Pronunciation Practice: the next Evolution

26 Aug 2014

I’m really exited to announce that AllSet Learning now has its own Online Store. After releasing several new products on Apple and Amazon’s platforms in recent years, I’ve discovered that those channels can sometimes be more than a little “challenging.” But those platforms don’t support all of AllSet Learning’s ambitions. Some of the things I want to do won’t be realized even in the next few years, but others can be broken down into simpler units that people can use right now to improve their Chinese. AllSet Learning clients have been benefiting from some of these for years already. And those are what we’re putting in the new store first.

AllSet Learning Online Store

The title of this post is “Pronunciation Practice: the next Evolution” referring to Sinosplice’s own Tone Pair Drills. We actually used those with AllSet Learning clients in the very beginning, and they worked pretty well, but we wanted to keep improving on the concept. Over the years we tried some things that didn’t work so well, and others that worked great. Each client had different needs, so a modular approach made the most sense. We’ve organized the best of these different drills into “packs,” added professional-quality audio, and it’s with that material that we proudly launch our new store.

If the idea of pronunciation practice is boring to you, I can sympathize. As a student, I totally blew off my “mandatory” language lab sessions, and still got A’s in my Chinese classes. But I had to pay later when I arrived in China and people actually couldn’t even understand me. That was the real wakeup call: pronunciation matters. Besides the occasional reminder, AllSet Learning clients do a regular pronunciation practice over an extended period of time to achieve dramatic progress.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: pronunciation practice in Mandarin Chinese should be a regular part of any formal study, starting from day 1 and extending well into the intermediate level. Two weeks on pinyin at the start of a beginner course is far from sufficient, and it’s rare than an intermediate learner wouldn’t benefit from tone pair practice or other focused pronunciation exercises. So clearly, this is an aspect of Chinese study materials that could could stand a little expansion.

Thank you, Sinosplice readers, for the support you’ve given AllSet’s endeavors in the past. As a thank you for your readership, I’d like to offer this 20% discount voucher to Sinosplice readers (valid for 3 days):


Thanks for visiting the AllSet Learning Store and checking it out!


John Pasden

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


  1. Hello John,

    AllSet Learning is only in Shanghai, is that right? Can you recommend an organisation in Beijing that provides one-on-one tutoring on a par with what AllSet Learning provides?

    Many thanks!

    • Edward,

      I wish I could help you, but I’m honestly not sure if there is a similar service in Beijing. I’m not so familiar with Beijing, plus we do a lot of things differently from your average school, so I imagine it’s hard to find an equivalent service.

  2. Sounds nice, but it’s still pretty abstract to me. Is it some kind of flashcards? Am I supposed to listen and repeat those audio over and over; How to practice with a teacher or partner?

    I think a sample would be welcome, just like Mandarin Companion.

    • No, it’s essentially a series of carefully designed wordlists with audio. We will be adding flashcard import files soon for people who like that.

      It’s especially good to practice with a a teacher or native speaker language partner, but it’s possible to practice on your own. Instructions come with each download, and I’ll be writing about this on the AllSet Learning site soon.

      I agree that a sample is needed. It’s coming…

  3. AWESOME. Looking forward to checking this out — I’ve been singing the praises of tone drills for years, and will pass this on to classmates who are teaching/TA’ing here. May still be an uphill battle against the native speakers, but every little bit helps.

  4. Glad to see you’ve continued developing the minimal pair drills, it’s sort of amazing to me how little of this type of thing is available. One would think some enterprising teacher (other than you!) would have created it almost immediately upon entering the field. On the other hand, as you note, pronunciation is often largely ignored after the first few weeks of class.

    I have a couple related questions/suggestions. First—how are you handling tone 3? I am hoping the field will get up to speed in its treatment of full and half-third tones. To date, I really haven’t seen a single textbook that handles them appropriately, i.e., in a way that doesn’t mislead the learner. Always, the presentation begins with the third tone depicted as falling-rising (the so-called ‘full’ third tone) and this version is presented and practiced in isolation during the pronunciation portion of the textbook. Only after this full third tone is solidified, then maybe the half-third tone is presented, almost as an afterthought, with much less practice. This would seem to give learners the impression that the full third is the norm–which is of course the opposite of reality. I think even these names (full, half) are a bit problematic in that they encourage the misunderstanding. For teaching purposes, it might better to talk about the half-third tone as the standard third tone and the full third tone as the emphatic third tone or something like that, though obviously the names are less important than the way tones are practiced. Anyhow, I’m just curious what your thoughts on the matter are.

    Second, have you considered (or implemented) the use of multiple speakers for your recordings? There’s some interesting research regarding the different impacts of speaker variability on learning. Basically, for learners who have an aptitude for tone learning, high speaker variability mixed throughout practice is more or less always a good thing. However, it seems like the most generally beneficial approach–which is best for those who have trouble with tones–is to have blocks of practice with a single speaker, but still to include multiple speakers over the course of practice. The speaker variability helps the learner become attuned to Chinese tones rather than just Zhang Laoshi’s tones.

    • The Pronunciation Packs don’t explicitly “teach the tones.” Rather, they provide natural examples with audio. So where a native speaker should be using the “half-third tone,” that’s what you will hear, but it won’t be pointed out.

      I agree with your assessment of instruction of third tone, however, and do something similar when I advise my clients on how to improve their tones. (Also, see this blog post on the issue.)

    • Oh, and yes, we’ll be using multiple speakers, especially for B1 (intermediate) and above. We actually already have the studio audio recorded; it just needs more editing work before we add it to the existing products.

  5. Thanks for putting this product out.

    Can I suggest you consider occasionally using male voices for future products? It seems like the vast majority of Chinese products these days using female voices.

  6. Rafa 穆凡 Says: August 27, 2014 at 8:16 am

    Greetings from the tropics!

    When I studied in BLCU we used to recite this text that has all the 双音节声调组合 possible.

    First we learned word by word and understand what is the tone pair (我的= 第三 + 轻声; 名字= 第二 + 轻声) and then put them all together in this paragraph :


    After memorizing the text and each tone pair, each time a student learns a new word and has problems with the tones, like confusing a 3-2 with a 3-3 or whatever, he can just remember the corresponding word for the same tonal pair and read the new word the same. My own 3-2 word was 语言 and 导游, hehe.

    Many teachers will only teach you the four tones as in 妈麻马骂 , then the changes of third tone, neutral tone, and that’s it, now you are on your own, and that’s how a 洋腔洋调 is born.

    I think it’s very important to practice a lot tonal pairs since the majority of the words in Chinese are bi-syllables, after nailing the 双音节 your 多音节 and 语流、语调 is gonna be a lot easier to 掌握。 (sorry for the Chinglish)

    About the third tone I think it’s a good idea to be presented like mentioned here before, two couples: one rising one falling (2 and 4) and one high one low (1 and 3), the most important part of the third tone, whether is full or half is to get to the lowest part.

    Not only in the beginner stage but also intermediate students should often practice pronunciation.

    All Set Learning 万岁!

    • Sounds like BLCU is doing a good job of teaching tones! What level was that?

      The key thing is to choose words and phrases that feel USEFUL to the learner, not just some boring string of syllables. Memorizing a paragraph of random “information” is a bit risky in that regard, but it sounds like it works for diligent student-types.

      • Rafa 穆凡 Says: August 27, 2014 at 12:23 pm

        It was for an Intermediate-Advance level you can say, a pronunciation class for us laowai who went to class with the Chinese undergraduates, when they were taking lots of Engrish classes and PE, we were taking some extra Chinese lessons.

        Definitely find those useful words, like words you use everyday, I guess I learned the pair 4-2 very well because of my Chinese name 穆凡.

        I have found that teaching the numbers it’s quite useful, you start with monosyllable (1 to 10) then bi-syllable (11 to 19) and so on… plus numbers can be used in many contexts like date, time, age, money, etc.

        What are your views on classical poems for tones?

  7. Hi,

    just got the B1 pairs… sounds great! I will immediately add the hanzi and pinyin from PDF files as lyrics to mp3 tags for use with my ipad and phone. I would suggest you do that (both simplified and traditional) in next version as it very convenient.

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