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Tricky Chinese Tones Posted by on Jun 26, 2014 in Pronunciation, Vocabulary

For most learners of Chinese, mastering the tones is one of the most difficult and time-consuming aspects of the language. Trying to remember not only words, but the correct intonation as well, often leads to misunderstandings when communicating with native speakers. We’ve discussed the four tones plus the neutral tone at length here already, so you can go back and read that original post to get started.

Your voice needs to do all of these things.

Your voice needs to do all of these things.

Review the four tones in this video.

Of course, as is true for most things in China, there are exceptions and things are even trickier than they appear to be. Here are some useful tips for dealing with the complications of Chinese tones:

Two Consecutive, Identical Tones

This is primarily true for the Chinese words for immediate family members. As most of these words are composed of the same character twice, that technically means it’s also the same tone back to back. However, for these words, the second character takes on the neutral tone and isn’t stressed at all. It just kind of fades away. For example, for the Chinese word for father (爸爸 – bà ba). You will notice that there isn’t a tone mark on the second character. You put the emphasis on the first character, using the fourth tone, but do not need to do so for the second. This rule is true for all of these words:

  • father (爸爸 – bà ba)

  • mother (妈妈 – mā ma)

  • older sister (姐姐 – jiě jie)

  • older brother (哥哥 – gē ge)

  • younger sister (妹妹 – mèi mei)

  • younger brother (弟弟 – dì di)

The Third Tone

This tone gives me the most trouble, and that’s true for most people who decide to study Chinese. The rising-falling tone, it’s especially hard to use correctly in day to day speech. Here are a few important things to remember about the frustrating third tone:

Only Pronounce the First Part

If you listen carefully to Chinese people speaking, you’ll notice that they rarely, if ever, actually fully pronounce the third tone. More often than not, they cut off the rising part of the third tone. “But doesn’t that make it just a falling tone, which is the same as the fourth tone?” you may be asking yourself. Yes, that’s exactly right. It is still different from the fourth tone, however, as your voice starts from a lower position. The best way to explain it in simple terms is that the fourth tone usually sounds like you are yelling. Imagine when your dog jumps on the table when your back is turned and eats your delicious sandwich – “No! Bad dog!” That’s what the fourth tone sounds like. Your voice starts high and falls drastically and quickly. However, when pronouncing the third tone, your voice starts lower, and thus doesn’t sound so angry. It sounds more like a sigh than a yell. That’s not all for the dastardly third tone, though.

Two Consecutive Third Tones

When there are two consecutive third tones, the first one actually becomes the second tone. I know, it’s complicated. The best and easiest example of this is the Chinese word for hello (你好 – nǐ hǎo). In spoken Chinese, you should actually change the tone of the first character, so it becomes ní hǎo. Combine this with the rule we learned above, and the way you say hello in Chinese properly is actually to have your voice rise for the first character and fall slightly for the second. You don’t need to fall-rise and then fall-rise again at all. Just listen closely when people greet you, and do your best to match their pronunciation.

A nice little tutorial about how to handle two consecutive third tones.

Changing the Tones for “One” and “No”

When speaking, you also need to remember to change your tones for the Chinese words for “one” and “no.” As the rules are a bit different, let’s take a close look at each:

One

The Chinese word for one (一 – yī) is pronounced using the first tone on its own. However, when the word is followed by another first tone, the second, or third tone, it changes to the fourth. Just look at these examples:

  • a few (一些 – yì xiē)

  • go straight (一直走 – yì zhí zǒu)

  • a little (一点 – yì diǎn)

  • one glass (一杯 – yì bēi)

  • a pair of pants (一条裤子 – yì tiáo kù zi)

  • one chair (一把椅子 – yì bǎ yǐ zi)

Notice that in all of those examples, the word for “one” changed from the first tone to the fourth tone. Now, what happens when it is followed by the the fourth tone? Easy – it changes to the second tone:

  • certain (一定 – yí dìng)

  • one bicycle (一辆自行车 – yí liàng zì xíng chē)

  • bon voyage/safe travels (一路平安 – yí lù píng ān)

Follow this video for more practice.

No

This character – 不 – is very versatile, as it can be used to mean “no,” “not,” “don’t,” “non-,” and so on. Usually, it is pronounced with a fourth tone – bù. There’s only one rule that you need to remember for this character. When followed by another fourth tone, this one is changed to the second tone. As such, your voice will rise and then fall. Practice these examples:

  • don’t want (不要 – bú yào)

  • don’t mention it/you’re welcome (不谢 – bú xiè)

  • am/are/is not (不是 – bú shì)

Another good video to follow.

 

Keep these rules in mind when you are practicing Chinese, but don’t kill yourself over them. People will understand you even if you make a few tonal mistakes, and Chinese people are often very generous with their compliments, even if your Chinese isn’t that great (like mine).

 

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About the Author:sasha

Sasha is an English teacher, writer, photographer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently trying the digital nomad lifestyle across Latin America.


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