Tones are often one of the most significant problems for beginning learners of Mandarin, and are also overlooked later on. And if the blogosphere is anything to go by, they’re something that classes don’t handle very well.
So, here’s a list of some good ways to study tones cheaply or for free, from anywhere in the world. I’m not going to rank or say this is ‘how to learn tones’, but any combination of these should be good for studying them.
1. Pinyin Practice
For quick, simple and free tones practice, there’s the Self Quiz on Pinyin Practice. Pinyin Practice has a few different options, but I’d say the Self Quiz is the most useful as you can study pairs of tones together.
WooChinese has also made the comparison between learning languages and training for fitness. With tones, it’s probably more effective to do compound exercises (i.e. studying things together) than isolation exercises.
If you’re willing to spend the money then Lingomi is a huge step up from Pinyin Practice. It’s a similar idea (听写) - you listen and write down what you hear. Lingomi has loads of customisable features, and costs between $12.50 and $14.99 a month depending on how much you buy at once (£7 to £10).
It’s also got audio files for HSK vocabulary lists. All of this kind of listening is good for pinning down tones.
Skritter’s main function is learning to write hanzi, but it’s got audio for a lot of common vocabulary, so you get to hear the correct tones for the stuff you’re learning to write. It’s also fairly cheap at $9.95 a month (about £6).
4. Swac plugin for Anki
A free one. It can be pretty tricky to set up, but the SWAC plugin for Anki is excellent for practising your Mandarin pronunciation, including tones. It’s got thousands of audio clips for a huge set of Chinese words, and by using Anki you can study them efficiently with SRS”).
The best thing is that you can use Anki’s microphone and compare your pronunciation to the ‘model’, getting direct speaking practice.
The Shtooka project in general is worth a look for quality audio material.
5. Sinosplice Tone Pair Drills
Sinosplice has a free download of PDFs and accompanying audio files for studying tones in combinations. Very useful and effective.
Another good way to get listening practice, which in turn will contribute to your tones. For pronunciation and tone practice alone, I’d say it doesn’t particularly matter if it’s a paid podcast service or a free one. So long as you’re getting real input from native speakers, it’s going to do your own pronunciation some good.
7. Youtube (and Youku, Tudou etc.)
This is very similar to using podcasts. There’s several lifetimes’ worth of free audio material out there. The Chinese video services like Youku and Tudou have more material than you can shake a stick at. Plus you get to see native speaker mannerisms and body language, which can be useful for distinguishing tones from emotion in Mandarin speech.
8. Create immersion
See also: 13 ways to make an immersion environment
A tip from All Japanese All the Time here. In my view this is the single best thing for improving your tones: exposure. Constant, varied exposure to as much Mandarin as you can get in a day, each day. Chinese children don’t learn tones by studying, they learn them by hearing them non-stop all the time. Use the sources above to create this effect.
9. Don't study tones in isolation
As mentioned earlier, it’s important to study tones in groups and in sentences. A common problem is being able to recognise tones and get them right in isolation, but struggling to produce them in sentences. The solution here is to just study them how they’re used. This important point was covered on Lingomi Blog by Steven Daniels.
10. Teachers and classes
I mentioned earlier that classes and teachers are often disparaged online for being bad at teaching you tones. I don’t think this is necessarily the case. My experience has been that classes are very good for tones, so long as the teacher is strict.
A problem might be that it gets repetitive and embarrassing for the teacher to constantly correct the students’ tones when they inevitable make frequent mistakes in the early stages, so they stop.
However, if you’ve got a strict teacher, it’s great for your tones. Being constantly corrected really hammers it into you, and you can immediately hear the real pronunciation each time you make a mistake.
Teachers and classes are expensive though, so the other options on this list are probably more cost-effective. And, of course, going to a Mandarin-speaking country will always work wonders for your tones.