in your memory that fades with the tides of time, but the link between the two things (sound/tone/character/etc.) will remain. You’re not going to “just memorize” something, you need to find some common basis with what you’re trying to remember. I used such a system to remember more than 2,000 Japanese characters (This has helped in Chinese a great deal). Heck, I still use mnemonics in Japanese if the mnemonic makes enough sense (For example, I was talking with a friend and asked “What is a good way to remember “haba,” which means “width”?” My friend responded, “If someone has a big/wide butt, you might say ‘hubba, hubba!'” What a good idea! I never forgot that word).

    In conclusion, don’t pay attention to the the arrogant and cynical criticism of mnemonics. They work and they save time. The correct mnemonic is the silver bullet when it comes to remembering certain vocabulary words. The only caution is to not get overly obsessed with mnemonic tricks that you waste time and perhaps lose sight of your goal of actually learning to read/speak in a foreign language.
    But I’m very happy I found this through a Google search, this might prove very helpful in my Chinese studies. Thanks for posting this.

  33. […] You can save yourself some pain and embarassment by mastering tones early on, and these articles might help speed up the process:  Master the Tones and Mandarin Tone Tricks […]

  34. I’ve just started Mandarin, and I bobbed my head up and down naturally, haha.
    It makes it so much easier.

  35. Interesting to see so many people here and everone has a lot of experiences in learning Mandarin. Seems evryone has kind of ways to memorize tones and characters!

  36. My blog focuses on teaching the second method mentioned here. Like for instance the work yǒnggǎn (brave): I think of a youngin’ flexing his arm muscles to show how brave he is. The shape his arms make remind me of the 2 third tones for the word.

  37. […] Mandarin Tone Tricks, by Sinosplice […]

  38. hunnyliscious Says: January 13, 2012 at 5:11 am

    don’t be discouraged. That was a bad teacher. A teacher should not have berated you for your inefficiency at all. You were doing your best and each individual learns differently and at a different speed. I am a NewZealander and my family lived in Hong Kong for three years so my four year old went to Kindergarten and then school in local Chinese schools so had no choice but to learn Mandarin since we lived in an area where there were not many foriegners and her teachers spoke little English. She speaks perfect Cantonese with a perfect accent and ifyou can’t see her face you will think she is Chinese. It causes great shrieks of delight in shopping centers when she starts talking to a Chinese in the shops. They are amazed. My family are all now learning Mandarin and she finds the tones more difficult than I do but understands more than me of what people are saying. The Chinese laugh and say she speaks Mandarin with a Cantonese accent which they find very funny since she has blonde hair and blue eyes. I’m sure it must seem very odd. But she will get there and she is improving slowly every day with practice. My point is that you are already smart since you can speak more than one language and I admire you. Don’t give up. You will be able to do it with a better teacher with a proper attitude. The problem was not with you but with them. You will learn and be able to go back and tell that teacher what you think of them in perfect Mandarin.

  39. These are useful techniques, but we find the best way is for students to start by miming the tones with their heads or even their whole bodies – looks silly, but it really works and they can quickly move on – then if they’re ever not sure of whether they have got it right they can do a quick mime to check. It’s explained here – this covers the head movements, with children we get them to use their whole bodies – moving their arms or squatting and standing up. Try it, it’s surprisingly effective!

  40. Hannalie Swanepoel Says: September 25, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    hi, we lived in Beijing for 1 year, picking up random characters etc. Although we taught school forever, much time could not be spend on the language. but now we are teaching ourselves and thanks for the mnemonics ideas, kind of found it out by ourselves- like the ever common illustrated word ma1 =straight normal mother (not mom-in-law!!!)
    ma2=getting the linen out of the closet with a ladder
    ma3=the saddle of a horse
    ma4= a really bad word

    • I lived in Guangzhou five years, arrived not knowing one word, left very fluent. In the beginning I suffered trying to remember what tones for what word. A Chinese would often correct me with “Ah, you mean ‘XXXX!” and I would shake my head and mumble under my breath “that’s what I said!”
      Finally over beers one of my good friends and mentor, Steven McMath, a Scottish teacher with a law degree and a teaching degree told me this, and I lived by it; it worked (paraphrasing Steven, but close enough)
      “Mike, the Chinese may lead you to believe the tones are important, but they’re not. If they are so important, then how can they sing/understand Chinese pop music? The words are relative to one another, in a sentence, so they understand you even if the tone(s) are wrong.”
      From that point on I stopped worrying about the tones and concentrated on just learning words and phrases. Because I was learning on my own from conversing with working Chinese, I didn’t realize I was actually picking up a mixture of dialect as well. The girls in the pubs and the taxi guys I often sat with were from all over the country, so I got taught by China in a sense.
      The only time I can recall my non-tone awareness backfired was at a dinner gathering. Me, a few other foreigners (with very little Mandarin) and the rest Chinese were just sitting at the table chatting. After the flower tea came I asked the waitress when she was near for sugar. She asked “what?” so I asked again. She nodded and disappeared. Moments later while we were all in various discussions the waitress reappeared with a small bowl of soup. I looked at it, then at her. I asked her “why soup?” She then said “you wanted soup!” Then I understood–TANG1 and TANG2! Hahahahahahahaha! I could not stop laughing.

      • Richardo Says: May 11, 2014 at 11:19 am

        Funny thing is, she probably heard “sugar” but thought, “what kind of weirdo puts sugar in tea” and got you some soup instead.

  41. […] Here are some articles that might help speed up the process: Master the Tones and Mandarin Tone Tricks. […]

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