You may already k now that Chinese is a tonal language, but you may not understand what that means to you as someone who wants to learn how to speak Chinese.
Do the tones matter? Can you master them without being born and raised speaking Chinese?
Don’t worry! Even though the four Mandarin Chinese tones are sometimes hard, and they do matter, anyone who can sing can learn to speak Chinese.
Yes, that includes those who are tone deaf and only sing in the shower.
Why do Tones Matter?
Tones matter when you are speaking in Chinese because the same sound in different tones will have various meanings. For example, “mai” can mean either buy (mǎi)
or sell (mài), and “si” can mean either four (sì) or death (sǐ). Hopefully, you get the point that tones are a huge deal!
Introduction to Tones
Now that you know how important the four tones are, you are probably dying to make sure you learn them correctly to ensure that there are no miscommunications. When reading pinyin, you can identify the tone based on the marks above the vowel.
First Tone “¯”
The first tone is the highest and remains level. It is identified by ¯ above a vowel and is seen as one of the easier tones to learn.
Second Tone “ˊ”
The second tone starts low and goes up. It is an abrupt noise. It is identified by ˊ , and an easy way to think about it is to use your hand or head to make the motion of the sign as you speak. It is also pronounced with the pitch rising as if you were asking a question in English.
Third Tone “ˇ”
The third tone is arguably the hardest out of the Chinese tones to learn. There are a few reasons for this, from the fall in the throat to having to come back up again; it can cause a stumbling block even for the fastest learners.
It is represented by ˇ, and is also known as the falling-rising tone. To pronounce it, you will want to first fall in pitch then go up again, all in a matter of seconds.
The third tone gets tricky when you begin to combine it with other tones, but for now, simply focus on being able to say it properly isolated from any other tones.
Fourth Tone “ˋ”
The fourth tone is a falling tone and goes from high to low. Seen as ˋ, think about forcefully saying “Go!” or another command in English.
Lastly, the fifth tone is a neutral tone that will highly depend on what goes before it. There is no mark to it and is pronounced weakly, almost as if it were an afterthought.
The best way to get better at pronouncing the tones is to practice and listen to examples. Make sure to not only practice by yourself, but also get feedback from others so that you begin to speak Chinese the right way!