Chinese tones – Their importance and creative ways to practice them

When I think back to my first Chinese language class five years ago in China I distinctly wince remembering tone drills. Every day we would spend the first 10 minutes of the class being tested on tones. Our wonderful teacher would read out a word or character and we would have to guess what tone she was using. Then the tables would turn and we would have to read words out loud and have our tones corrected. I constantly complained about how useless this was, and how we should be using our time more effectively learning grammar points or new words. Like a typical inexperienced student, I couldn’t have been more wrong! I failed to realize then how important tones are, and I regret not having paid more attention.

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“When your Chinese teacher say’s it’s time to practice tones.”

In total there are four tones*, they are:

  • First tone: a flat high pitch tone, g. 妈, ma1, mum. Like a singer practicing ‘Fa’.
  • Second tone: a rising tone, start from a low to a high pitch, e.g. 蟆, ma2, toad. As if you are asking a question.
  • Third tone: fall and rise, start at a neutral tone then dip lower and end in a high pitch, e.g.马, ma3, horse. Imagine you are surprised.
  • Fourth tone: falling tone, start at a high pitch and strongly drop the pitch down, e.g. 榪,ma4, headboard. My favorite tone, you just sound angry!

*There is also a neutral tone.

Tones are the foundation of being able to speak and understand spoken Chinese. Without them not only are you lost listening to conversations but also no one is able to understand you. Now for the good news, getting tones right is not that difficult if you practice and use a good approach.



The local

Children are already on the path of success with Lingo Bus! The first step to getting tones right is to practice with a local. Not only are all our teacher’s Chinese native speakers but our classes are designed to create a fun and engaging atmosphere. Students will be getting their tones right before even noticing they are practicing them!


Unfortunately, students don’t have access to our teachers 24/7, so what else can they do to improve their tones?

The first step to improving tones is recognition. Being able to speak with the correct tones is difficult if you can’t recognize them, to begin with. Thankfully there are many apps out there focusing on tones, so it’s easy to find one that is suitable for each child. Apart from apps, there are free resources on online platforms such as YouTube, BBC, etc., to help students practice.

Top tip: Most apps or online resources are for adults so can be boring for young children. To make it more interactive and fun we suggest printing out the four tones and sticking them on the wall and having the child run to touch the tone they think is correct. A simpler version could rely on tone flashcards that the child raises.

Games: Music and Simon says

Once the student has begun to recognize tones the next step is to be able to use them. Initially, the best way to practice is through mimicking. A fun way to do this is by playing “Simon says” and having the student repeat our loud and follow what Simon has said. This also helps the student to move beyond one-character tone practice. One-character tone practice is useful for recognition but not for usage, at this point the student should start to link words into pairs and applying the tones. As Mandarin Chinese can sound very lyrical, when practicing longer phrases students can turn the phrase into a song and highlight tones as they ‘sing’. Luckily, there are already plenty of children’s books that focus on teaching tones through songs.    

Top tip: Linking words in a phrase (for example into pairs) will help with tones and fluency. E.g. ‘我是美国人’ ‘I am American’ can be grouped and read as 1 (Wo3 shi4) 2 (mei3guo4) 3 (ren2).

There are many other childhood games that can be adapted to practice tones. It may seem like a task at first but tones are extremely important, the key is not to rush but enjoy the process of learning and experimenting with tones.


Undiscovered China

Welcome to the first episode of Undiscovered China with Lingo Bus! Our new talk show for adults!

Each week we’ll bring you stories about interesting news and culture you likely don’t know from the “Middle Kingdom”!

This week we talk about E-payments in China, far beyond what anything the west has now.

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What You Should Know About E-Learning

The face of education continues to shift from the classroom to the computer screen as learners young and old (and everywhere in-between) discover the power of e-learning. Recent developments in internet and educational technology have allowed for rapid growth in the online education industry over the past decade, especially in young learners, and there are no signs of this trend slowing down any time soon. It’s pretty easy to see why.

What we’re seeing is an explosion in the accessibility of high quality education across all fields, ages, and nationalities

In today’s online education market, students (and their parents) enjoy a wide range of freedoms not afforded in a traditional physical setting. Besides not having to drive across town to a brick and mortar learning center, these include:

  • Convenient and flexible scheduling
  • The ability to select from many different teachers and tutors
  • Access to experts in fields outside of standard school subjects
  • A choice in program type and class size

Educators also see a number of benefits made possible by the virtual classroom environment including:

  • Convenient and flexible scheduling (Who wouldn’t appreciate this?)
  • The ability to work from home or anywhere in the world
  • A choice between offering services directly or through an online education company
  • The chance to share their knowledge on topics which don’t fit within a standard curriculum

What we’re seeing is an explosion in the accessibility of high quality education across all fields, ages, and nationalities – and it is certainly something to be excited about.

So how did we get here?

E-learning has its roots in older mediums of distance education, namely radio and television. As early as the 1920s, radio programs were delivering lessons to large college student audiences. As television became mainstream, efforts were made to adapt it, too, for formal educational purposes. ( However, without a real-time classroom environment and easy access to teachers, these methods never took hold on a large scale.

Over the past couple of decades, internet technology has been breaking down these barriers to distance education. For most of this time, the ease of delivering video lectures and quickly exchanging e-mails and text messages has been good enough. These have allowed colleges and universities across the world to successfully launch fully-digital courses. Studies have shown that these online courses can be every bit as effective as learning in a traditional classroom environment. (

Today’s technology takes us one step further. Real-time video conferencing, virtual whiteboards, and passionate teachers specially trained to use them, bring the full power of the classroom to the little screen. Students can now speak directly with a teacher who may be on the other side of the world as if they’re together in the same room. While this may not make a huge difference for more mature students who continue to succeed with older distance learning methods, the ability to deliver a vibrant, interactive, and fun lesson over the internet allows these groundbreaking developments to engage a much younger student audience, too.(

It’s difficult to say what exactly is around the corner, but if recent developments are anything to go by, it seems a safe bet that e-learning will continue to change and improve the educational landscape around the globe.