Of the myriad struggles beginner students of Chinese language encounter, near the top of that list is tones, particularly the much dreaded third tone, aka the low dipping tone. It is arguably the tone most foreign learners of Chinese mispronounce the most often, and it is often taught to be pronounced in a way even most native Chinese speakers would not pronounce it. Today I’m going to teach you some pronunciation hacks to help you conquer third tone-itis and impress everyone in your office, and maybe even some old ladies dancing in a public square.
The third tone is often taught to learners as a low tone that dips then rises slightly, meaning you start low, then inflect your voice at the end of the syllable as if you were asking a question. When I first began learning the third tone, teachers and Chinese colleagues often taught me to over-pronounce it to the point where it would take a good three seconds to say one syllable. You can imagine my frustrationslash-confusion at their utter linguistic hypocrisy when I was being told every time to say “Jiǔuuuuuu” (alcohol) while hearing everyone else taking half a beat to say “jiǔ.”.
Hacking the third tone
It wasn’t until a good while later that I discovered the true essence of the third tone: instead of thinking about it as a tone that dips then rises, I learned to think of it as simply a low, murmuring tone. This means going bass on that bad boy.
The first picture is how the third tone is taught to be pronounced, rising at the end of the syllable. The second picture shows how it is usually pronounced: as a low tone that does not rise.
An important thing to remember is that the third tone changes depending on which tone comes after it:
- If a third tone is followed by a first tone, as in the word ‘lăoshī’ (teacher), the third tone should be pronounced low (don’t inflect up!), and the first tone is pronounced high and flat. An approximate English equivalent of the third tone/first tone combination would be if someone had just told you a scandalous piece of news and you react by belting out a “say WHAAT?”, though with less of a falsetto on the second syllable.
- If a third tone is followed by a second tone, as in the word ‘căoméi’ (strawberry) the third tone is again pronounced low and the second tone is inflected up like you would at the end of a question. It is almost like saying “uh-huh” in the affirmative. So, next time you need to pronounce a third tone/second tone combination, imagine your mother has just asked you if you finished your homework and you answer “uh-huh.”
- A third tone followed by another third tone is where it gets a little tricky. In this case, the first third tone transforms into a second tone, and so is inflected up like at the end of a question. The second third tone is still a low tone. For example, the word ‘lăoshǔ’ (mouse), would come to be pronounced ‘láoshǔ.’
- Now if the third tone is followed by a fourth tone, the third tone is again pronounced low and the fourth tone is pronounced with a sharp fall from high to low, as if commanding someone to “HALT!”. An approximate English equivalent for third tone/fourth tone would be if you had suspected someone to be stealing your cookies and, upon catching them red-handed, you yelled “a-ha!” Practice this by saying the word ‘hăokàn’ (fun to read, fun to watch, good-looking).
So, here are a few concluding tips to help you nail the pesky third tone:
- Remember that the third tone is, in most cases, simply a low tone, and most people will understand you if you always pronounce it as so.
- Use “tone pairs” to practice the third tone. That means finding two-syllable words containing the third tone and saying them over and over until you’ve got them down pat. Remember that in a third tone plus a first/second/fourth tone pairing it will always be low, and in a third tone plus a third tone pairing, the first third tone will be pronounced like a second tone.
- Watch videos online and mimic how native speakers pronounce tones. Since Chinese characters provide few clues as to how they are pronounced, Chinese learners must do a greater deal of listening to get the hang of how to speak the language, more so than languages with a phonetic script.
- Don’t give up! Practice every day and soon you’ll be impressing people left and right.
And as the Chinese say: “Good good study, day day up!” 好好学习，天天向上!