#6 Learning Tip: How can I tell the difference between similar tones? (English/粵語)

Some tones in Cantonese can seem very similar to new learners, particularly when they're similar "shapes" (e.g. tones 2 and 5). How can students figure out the difference? Raymond and Cameron share a few quick tricks.


1. 組合 zou2 hap6 (N/V) combination / to combine
2. 發現 faat3 jin6 (N/V) discovery / to discover
3. 決定 kyut3 ding6 (N/V) decision / to decide
4. 例子 lai6 zi2 (N) example
5. 究竟 gau3 ging2 (ADV) after all
6. 搞笑 gaau2 siu3 (ADJ/VO) funny / make joke
7. 主題曲 zyu2 tai4 kuk1 (N) theme song
8. 數字 sou3 zi6 (N) number
9. 有趣 jau5 ceoi3 (ADJ) interesting
10. 亂 lyun6 (ADJ) confused/messy
11. 整個 zing2 go3 (ADJ) entire/whole
12. 形象法 jing4 zoeng6 faat3 (N) visualization (method)
13. 補充 bou2 cung1 (V/N/ADJ) to add / supplement / supplementary
14. 鵝 ngo2 (N) goose
15. 梨 lei2 (N) pear
16. 標準 biu1 zeon2 (ADJ/N) standard
17. 練習 lin6 zaap6 (N/V) practice/ to practise
18. 形狀 jing4 zong6 (N) shape
19. 提醒 tai4 se/ing2 (V/N) to remind / reminder
20. 保持 bou2 ci4 (V) to keep/maintain

ADJ - Adjective
ADV - Adverb
N - Noun
V - Verb
VO- Verb Object


Raymond: 噉你覺得邊啲聲調難啲呢?或者邊啲聲調嘅組合1最難呢?

(So which tones do you find more difficult? Or which combinations of tones do you find most difficult?)

Cameron: I think tones three and six can sometimes be challenging to differentiate.

Raymond: 噉不如你講下先喇,你自己有冇方法幫到自己分呢兩個聲調?

(How about you go first, do you have any methods yourself for differentiating between these two tones?

Cameron: I often practice by saying words that include a tone three and then a tone six in a sequence. For example, “發現2” (faat3 jin6)、“決定3”(kyut3 ding6).

Raymond: 係呀,呢個你都講得好好啦。即係你自己都俾咗自己一啲你好記得嘅例子4,啱啱好係“三六”,或者“六三”噉樣。係,我亦都同啲同學講話,呢個大家又唔好,呢個我自己都覺得難嘅。即係我講母語,我教呢,我自己有時我都要諗一諗究竟5係“三六”定“六三”。噉我就有個比較搞笑6嘅方法去記嘅。噉三同六都係平啦,都係level tones啦,噉一個係中間一個係低啦。噉佢嗰個聲調應該係“da3 da6”或者係“da6 da3”係唔係?噉我每次解釋嘅時候,我就發現我講嘅時候“da3 da6, da3 da6, da3 da6”。噉倒轉“六三”就係“da6 da3, da6 da3, da6 da3”。噉我一路講嘅時候,我忽然間諗起一套荷里活,美國荷里活嘅電影。嗰個主題曲7係噉樣嘅:“da da, da da, da da da da da da”。你知唔知我講緊邊套電影?

(Yup, you said that well, in that you gave yourself some examples that you remember well, exactly as “3-6” or “6-3” tones. You know, I also say to students, everyone has trouble with this, I even think this is hard. When I speak my mother tongue or teach it, I sometimes have to think over whether something is “3-6” or “6-3.” Well, I have a rather funny method for remembering. So tones three and six are both level tones, one is a middle pitch and the other is a low pitch. So their pitch should be something like “da3 da6” or “da6 da3,” right? Whenever I explain this, I discover that when I speak I am saying “a3 da6, da3 da6, da3 da6.” And when I switch to “6-3,” it’s “da6 da3, da6 da3, da6 da3.” So when I say it all together, I suddenly think of a Hollydwood--American Hollywood--movie. It’s theme music is like this: “da da, da da, da da da da da da.” Do you know what movie I’m talking about?)

Cameron: Jaws(大白鯊)係唔係?

Raymond:係,呢個係幫我記得呢個係“六三”嘅combination (組合).

(Yup, this helps me remember the 6-3 combination.)

Cameron: Yeah that’s a pretty good way to remember it. We can also bring in a strategy that we talked about in our previous episode about tones, and use numbers to help us practice this tone sequence, specifically this tone six to tone three, because there's a few numbers in the tens that are like this, such as “十四” (sap6 sei3), “十八” (sap6 baat3). And then also if you pronounce twenty colloquially as in “廿” (jaa6), so “廿四” (jaa6 sei3)、“廿八” (jaa6 baat3). These also fit that tone pattern.


(Yup, this is also a good method, numbers. Yeah, there are a lot of numbers.)

Cameron: So those are some ways to deal with the third and the sixth tones, but I think another pair of tones that a lot of people might find difficult, especially people who might have studied Mandarin, is the second and the fifth tones, because both of them are rising tones, so they can feel very very similar.

Raymond: 噉你自己又點分呢?

(So how do you differentiate them?)

Cameron: Well, the second tone ends at a higher pitch than the fifth tone, and that's of course easier said than done. So one strategy is to use something that we spoke about in the previous episode, which is to use your hand to follow the shape of the tones you're making, and if you make sure your hand is coming up higher with your second tone as well as your fifth tone, you might develop a sense of this.

Raymond: 不過有趣9嘅呢,就係如果你又係問返啲講廣東話嘅人,佢哋可能會知道“二”同“五”呢,即係一個高啲一個低啲。但係跟住你叫佢哋去解釋下,俾啲例子啦,好多人就會開始10啦。噉所以我哋,與其你要解釋呢,噉解釋當然其實佢哋開始嗰點係一樣嘅。但係呢,好多人以爲係整個11高啲,整個低啲,其實唔係嘅,佢哋開始都係差唔多。係佢哋最後喺邊度完,邊度停係唔一樣。噉當然,好明顯“二”嗰個係高啲啦,高好多添啦。“五”嗰個就低啲啦。所以呢,譬如通常最大問題係大家第五聲,即係太高喇變成第二咯。噉所以你搵啲好嘅例子。第五聲嘅字呢,其實好多嘅。譬如啱啱講“你”呀,“我”呀,“佢”呀,即係呢啲代名詞全部都係第五聲嘅。“我(ngo5)”,“你(nei5)”,“佢(keoi5)”就唔係 “ngo2”, “nei2”, “keoi2”。因爲呢三個字變咗第二聲就個意思都唔一樣啦。如果“ngo5”變咗“ngo2”呢,就係由 “I” 變咗做隻“goose”。噉如果 “nei5” 噉變咗 “lei2”呢,就係 “you” became a “pear”。噉所以呢個都幫到你記啩。

(However what’s interesting is that if you ask a Cantonese speaker, they might know that between tones two and five, one is high and one is low. But if you ask them to explain it a bit, give some examples, many will start to mix it up. So we, rather than have you explain, naturally the explanation is that they start at the same pitch. However, many people think that one is entirely higher than the other, while one is entirely low, but that’s not the case--they start around the same place. The place where they finish, where they stop is not the same. Of course, the second tone obviously finishes at a higher place, and quite a bit higher at that. The fifth tone is lower. So, a common problem is that everyone, when making the fifth tone, it’s too high and becomes a second tone. So you can find some good examples. There are many characters that are the fifth tone. For instance, like the “you” we just said, or “I,” “they,” these pronouns are all the fifth tone. “Ngo5” “nei5,” “keoi5,” not “ngo2,” “nei2,” “keoi2.” Because if these three characters become the second tone, the meaning is not the same. If “ngo5” becomes “ngo2,” you come from say “I” to “goose.” And if “nei5/lei5” becomes “lei2,” “you” becomes “pear.” So these can help you remember.)

Cameron: Another thing that I think could help, in terms of visualization, is to imagine both of these tones since they start in the same place, starting in your stomach, but the fifth tone almost ends in your throat, whereas the second tone ends in your forehead. It proceeds all the way up, but again as Raymond just said, it's very important to differentiate these, especially when it comes to pronouns in Cantonese, because if you do it incorrectly, you might be saying something else.

Raymond: 係,呢個係一個好嘅一個形象法12。同埋我都補充13最後一句啦,即係啱啱我講嗰個例子呢,噉係講成兩個句子啦,你可以話 “I like to eat goose” versus “you like to eat pears”。你可唔可以試下講呀?

(Yup, this is a good method of visualization. And I’ll add one more thing, which is that those words I just said, can be spoken in two sentences. You can say “I like to eat goose” vs. “You like to eat pears.” Can you try saying it?)

Cameron: 我鍾意食14,你鍾意食15

(I like eating goose, you like eating pears.)

Raymond:係喇,噉你講得好標準16啦,噉但係有啲同學呢就會講成“我鍾意食我”,“I like to eat myself”。或者 “Goose likes to eat goose” 噉係“鵝鍾意食鵝” 噉樣, 所以呢個都係幾好嘅練習17嚟嘅。

(Yup, you said it correctly, though some students will say “I like to eat myself” or “Goose likes to eat goose,” so this is good for practice.)

Cameron: Yeah I think that's very memorable, and I think that will help a lot of people. The last pair of tones are the two low tones, so again tone six and then tone four. Just because they're both at a low register, some students have questions about this. Raymond, how do you differentiate them?

Raymond: 四同六對我嚟講,其實又唔係好難。因爲其實兩個聲調其實唔係好一樣嘅,因爲你淨係睇佢嗰個形狀18已經唔一樣嘅。四係我哋叫 low falling,即係呢,要比低更加低嘅。噉六係 low level,噉係平嘅。噉所以呢,我通常會提醒19同學記得第四係最低,第四應該比六低。噉同埋呢,如果你識講普通話呢,其實有幫助嘅。其實廣東話嘅第四聲啦,就有啲似普通話嘅第三聲,特別係普通話嘅第三聲前半。即係普通話嘅第三聲係 “ma1 ma2 ma3”,即係一個 “dip” (浸一下)嚟㗎,即係你要落咗去再上嚟。噉基本上就係呢,廣東話嘅第四聲就係你落咗去唔好上返嚟就得㗎喇,或者呢你保持20最低就得㗎喇。噉所以就係有啲似啱啱講普通話嘅 “ma3”,即係 “ma3↓”,即係唔好上返嚟。噉就係廣東話第四聲咯。噉我唔知呢個你點睇呢?

(As for tones four and six, I don’t think they are too hard. They aren’t the same given their shapes, so they are already different. Tone four is what we call a low falling tone, meaning you want to go lower than low. But tone six is low level, so it is a flat tone. So I often remind students tone four is the lowest tone, and that it should be lower than tone six. Also, if you know Mandarin, that can help. Tone four in Cantonese is like the third tone in Mandarin, especially the first half of tone three. The third tone in Mandarin--ma1 ma2 ma3--is a dip, meaning you need to fall and then rise. Basically, tone four in Cantonese has you fall but not rise back up, or you preserve that lowest point. So it’s like tone 3 in Mandarin that I just mentioned, “ma3”, when you just say, “ma3↓”, don’t rise back up. So that’s tone 4 in Cantonese. What do you think?)

Cameron:  I think it's also helpful to think of the fourth tone as dipping into the lowest comfortable part of your speaking range. So for instance you say “haa4”, “haa4” it's hard to go lower than that. And you can almost hear yourself hitting that vocal wall and I think the feeling that you get when you say that can help you remember how to produce it.