The Most Difficult Tone Pair in Mandarin Chinese

The existence of the four tones in Mandarin Chinese is one major source of difficulty and frustration for many learners of the language, including myself. Mandarin Chinese was my first tone language, and the fact that tones affect meaning was intriguing, but at the same time, a concept difficult to apply in speech.

It seems to me that there are many two-character words in the language, such as 比较 (bi3jiao4),认识 (ren4shi5),语言 (yu3yan2), etc. There are many, many tone pairs like this, and the truth is that some tone pairs are easier to pronounce than others. Out of all the possible tone pairs, I find the combination of tone 3 followed by tone 2 to be the most difficult to pronounce.

When I was first starting out in Mandarin, I learned that tone 3 is pronounced by first dipping the tone low, then bringing it up towards the end, thereby giving the tone 3 diacritic its distinct, v-shape. However, as I began to try and listen in on native Chinese speakers talking, I noticed that they did not pronounce the tone 3 completely. That is to say, they would just do the initial dip, but not the latter half, where the tone was to come back up. Until then, I had always tried to pronounce the tone 3 completely, the dip plus the final raise. But upon hearing native speakers say it the way they did, I came to understand that that wasn’t the way they always spoke.

I asked a native speaker friend about this, and she corroborated my observation. Because it would take too long to finish the raise towards the end of tone 3, speakers just pronounce the initial dip, and that is sufficient for native speakers to understand each other. So I began to put this into practice. I tried to pronounce tone 3’s as an initial dip only. Doing this resolved the problem of what was to me, the most difficult tone pair to pronounce: tone 3 followed by tone 2.

Before I knew how native speakers spoke, I tried to finish the raise at the end of a tone 3, then pronounce the following tone 2. But this was difficult because by the end of tone 3, I had to raise the tone again for the tone 2. So using the example of 语言 (yu3yan2), by the time I was finished pronouncing the raised end of 语, I had to then immediately raise the tone again for the 言.

But once I figured out how native speakers do it, I realized all I needed to do was a simple dip for 语, followed by a raise for the 言. And this was simpler now because all I did for 语 was a dip – no raise. Doing this really helped my pronunciation.

To hear the dip-only tone 3 in action, try listening in on native speakers speaking and catch the words that have tone 3. Or maybe listen to how native speakers say 你好 (ni3hao3). I’ll bet that the final 好 (hao3) sounds more like a ‘hah’ in a flattened, dipped tone than a really complete dip and raise that the tone 3 is supposed to be. Also try listening to words like 已经 (yi3jing1). You’ll notice that the 已 is rather short and dipped.

Another issue with tones I find is intonation. I find that saying individual tone pair sets separately is not particularly difficult, but the difficulties begin when stringing together these sets. I feel like the pronunciations of each tone pair – or set – for lack of a better word, ‘bleed’ into each other resulting in a rather unnatural sounding sentence. I’m certain that there must be an intonation pattern that makes sentences sound natural no matter how long the sentences may be. I feel that I just haven’t listened and spoken enough Mandarin to get the pattern down pat. For instance, individual tone pairs pronounced in isolation are easy enough, but then if those pairs get extended to 3 character words or 4, things start get out of hand. And I’m still not sure about what to do when I get tone combinations like 3-3-3, or 3-2-3. I guess I know in theory, but in practice, the pronunciation comes out unnatural, and I know it.



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