Learn Chinese Tones
You need to grasp the basics of Chinese tones if you want to speak Mandarin well. Our video tutorial on tones is presented first here in the 'learn pinyin' series, because, as regards Mandarin pronunciation, it is the most critical piece in laying a strong foundation.
When watching the video, which appears a bit further down the page, be sure to practice along with Audrey when she prompts you to speak. In fact, you may want to just scroll down to the video now and get to the workout, or get primed first with a bit of my commentary...
The Four Tones Explained
To put it in the simplest terms, the Chinese tones are the way your voice rises or falls in pitch as you pronounce the sounds of the Chinese language. The meaning of otherwise identical sounds will change according to the tone you give the sound.
When I first told this to my friend, who had never learned any Chinese before, his reply was, “Oh, that’s no big deal. English is the same way.”
Actually this view is both right and wrong. But I’d have to say, a bit more wrong, in this case.
Yes, the way we use intonation can affect our meaning in English, too. If our voice rises at the end of a sentence, what otherwise might be a statement, instead becomes a question. And in many ways we can subtly, or not so subtly, change our meaning by our intonation, indicating doubt, or giving stronger emphasis to certain words, and so forth.
But the thing is, no matter what you do with raising your voice, or letting the pitch drop or hang on a syllable, you’ll never turn the meaning of ‘horse’ into ‘mother’, or ‘sugar’ into ‘soup’.
In Mandarin Chinese, however, this is the way things stand.
And the reality is so much a part of the language, most native speakers never stop to wonder about it. (Though you may come across some amusing jokes that make use of wordplay by switching out tones.)
'Get' Chinese Tones in Under 10 Minutes
What if my tones are a little off? Won't I still be understood?
It is very normal when we first start out to learn Mandarin, to believe that if we fudge our tones a bit, we’ll still get by ok. But this is a mistake. And if you’re not getting a lot of feedback from native speakers as you learn, to show you just how wrong you are in thinking this way, then you could be setting yourself up for some big disappointment down the road if you relax your vigilance regarding Chinese tones.
From the perspective of a native Chinese speaker, you should understand that a Chinese tone carries no less meaning to her ear, as, say, a consonant does to our own. Look at an example:
If you say ‘bao’ to mean something is ‘thin’, but you use the third tone, instead of the second, you are expressing perhaps that you have had enough to eat and are ‘full’.
Imagine how you would confuse someone if you meant to say ‘full’, in a sentence but, instead said ‘bull’! When you unintentionally trade one tone for another, to a native speakers’ ear, you’ve worked no less of an alteration than if, in English you made such a change.
Do Chinese tones make learning Chinese impossibly hard?
Let’s approach this question with a level head. First of all, I’m certainly not going to kid you, in the beginning stages of learning Mandarin, the tones will be troublesome for you.
But let me also say that your own expectations are important here. If your idea of learning a foreign language just doesn’t accommodate for this problem, then you will feel like you are in a real uphill battle.
For example, you may already have the expectation that you will have to expend a lot of time and energy building Chinese vocabulary as part of your language learning load. And so you don’t throw up your hands and say ‘Oh, I must learn so many new words! What an awful task!”
Most people never adopt such an attitude, because they simply have the expectation that in learning a foreign language, they must acquire many words over a relatively long period of time.
So you can begin right now by understanding that both in regards to speaking them, and in hearing them, Chinese tones are going to demand some effort on your part. And they will require some time to gradually improve.
But mastery, or I should say competency with these tones is absolutely achievable. With most people, by an intermediate level, and for some learners, even before this, tones aren’t much of a thorn in the side anymore.
And that’s the first part of the good news. The other bit of good news is that while tones will be making demands on your learning resources, there are aspects of Chinese that demand less energy than if you were learning another language. Most notably, Chinese grammar, compared to English, for example, is actually quite simple.
So in closing, I’ll sum up by saying: Chinese tones are very important, if you want to be understood.
And of course you do.
Beginning learners, mentally prepare yourself that these tones are a part of learning to communicate in Chinese that will involve a bit of struggle and effort (and time).
And don’t worry, everything will turn out okay! What's more, as you develop a love for the language that you are learning, you will appreciate the important role that tones play in contributing to the special feel and distinct character of Chinese speech.