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Pinyin, tones and intonations of Chinese

Many students want to improve their Mandarin Chinese pronunciations, to sound native-like. What is the best way to achieve that?

A common practice among students is analysing pinyin, what the syllables are, and which tone it is. Then they try to speak Chinese according to the pinyin transcripts. 

We’ll see in this article that analysing pinyin does not lead to improved pronunciations for the following reasons:

  • Pinyin is not straightforward. 
  • Tones are not what they are. 
  • There are no intonations in pinyin.


Pinyin is not a no-brainer. 

Although pinyin is the first thing that a Chinese teacher teaches beginner students, we need to understand that there are many exceptions which are built in to pinyin. 

Pinyin is not a one syllable one sound system. 

For example: 

  • The “iu” sound, it is an abbreviation of “iou”. 
  • The “i” sound, it is pronounced differently in “qi”, “ci” and “chi”. 
  • The “an” sound, it often sounds like “en”. 

And many others. There is a gap between pinyin and Chinese pronunciations. Learn more here: The gulf between pinyin and Mandarin Chinese pronunciation.


Chinese learners put in loads of effort in learning tones.

Learning tones proves to be a headache. 

Students have troubles to describe tones. The 2nd tone and the 3rd tone seem to be alike. The 3rd tone sometimes is falling while other times rising. 

To tackle the problems of tones, many students, teachers and App engineers have come up with inventive ideas. The following three are commonly practiced:

  • Using gestures (movements of head or hand or both) to indicate tones when speaking Chinese.
  • Using numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 to indicate tones, and to memorise these numbers when speaking Chinese.
  • Using colours to differentiate tones, and to visualise these colours when speaking Chinese.

These measures are not without setbacks. 

Designated gestures, numbers, and colours all create huge amount of extra work for the brain. However, when trying to give a speech in Chinese, to remember tones character by character is nearly impossible. 

The real problem is that no matter what students do, they can not say tones correctly when tones are pronounced differently from what is shown in pinyin. 

For example, pinyin shows a 4th tone, but it really is a neutral tone. Or it is supposed to be a 3rd tone, but it is pronounced as a 2nd tone.

For example, the word 太阳. There are two correct tones for 太阳, “tai4 yang2” and “tai4 yang5”. How to pronounce 太阳 really depends on where and how you use it. 

Also, all tones are subject to changes. And there are many complicated rules about tone changes. Consciously following these rules while speaking Chinese helps little. It’s like to ask a regular person to fly an airplane according to the flying manual step by step.  

About tones, I also have some empirical findings.

The first is that tones appears to be fluid and dynamic. Read more here: Tones, a fluid and dynamic concept.

The other is about the neutral tone.

Neutral tone is believed to be shorter and not to be stressed in speech. However, my empirical finding tells a different story.

When I was producing audio lessons and recordings for the Chinese Reading and Writing series, I used software Audacity to do editing.

Audacity gives visuals for sounds so that I can see the actual peaks and valleys in soundtracks

To my surprise, although the neutral tone is not stressed in speech, it sometimes shows up as a big block in the sound track, as if it is stressed. 


Because of tones, some students have raised concerns about Chinese intonations, which pinyin transcript does not give any information about. And when students devote their attention to tones, falling or rising, indeed, there is no room left for practicing intonations.

In English, and many other languages, intonations are an important tool to convey meanings. It is the same in Chinese. 

In China, there is an art form called 评书. It is just one person telling a story. One of my favourite story teller is Yuan Kuocheng (袁阔成). It’s amazing how he made the stories so compelling. I think good story tellers are in fact masters of intonations. 

I read a couple of research papers on intonations, which are interesting but offer little or no guidance on teaching and learning Chinese.

Have better pronunciations

Pinyin, tones and intonations are the three key elements. When the goal is to improve pronunciations, and to sound more native-like, analysing rules about each individual element is not efficient. It’s time consuming; it can be confusing; or there is no good guidance.

Instead, we need to bypass all these rules and try a different approach, to listen more.

The more students listen to Chinese, the more aware they are at noticing if a word or a sentence sounds right or not. “That sounds right” is a sign of internalising pinyin, tones and intonations, all together. 

Listening more to Chinese is a very simple method to improve pronunciations.

Level appropriate listening exercises and audio lessons are all good listening materials which help students improve their Chinese pronunciations.