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Easy Way to Learn Mandarin Chinese Tones!

Updated on December 10, 2007

Tonal Spelling for Mandarin Chinese

Remembering the tones of new vocabularly is one the greatest challenges facing the beginning student of Chinese.  Tonally Orthographic Pinyin is a modified version of the HànyÇ PÄ«nyÄ«n system of Chinese romanization developed by Terry Waltz and popularized on the Forumosa on-line discussion boards.  It seeks to help students of Chinese remember the tones of words by incorporating the tones into the spelling of those words.

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The Problem with Tone Marks

Chinese has four tones, plus a "neutral" tone. Differences in tone change the meanings of words. For example, the sound "ma" can mean mom, toad, horse, scold, or be a particle indicating a question.

In the Hànyǔ Pīnyīn writing system, the tones are represented with diacritics. The four diacritical marks using in Hànyǔ Pīnyīn are demonstrated below:

1st tone: mā (mom)

2nd tone: má (toad)

3rd tone: mǎ (horse)

4th tone: mà (scold)

Neutral : ma (question particle)

Many learners of Chinese whose native languages do not use tones in this way have difficulty remembering the tones when learning new vocabulary or correctly pronouncing the tones when reading aloud from Pīnyīn. Often student report ignoring or "not seeing" the diacritical marks.

A Previous Attempt at Phonetic Spelling

Gwoyeu Romatzyh romanization system for Mandarin Chinese

The most wide-spread romanization system to incorporate the tones into spelling was the Gwoyeu Romatzyh (GR) romanization system for Mandarin Chinese. It used a complicated set of complicated rules to indicate the various tones:

The following (slightly edited) explanation of the rules is taken from Wikipedia.

The additional letter or modified letter (replacement of another) to signify tone is usually done to the vowel or diphthong. The following list number correspond to tone number.

1. No extra tone-letter is added to tone one, i.e., they are written as if they have no tone, and syllables with other tones are modified from tone one. Except:

1.1 Those beginning with l, r, m, and n have -h after them. And tone-two syllables with l, r, m, and n initials behave like tone-one syllable.

2. For tone-two syllables, all vowels (and last vowel of the diphthongs) are followed by r, except:

2.1 I becomes y, unless it is final, then i has y preceding it: yi.

2.2 U becomes w, unless it is final, then u has w preceding it: wu.

3. Tone-three vowels are doubled, except:

3.1 Diphthongs with a do not double. Instead, the I becomes e or the U becomes o.

3.2 Note that, for diphthongs without a, the letter that comes first in alphabet order is doubled, i.e.,

3.2.1 Double e, not i.

3.2.2 Double o, not u.

3.3 There may also be an additional cosmetic change. See below.

4. For tone-four syllables, all vowels (and last vowel of the diphthongs) are followed by h, except:

4.1 Those syllables end in -n double the consonant: -nn.

4.2 Those end in -l double the consonant: -ll.

4.3 Those end in -ng become -nq.

4.4 In diphthongs with final "I" or "U"...

4.4.1 I becomes y.

4.4.2 U becomes w.

4.5 There may also be an additional cosmetic change. See below.

5. A dot (often written as period) is placed before neutral tone syllables (which otherwise appear in those syllables' exact original tonal spelling). However, this is sometimes ignored by the writer.


For example, the four tones of ma:

1. ma

2. mar

3. maa

4. mah

5. .ma

GR is considered unnecessarily complicated by most educators and students, and while it is still used in some Chinese textbooks, it has for the most part been supplanted by Hànyǔ Pīnyīn.

The TOP System

An easier tonal spelling system for Mandarin Chinese

The TOP system assist learners of Chinese remember the tones by incorporating the tones into the spelling, while avoiding the complexity of GR system.

The TOP system is simply Hànyǔ Pīnyīn with tones represented by letter capitalization rather than diacritics.

The TOP system renders the four tones of "ma" as follows:

1st tone: MA (all letters uppercase)

2nd tone: mA (final letter uppercase)

3rd tone: ma (all letters lowercase)

4th tone: Ma (initial letter uppercase)

Neutral : ma* (all lowercase with an asterisk at the end)

Any student of Chinese that has learned Hànyǔ Pīnyīn can learn TOP in under two minutes. Other benefits of TOP include:

1. Can be easily typed from any keyboard. No special characters required.

2. Tones are no longer an after thought. Instead of diacritical marks or numbers tacked on to the end of words, TOP represents tones by the way the words are written. You can't even begin to write the word without knowing the tone.

3. Like Hànyǔ Pīnyīn, but unlike GR, the tones are graphically represented. The first tone is a sustained higher-pitch, well-represented by all capital characters (e.g., MA, LUO, QING). The second tone is a rising tone, and the word itself rises (e.g., mA, luO, qinG). The third tone is a falling then rising or sustained low tone and is represented using all lowercase (e.g., ma, luo, qing). The fourth tone is a falling tone and is represented with an initial capital letter (e.g., Ma, Luo, Qing).

Although TOP is based off of Hànyǔ Pīnyīn, there are two notable differences:

1. Normal rules of capitalization are not used, as capitalization is used to denote tones.

2. The one-letter syllables "a" and "e" in Hànyǔ Pīnyīn are doubled (e.g. "aa" and "ee") so that the tones can be represented with capitalization (e.g., AA, aA, aa, Aa, aa*)

While TOP is a very helpful spelling technique to help student of Chinese master tones, it is not meant to replace standard Hànyǔ Pīnyīn. TOP is aesthetically unpleasing and difficult to read when there are large amounts of text or from a distance (such as on signs).

For example:

Míngtiān nǐ qù ma? (Are you going tomorrow?)

The TOP system renders this sentence as:

minGTIAN ni Qu ma*?

Once students reach intermediate level in their Chinese, they should be sufficiently comfort

Why Not Just Use Numbers?

It is common for many to simply suffix a number, 1-4, at the end of the Pinyin word to represent the tone and some question why not just follow this convention instead of using the TOP system. On commenter to this lens writes:

"I agree tone mark problems but why not just use the basic numbers?? ma1 ma2 ma3 ma4 ma5, many people consider this a little childish but if you make a swift mental switch to view the numbers as extra letters it is easy to remember the tones as ma1 and ma3 are different spellings."

The idea is that the tones are further reinforced by visually representing the tones using capitalization. The argument against tone numbers at the end is that they become an afterthought, and add-on, much like the diacritical marks.

There are two advantages to using numbers to represent tones. First, you can type the words using a regular typewriter or computer without resorting to special characters. They will display well on all computers. Second, you don't have learn the rules for where to place the tone marks, which serve only an aesthetic purpose.

The first point holds true for TOP as well. The second also holds true, except for you need to spend a bit more time learning the capitalization rules as opposed to just sticking a number at the end of the word. By a "bit more time", however, I mean, oh, thirty seconds.

TOP offers the additional advantage of representing the tone as rising or falling in the same way that the diacritical marks, without resorting to special characters and integral to the spelling, rather than an "after-mark". Numbers appended to the end of a work provide no visual cues. For many, that is not an obstacle. Others, however, find such visual cues very helpful.

Top Recommendations for the Beginning Chinese Language Student

I'm one of those people that wastes a lot of money buying more materials than I could ever reasonably use. The good thing for you, however, is that I've compared many different materials. Below are my recommendations for beginning student of Mandarin Chinese. The materials I chose are especially helpful for self-study.

Even better, you can add your suggestions and, if you used any of the below-listed materials, you can vote them up or down the list.

Hanyu Pinyin Workbook
Hanyu Pinyin Workbook

This workbook provides an affordable way for the beginning student or Chinese to learn Pinyin. It is also useful for native speakers who want to learn Pinyin.

Rosetta Stone V2: Chinese Level 1-2 [OLD VERSION]
Rosetta Stone V2: Chinese Level 1-2 [OLD VERSION]

I'm using this software to brush up on my Chinese now that I've moved back to Taiwan after being away for MANY years. It is an awesome product. I highly recommend this software for beginning Chinese language learners. As a matter of fact, I created a lens about it: It is particularly good for improving your listening and reading skills. You can practice with Pinyin and characters (both simplified and traditional). It is a wonderful way to drill your Pinyin. You do, however, have to use the diacritical tone markers. There is no way to use the TOP system within this software. But, what you can do is copy phrases in the TOP format on a flashcards for practice away from the computer.

Chinese Primer: The Pinyin (v. 1-3)
Chinese Primer: The Pinyin (v. 1-3)

This is the textbook I used when I studied Chinese as an undergrad. It is a very good textbook. Please note that it comes in both a Pinyin and GR version. I recommend that you get the Pinyin version as you will need to learn Pinyin eventually. Although the authors recommend the tonal spelling GR version to help you learn tones as a beginning Chinese language learning, if you know the TOP system, you can use the more practical and widespread Pinyin system and not have to waste your time with the convoluted GR system that is becoming increasingly rare. You can rewrite the Pinyin vocabulary, phrases, and sentences in the book to help with memorizing and reading the tones.

Besta S701 Interactive English-Chinese Handwriting Dictionary
Besta S701 Interactive English-Chinese Handwriting Dictionary

The rolls royce of Chinese electronic dictionaries. Touch screen, handwriting recognition, multiple input methods, basically everything you need to look up Chinese characters.

The interactive multimedia BESTA S701 is a Chinese <-> English <-> Chinese bidirectional dictionary, personal organizer and language teacher including Chinese Mandarin, Japanese and English voice synthesis. Designed to assist people whose learning, speaking Chinese/English. It is one of the most sophisticated reference, language and business tools currently available. It's making the most sense of the complex information necessary when learning any foreign language.

FEATURES: (Best for both of Chinese and English Learning)

Built-in "Sentence Translation" and "Smart Comparisons", a good reference tools for English and Chinese translation or learning.

Built-in reputable Oxford Advanced Learner's English-Chinese Dictionary 6th Edition

Built-in English Chinese Dictionary with approx. 300,000 searchable words or phrases

Built-in Chinese Dictionary with approx. 60,000 words, phrases, and 8,000 idioms

Pre-download The Contemporary Chinese Dictionary making easier for Chinese learning

Built-in Chinese-English Dictionary, American Slang Dictionary with Chinese, Japanese and Korean definitions and Internet Dictionary

Multilingual Travel Dialogues with human voice pronunciation

Overall word searching technology across the dictionaries and Grammar Cross-searching in the sample sentences of English-Chinese Dictionary

Databank in Words studio, such as TOEFL, GRE, etc. to improve your vocabulary power

Downloadable Animated Grammar and Phases for English learning through a real scene and animation

Built-in or downloadable Synonym-Antonym Dictionary, Structure of Words, Structure of Sentences, English Proficiency Test & Interactive English.

Chinese <-> English <-> Chinese Electronic dictionary BESTA CD-616
Chinese <-> English <-> Chinese Electronic dictionary BESTA CD-616

If you want a more basic and affordable model, check out this one.

This Chinese &lt;-&gt; English &lt;-&gt; Chinese Electronic dictionary BESTA CD-616 includes 36 dictionaries with over 670,000 entries. Includes speech synthesis for 9 languages including Chinese, English, Japanese, Korean and more. Dictionaries: English - Chinese - English: over 270,000 entries and 64,000 expressions. Chinese Mandarin: over 13,000 words and expressions, with Zhuyin and Pinyin reference. Oxford Advanced Learner's English-Chinese Dictionary: 60,000 words and 84,000 sentence examples. Cambridge Encyclopedia: 4,000,000 entries and 24,000 grouped phrases. English-Chinese-Japanese-Korean dictionary with pronunciation in each language. Chinese-Japanese and Japanese-Chinese dictionaries: the voice function exists for English, Mandarin and Cantonese. Animated dictionary, Illustrated dictionary, DIY dictionary, Net dictionary, Extend dictionary, Travel Dialogue dictionary with voice function. Advanced English-language study course including: animated grammar, English proficiency test, interactive study exercises, review and self-tests, TOEFL, IELTS, GRE vocabulary study, morphological and phonetic analysis for English words. Incorporates the best of Voxware and Bestalk Human Voice Technologies for advanced voice synthesis delivery. Multi-Country Conversations in Chinese, English, Japanese, Korean and more. Enhanced story line featuring animated grammatical teaching, through 3D animation including scenario teaching method and understanding the correct use of grammar. Extensive encyclopedia with diagrams and illustrations for accelerated learning process. Handwriting recognition. Specially designed with MP3 system, audio &amp; visual games and animation. Comes in a slim case, with the users manual in English and Chinese, headphones, power adapter, rechargeable battery and a bonus CD.


Is TOP Useful to You?

If you a student of Mandarin Chinese, please answer the following question.

Do you think that TOP can help improve memorization of Chinese word tones over standard Hanyu Pinyin?

See results

Kudos, criticism, and correction all welcome.

Reader Feedback

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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Top sounds pretty interesting. As an advanced level Chinese learner I still Get confused by tones! Can you make any recommendations on materials for middle level to advanced Chinese study?

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Mandarin is a tonal language that uses tonal inflections to determine meanings of words. Nice tips &amp; great info shared on mandarin tones as its tough to learn

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      @ChouDoufu: The above link doesn't work plsss!!! Your website is really helpful to understand the basic knowledge of mandarin for the beginners like myself..thanks for sharing your thoughts..

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      You have very nicely described what you wanted to present. This is a very good quality of a writer.

    • Joy Neasley profile image

      Joy Neasley 

      7 years ago from Nashville, TN

      I am getting much better at the tones, but I still have trouble with the no tones and them sounding like the others.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      nice tips, it gives foreign people to have a nice idea in learning the tone of speaking mandarin.


      card tricks | card tricks revealed

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Hello ChouDoufu,

      I like your site a lot. You provided much useful information to us. I am teaching Mandarin in Taiwan and I am curious about how do you type the diacritics in HànyÇ PÄ«nyÄ«n? Because I can only use 1~4 after each pinyin to indicate the tone. Please kindly show me the key, thank you. By the way, I just started up my blog ( recently, welcome to visit and comment on my site. :)


    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Why can not leave comment here? I've registered. Is there any one know the reason?

    • profile image


      8 years ago


      I am curious about how do you type the diacritics in HànyÇ PÄ«nyÄ«n, would you please show me the key? Thanks a lot. By the way, I am teaching Mandarin in Taiwan and just built a blog ( recently, welcome to visit my site and leave your comments. Thank you.


    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I could never have learned Chinese without the Pinyin alphabet. It makes learning Chinese feasible. The only problem is the confusion with all the words that are exactly the same sound and tone. That makes learning the characters very important too. After understanding what the tones are and how to make them, there is no substitute for hearing A LOT of natural Chinese. (podcasts etc..) This way it becomes habit.

      Thanks for the info.

      Focus Language

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I've developed a mnemonic for remembering tones on one and two syllable words - I hope this helps -

    • jimmielanley profile image

      Jimmie Quick 

      10 years ago from Memphis, TN, USA

      Never heard of TOP! Wow! Interesting. I used four colors for the tones when studying. It made sense to me like yellow for bright, UPbeat first tone, blue for dipping down ocean waves 3rd tone, etc. Whatever works do it!

    • ChouDoufu profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago

      Zhao Gongming, thanks for bringin Fluenz to my attention. It looks very interesting. You link, however, was incorrect. The correct link is:

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Best way I've found to get started with Mandarin is the Fluenz program, I've finally started making progress in Mandarin. Can you recommend any other CD courses? Thanks.

    • ChouDoufu profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago

      Thank you for your comments. I've addressed them by adding a new section above.

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      I agree tone mark problems but why not just use the basic numbers?? ma1 ma2 ma3 ma4 ma5, many people consider this a little childish but if you make a swift mental switch to view the numbers as extra letters it is easy to remember the tones as ma1 and ma3 are different spellings.


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