Probably not the easiest thing in the world to learn!
I discovered the complexity of Chinese tones during my project to learn Cantonese. But like anything in the field of language learning…where there’s a will, there’s a way!
And there’s no-one better than Chris Parker from Fluent in Mandarin to guide you through.
I’ve known Chris for some time, and was so impressed with his Chinese abilities, I even invited him to deliver a masterclass for Language Learning Foundations.
Today, he’s back, and he’s going to tell you everything you need to know about learning Chinese tones.
A lot of people are put off learning Mandarin because of the tones.
This is natural, because European languages don’t have tones. Words don’t change their meaning when you pronounce them with a different intonation.
People who do learn Chinese often say that tones are one of the hardest parts of learning the language.
So in this post, I’ll give you a strategy for learning tones more easily. You’ll learn that they’re not so difficult after all.
What are the Chinese tones?
But first, let me back up a bit and explain what the ‘tones’ are, in case you’re new to this.
Mandarin is what is called a ‘tonal language’, which means that if you pronounce a word or any part of a word in a different pitch, then it can mean a completely different thing.
In Mandarin Chinese there are four ‘tones’:
The first is when you say a syllable with a high pitch, towards the higher end of your vocal range, almost like you might do when you are singing.
The second tone is where a syllable starts in the mid-high point in your vocal range and then goes up in pitch.
The third is where your pitch starts lower then falls in pitch and then rises again,
And the fourth tone is where your pitch starts high and falls.
Below is a graph showing you the pitch level of the four tones, and also the symbols used on top of the letters to represent them.
And when a ‘word’ in Chinese is made up of more than one syllable (which is the case most of the time), each syllable has its own tone. For example, apple is píng guǒ; the 1st syllable is in the 2nd tone and the 2nd syllable is in the 3rd tone.
Don’t worry, it probably sounds really complicated, but once you get used to it, it’s really not that hard. I’ve done a video that explains everything to you and will give you some practice.
Even when the sounds are similar, the meaning can still be clear.
The example that is often given to teach Mandarin pronunciation is that mā means ‘mother’, má means ‘hemp’, mǎ means ‘horse’ and mà means ‘to curse.
And people often reply: “That sounds impossible – four words with completely different meanings that sound almost identical, how can you possibly be understood?”
But in fact it’s not as difficult as that, for a number of reasons:
- It is much easier to figure out what a word means in the broader context of what you are talking about. For example, it’s unlikely that you would be talking about a ‘horse’ and your ‘mother’ in the same sentence, and even if you were, the difference would be clear.
- The example is talking about a single sound pronounced in the different tones (mā má mǎ and mà), but isn’t really close to real life speech, because the majority of ‘words’ in Chinese are made up of several sounds (syllables). When these single sounds come as part of a longer word, they are less easy to confuse.
- ‘Mother’ would be normally be māma (just like in a lot of languages).
- ‘To curse’ could be màrén.
- ‘Linen’ would be mábù.
Understanding that the tones do matter
Sometimes, learners of Chinese get so daunted by the tones, that they decide to ignore them completely, and pretend they are not there.
They think: “I’ll just learn the vocabulary first, and add the tones later.” I’ve heard learners speaking Chinese with no tones at all: in other words, they say everything in a completely flat monotone.
And, believe it or not, people can mostly understand when foreigners speak without tones. Why? Because of context.
But before you become tempted to take this “shortcut” yourself… don’t! It’s a big mistake!
You see, even though people might still be able to understand you if you don’t use tones, it’s not accurate Chinese, and the other person may have to try much harder to catch what you’re trying to say.
You’re basically limiting yourself to “complete beginner”.
That’s why it’s really important to try to get the tones in Chinese right from the start and be disciplined about the tones so that you develop good habits.
It’s much more difficult to learn all the words and then correct all your tone mistakes or learn them from scratch later. That would be like learning, say, a load of words in French but just guessing whether they were masculine or feminine, and putting off learning the genders till later.
It would be a lot of work to learn ‘half the information’ later.
How to practise the tones
I mentioned that most ‘words’ in Chinese are made up of multiple sounds put together, and each syllable carries it’s own tone.
You won’t normally hear a sound on its own, but as part of a word in a full phrase or sentence.
For this reason, practising the tones in single syllables isn’t that useful. It’s better to practice them in pairs and combinations. And when I say practise, you’ve really got to get your mouth moving and practise out loud!
That way you’ll get used to what the patterns ‘feel like’ to say, and internalise them more easily.
Then, when you can say the tones in words, all you have to do is to put the words together to form a full sentence with accurate tones.
With four tones in Mandarin, plus syllables that are unstressed, you’ve got only a possible 20 combinations of tones in any 2 syllable words.
And 3 syllable words are just a small extension of that.
If every time you say a word you practise saying it with the right tones, then slowly you’ll find that you’ll get used to making your voice working in the right way, and you’ll get into the ‘rhythm’ of the different combinations, so they’ll become easier to say.
You’ll still have to think about exactly what tones you’re using for a long time, but it will become more natural.
Being disciplined about pronouncing the tones in pairs and words will also make it much easier to pick out the different combinations, because identifying something you’re already familiar with is much easier than trying to listen for something that is completely new to you.
In other words, practising using the tones when you speak will also help your listening, but it does take practice and persistence to get your mouth moving in the right way and accurate sounds coming out.
You should expect the tones to be something that you can train yourself in, and improve over time, rather than expecting to hear sounds and produce them accurately instantly.
To help you train your mouth and ear, I’ve produced videos with practice for all the combinations of the tones in different words, so you can really get to grips with all the patterns.
Putting the tones to use when you speak Chinese
It’s all very well being able to get the tones right in single words, but you have to take those patterns that you’re becoming familiar with and reproduce them when you speak.
When you’re speaking Chinese, you’ll probably be speaking in short sentences and phrases at the beginning.
Use this beginner stage as a chance to really be disciplined about the tones, and try to use them as accurately as you can when you speak.
It may feel like it’s much harder work to concentrate on the tones as well as putting the words together, and it is at the beginning.
But starting really slowly and carefully and speeding up gradually will pay off in the end, as you find that you’re producing much more accurate Chinese.
How to remember the tones of characters and words
Finally, I want to give you some tips about how to remember the tones.
Sometimes, the reason you get them wrong is not because you can’t produce that sound pattern, it’s just because you can’t remember what tones you should be using, or you remembered wrongly.
You see, you can’t really guess the tone of a character or word just by seeing it or by the meaning.
So it’s a memory game really.
Here are some things you can do to give your memory a helping hand:
- Always try to learn the tone of a character whenever you first learn it. For example 雨 (rain) is yǔ in the 3rd tone.
- When you learn a word, use that as an opportunity to remind yourself of the tones of the characters in that word. For example 下雨 xiàyǔ (to rain – 4th tone, then the rain in the 3rd tone).
- If you can’t remember the tone of a word as you’re speaking, try saying it in more of a flat tone so the other person can guess the meaning of what you’re trying to say, then be disciplined about looking it up to check as soon as you can.
- When you read Chinese, read out loud to practise the tones of the characters.
- When you’re listening to Chinese, try to listen for the tones of words, not just to ‘pick out meanings’.
And before I go, I’ve got something extra on Chinese pronunciation for you.
If you’re just getting started with Chinese, I’ve created a PDF guide to the most difficult sounds in Mandarin that you can download, complete with MP3 audio. You can get all of that by signing up here.
Wow… what a great guide to Chinese tones!
Do you have any questions for Chris? Do you have any good tricks for learning Chinese tones? Let us know in the comments below!
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This article was written by Olly Richards.
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