Welcome to Start Speaking Chinese! Whether you’re new to Chinese or just want to brush up on pronunciation, this course is for you. Experience Sections 1 and 2 and, if you like what you see, sign up here for the rest. Start Speaking Chinese with us!

The Four Tones

Someone once said that the only difference between “skin” (pí) and “fart” (pì) in Chinese is the tone. So it pays to be very careful with tones.

  • First tone is high and flat, like you’re holding a note.
  • Second tone is a rising tone and sounds like you’re asking a question.
  • Third tone goes down low and then rises slightly.
  • Fourth tone falls abruptly, like you’re giving an order.

Tone marks sit on top of the vowel, and each one looks like the “shape” of its sound. Click on each tone shape below to hear (and see) the sound for the vowel “a.” In Chinese, “a” is pronounced “ah,” like when your doctor tells you to open your mouth and say “ahhh.”

Words with “a”

We learned two words with the vowel “a”: mā ma and bà ba. Unexpectedly easy, right? And very similar sounding to the words for mom and dad in many other languages. That’s because the “ahh” sound, which doesn’t require you to do anything with your tongue or lips, is one of the first sounds babies make as they begin to speak.

Name That Tone!

Listen to each of the following and select the correct tone.

Practice Makes Perfect

Now practice your pronunciation. Record your voice as you repeat each tone and word in the following audio. When you’re done, listen to the recording and compare your pronunciation. You can even save your recording and track your progress as your pronunciation improves!

Here’s how:
1.  Click the red Record button.*
2.  Click the Play button on the audio immediately below it.
3.  Repeat each tone and word in the audio.
4.  When you’re finished, click Done and then click the Play button on the recorded audio.
5.  Repeat as many times as you like!

Next Up

In the next section we’ll review the vowel “o” and the combination “ao” for each of the four tones. Then we’ll use those vowels to learn some new words so you can tell someone in Chinese “I want a cat.”

*This audio recorder uses Google’s Web Speech API and plays best in the Google Chrome browser. It may not be available in some browsers or on some devices using iOS.