Chinese Language Blog

Do You Have the Tone, Please? Posted by on May 11, 2008 in Uncategorized

One of the first challenges for the Western speaker of Chinese to overcome in learning to speak Mandarin Chinese is the introduction of tones to a language. In English, a rising or falling tone does little other than indicate emphasis: The whiny “What do you waaant?” as opposed to “What do you want!?” Not so in Chinese. Differentiating between tones is the difference between knowing, for example, whether a person is asking the whereabouts of your mother, your hemp, or your horse. Misunderstand one sentence and you suddenly find yourself in a very confusing situation, especially since most conversations consist of much more than one lingering sentence. Picture the situation:

Xiao Zhang (speaking Chinese of course):
“Do you know where I can rent a horse? I’d like to take a horse along the Great Wall. Want to come along?”

“Um. Run that by me one more time?”

While in practice, context makes a huge difference and it becomes relatively easy to know that Xiao Zhang doesn’t want to rent a mother to take up to the Great Wall, not hearing or saying the correct tone more often than not just leads to confusion. To avoid this awkward situation, here’s a brief primer for how to pronounce the tones in Mandarin Chinese.

First tone: ¯ Pretend you’re at the dentist. Open up and say “maaa.”

Second tone ′ Think of this as a question. “Ma? Is that you?”
Kind of counter-intuitive, huh? This is a rising tone.

Third tone ˇ Put on your super whiny voice, like you’re 7 years old and your mom tells you that your buddy can’t come over to spend the night. You’re about to pout: “oh, c’mon, MAaaAA.” Slightly different, though, because you’ve got to start high, about ¾ of where you are with the first “dentist” tone, drop down low, then take it up to full first tone and cut yourself off when you reach it. “MAaaaAA.” Requires a bit of practice, this one.

Fourth tone ` Your dog is about heed the call of nature on your carpet, but you’ve spotted him in the nick of time, and you aren’t pleased. Your dog’s name is “Ma.” Call him out with me now: “Ma! No! Outside!” This tone is commonly known as the falling tone.

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  1. Evan Quinlan:

    I remember, when I was very little, my father telling me that words in Chinese could mean different things if you gave them a different emphasis. I didn’t believe it. Even still, as a speaker of English, it’s difficult to imagine having to talk with such tonal precision in order to properly communicate.

  2. Mike Olfe:

    I also used to think that Chinese was very different in its use of tones. But then someone pointed out that in English tone equally important but used for a different purpose than in Chinese.

    In English, tone is used to convey mood and emphasis: imagine all the different ways you could say “Hey” – suggestive, surprised, angry, questioning, etc.

    In Chinese, these might all have the same tone, and the mood and emphasis would be expressed not by tones (which are used to differentiate meaning, not mood) but by particles which are stuck onto the end of the sentence – ba, a, ma, yo, etc.

  3. MidnitePoison:

    China is a beautiful country and its language is amazing imo even though its quite hard to learn, when I was young I thought that chinese/japanese were sort of simliar but I was sooo wrong japanese is completely different, they have an alphabeth and stuff and its way easier to learn than chinese. I’m italian and I’m studying chinese and yeah the tones thing makes it hard to learn but its such a beautiful language *___* I love many aspects of chinese culture and i love drawning and writing chinese characters ;D. I’m still pretty far from being good in it but I just need to practice more, practice makes perfect =)

  4. LadyCleopat:

    I really want to learn to speak Mandarin Chinese rather than Cantonese, since it’s easier. Here, though, most Chinese speaking people seem to speak Cantonese. AHHH. But I just love to hear the language and one day, I’ll be fluent.

  5. Chinese in Cambridge:

    This is excellent – I like 3rd tone especially! I’ll definitely refer my students to this.

    I have written an article on pronunciation of Mandarin tones with a slightly different method – let me know what you think…

  6. fabs:

    cool way to capture alien stuff from common examples. it was very useful. thanks

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