Kaiser’s “Dude System” of Tones

Let’s face it, learning the tones of Mandarin Chinese is a challenging endeavor, and the stereotypical “mā má mǎ mà” example isn’t super helpful. Of all the alternate systems to help learners develop a feeling for the tones, my favorite is the “dude system,” originally developed by Kaiser Kuo for The Beijinger. He recently reposted it in Quora, and I’ve gotten his permission to share it here (with a little audio addition of my own):

Tone Contours in Mandarin Chinese

The Dude System:

1. First Tone: Dūde, the disapproving tone, as to the clumsy roommate who’s just knocked over your three-foot Graphix and gotten bong water all over your Poli Sci 142 reader: “Dude, I can’t believe you spilled my bong again!”

2. Second Tone: Dúde?, in the concerned but creeped-out way you might address the roommate you discover sitting naked and cross-legged in the dark, chanting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” and sounding a little brass bell.

3. Third Tone: Duǔde, scornfully, as if your roommate has asked to borrow 50 dollars so his sensei can align his chakras: “Yeah right, dude.”

4. Fourth Tone: Dùde!, as if you are exclaiming in triumph to your roommate when coming home from class having gotten a date with mega-babe Elena from your macroeconomics class.

In case you don’t get it and need to hear it, here’s an MP3 I made: dude1234.mp3. (It adheres more to Kaiser’s descriptions above than to the exact Chinese pronunciation.)

[Originally posted on Quora.]

John Pasden

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


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  2. Excellent!

    However, I am British. I use a similar but less glamorous “wha’?” system:

    1. your bus will be late
    2. you don’t quite hear what someone says to you
    3. your bus has been cancelled
    4. someone calls your name


  3. Wow, whoever came up with this is a genius. Genius I say!

  4. Dùde! Awesome stuff.

  5. Why the word “dude”? Why not use a word that starts with “f” and ends with “uck”? Now that would work!!! I’m waiting for the next exciting audio addition.

  6. haha, I had a good laugh. Showing student this.

  7. This is an old bit from some stand up comics including Rob Schneider so the following are not my own:

    First tone: yelling I’m over here to someone across the way dude
    Second tone: pleasantly surprised to run into your buddy going around a corner dude
    Third tone: are you in a closet alone with a knife dude
    Fourth tone: The you just failed royally dude

    This is indeed a great way to introduce the concept of meaning changes with tonal changes, especially to folks from southern California.

  8. […] with the way we express emotion through intonation in English. Along those lines, I’ve found Kaiser’s Dude System a really helpful way to understand how each tone would sound in English […]

  9. Jamisu Tianchiren Says: July 7, 2015 at 6:48 am

    Sorry, this is as useful as the male nipple. To learn a foreign word is hard enough; to add several subtle sound characteristics – extremely demanding of memory. IMO it is only from repeated aural exposure can the tones for a word be learned. Some folks have said that be speaking fast the extent of miss-pronunciation will be concealed. Also establishing context is important so the listeners will be more deductive of what you are trying to say.
    Try to practice and remember tones if you wish, but using the “dude” analogy won’t help much.

  10. This comparison is perfect. I dont even need a sound track. Thanks !! so funny

  11. Eitan Waxman Says: January 8, 2019 at 10:55 pm

    Hey, I also found the tones a challenging part of my Chinese learning here’s a video that explains the new and creative technique that I used! It is similar to your technique in that it tries to familiarize the tones using a non-tonal language speakers intuition to create associations. Let me know what you think!

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