The Elusive "3rd Tone"

When local Chinese teachers explain 3rd tone to foreigners, they are almost exclusively describing the isolated third tone. That is to say, the 3rd tone when it is not combined with any other sounds. This sounds like it goes down at first and then up at the end. The problem is that this version of the third tone accounts for less than 5% of its actual use. 

The vast majority of 3rd Tones are combined with other tones, and when it is said in context it is not the same. 

In reality (where most of us reside) we have two third tones, “Isolated” and “Contextual”. Why oh why do Chinese teachers focus so much on the “Isolated” third tone and practically ignore the “Contextual” third tone when the isolated version is so seldom used? No idea. But the point is don’t get too caught up in it. 

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The contextual 3rd tone can be described like this: At the low end of your range, doesn’t go “up and down”, but rather stays low-pitched and short, and has a slight croaky quality to it, almost like a zombie saying “braaaains”. 

This is especially important to remember for 2 reasons: 

  1. If you start doing this, it gets really hard to stop doing it. Bad habits can be broken, but it takes time and focus. 
  2. If you say an “isolated” 3rd tone when you should just be saying the “contextual” low 3rd tone, Chinese people will often mistake it for a 2nd tone, which will not only make it tough for them to understand you consistently, but also tough to take you seriously as a bad-ass Chinese speaker.

So here’s our advice, when you are working with a Chinese tutor, ask him/her to say a character that has third tone in a sentence!  This will automatically cause him/her to say the contextual 3rd tone, and so you will not be practicing something that makes up such a small percentage of 3rd tone usage. 

Keep on listening. Keep on noticing. Keep on practicing.