How I improved my ability to hear the different tones in Mandarin

I think Mandarin is a wonderful-sounding language, so early on in my studies I was eager to spend a lot of time improving my pronunciation and learning how to hear & produce the correct tones. One of the hardest aspects of this was training my ear to be able to identify tones that I heard.

Olle Linge of Hacking Chinese fame has created a free tone training course that gives you the chance to focus very specifically on training your ear to correctly identify the four tones in Mandarin. Some features that impressed me:

  • Performance report and analysis: The final report gives you a fascinating insight into a number of stats, including how good you were when you started, which tones you found difficult to differentiate relative to other ones, and how much you improved.
  • Multiple native speakers: The course uses various different male and female voices, giving you exposure to the tones from voices with different timbres and registers.
  • Thoroughness: It takes some time to work through the whole course, but unlike other tone trainers, it does have an ending. I am absolutely sure that anyone who is not yet comfortable with their tone differentiation will be much better by the end.

While I feel like beginners are likely to gain the most value from this, I’d recommend it to anyone that hasn’t cracked the intermediate level yet as it could highlight remaining weak areas. I consider myself at the lower-intermediate level and I was able to identify the correct tone almost all the time (>95%) but it highlighted to me that differentiating between second and third tones was my weakest area.

Performance report from the tone training course.

I had the most trouble during sessions only testing tones 2 and 3.

A couple of bonuses: the data collected from this training course will be used by Olle in his academic research and, if you finish the course before the end of 2015 (only a week from the time I’m writing this!), Olle will arrange to give you some free personalised pronunciation feedback. Get started on the course!

Unfortunately such a course was not available when I was getting started. I recall that much of my early progress was gained using an app called “Pinyin Trainer” by trainchinese. It’s available for free on Android and iOS and helped me with both tone differentiation and pinyin pronunciation. It’s definitely worth a try too! After that, I had quite a lot of one-on-one tutoring with a professional Mandarin teacher who helped get me up to an acceptable level.

I strongly believe that a solid grounding in the tones and pronunciation/pinyin is critical because it avoids the development of bad habits that can be very difficult to correct. Hopefully these resources and tips are useful to some folks out there. Best of luck!

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