For years, my biggest pain point in learning Chinese was separating 2nd and 3rd tones. I couldn’t really hear the difference between the two, so I couldn’t say either right. I went through years of Chinese class without resolving this, partially because teachers never emphasized it that much, partially because I couldn’t figure out a good way to train my ear. I dreaded those quizzes where you had to fill in the pinyin with tones.
This all changed when I learned to apply the “creaky voice” test. I recently found myself faced with a quiz that asked me to write the tones for 批准 (pi1 zhun3). Was zhun second or third tone? I started saying it my head- did long, low, creaky zhu-u-u-un or zhun starting low but quickly starting to rise (a bit like a question) sound more right? After repeating it in my head a few times I was pretty sure it was the low creaky one. A second after I handed in my quiz, I checked on pleco and felt triumphant. I had finally had a system that worked for me to separate 2nd and 3rd tones!
What is “creaky voice”? If you google “vocal fry” or “creaky voice” there are lots of fancy linguistic explanations, but the way I think of is that ‘a-a-a’ or ‘o-o-o’ crackliness that creeps into your voice when you hold a sound at the lower end of your range. That o-o-o is like alarm bells screaming ‘third tone! third tone!’
In contrast, second tone can (and often does) start low, but it doesn’t ever hold that low pitch. No creakiness here. It starts to clearly rise right away, and continues to rise the entire time you are speaking.
If you want to read more about “creaky voice” and chinese tones, here’s an article that goes into more detail about using creaky voice as Chinese language learning tool:
And a more technical academic poster (with some fun charts) showing research results relating creaky voice and the third tone with native speakers: