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Learn Chinese Mandarin Tone Changes (Tone Sandhi)

Many students are never formally taught that in certain cases tones can shift based on the tones of the adjacent words. In linguistics, this is known as tone sandhi. By convention, most dictionaries only show the unmodified tone. Textbooks, on the other hand, may or may not incorporate the tone sandhi into the pinyin. This discrepancy is rarely pointed out, which can create endless confusion to beginning learners of Chinese. Fortunately, although the rules for Mandarin tone sandhi may appear intimidating at first, they are in fact very few and after a short while, their use will come naturally.

Here are the rules:

  1. A third tone followed by another becomes a second. More broadly, if there is a series of third tones, convert every other third tone to a second tone, except the last one1. Example:

    很好 is nominally hěnhǎo but effectively pronounced as hénhǎo.

  2. If the word 不 (bù, not) is followed by another fourth tone, it changes to a second tone. Example:

    不是 is nominally bùshì but effectively pronounced as búshì.

  3. Rules regarding 一 (yī, one).
    1. Used as an ordinal number, it stays in the first tone. Example:

      第一个 (第一個, the first one) is pronounced dìyīgè

    2. Used as a cardinal number, it changes to a second tone if followed by a fourth tone but changes to a fourth tone otherwise. Example:

      一个 (一個, one piece) is nominally yīgè but effectively pronounced as yígè
      一天 (one day) is nominally yītiān but effectively pronounced as yìtiān
      一层 (one layer) is nominally yīcéng but effectively pronounced as yìcéng
      一种 (one kind) is nominally yīzhǒng but effectively pronounced as yìzhǒng

The YellowBridge Dictionary is the first dictionary to show both the nominal and modified tones. The audio pronunciation produced by clicking on the icon in the dictionary and online flashcards always take into account the tone sandhi.

1Some would say that a non-ending third tone is actually pronounced as a half third tone, i.e., it falls but does not rise.