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What Are The Tones In Mandarin?

By Yann, published on 29/11/2018 We Love Prof - IN > Languages > Chinese > All About The Different Chinese Tones!

Language is the key to unravelling communication. Anywhere that living things exist they have developed a way to communicate, from humans to plants. The key to communicating with a human at least is learning how to speak their native language verbally. Learning languages can seem intimidating and too much like hard work, but the gift of Language is the gift that just keeps giving.

When learning to speak Mandarin with its 5 Chinese tones and lack of verbal conjugations. You not only get to learn about what it is that you want to say. But you also get the opportunity to learn more about the people, the history, the language and culture of the country. Learning languages has many benefits and is something that all of us should do sometime in our lifetime.

Even though words may seem to be the most important thing to focus on when learning a new language. It is important to know that not all communication is made up of just words. Body language, tone, intonation and stress, all play a major part in communication.

What Are Tonal Languages

On the Asian continent, many languages use a tonal structure. In fact, almost 65% of the languages in the world, use this structure. Languages including Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamese, Punjabi, Thai and Chinese Cantonese all use tones. These variety of tones are imperative for correct communication. Since these languages are not spoken by the majority of the population in Europe, the idea of tones is sometimes difficult to adapt.

Tonal languages are based on the pitch that you speak to communicate a word. This is not, however, the same as intonation which indicates the mood or emotion of what it is that you are saying. If you were speaking in a Tonal language and said, ‘Ma’ for example, the meaning of this word would change depending on the pitch that you used to say it. Completely contrary to this is the intonation which injects emotion into your communication. For example, you could say ‘Ma’ with many intonations, and you could express surprise, a question or disdain; but it would have the same meaning.

This may sound complex, but most languages that use a tonal system to communicate have some written accents that accompany the written word to help people learn how to say it. These accents work as a guide in the same way that question marks or exclamations work for speaking languages such as English or like those languages of Latin roots which have accents; like those in written Spanish and French.

When speaking English, you will use intonation and stress on words to communicate meaning while Mandarin Chinese is a good example of a language that uses five tones to communicate meaning. Chinese is the most spoken language on the planet, so even though this may seem complicated or new to you. Over one billion Chinese and non-Chinese speakers are currently using this tonal system to communicate.

What Is The Tonal System In Chinese

One of the first blocks that people face when they are attempting to learn Chinese. Is to learn to understand the tonal structure of the Mandarin Language. Thankfully Mandarin only uses five different tones within the language structure. Cantonese, for example, has nine tones which is sure to be much more challenging to master.

Tones are a fixed range of pitch. Tones in Mandarin Chinese are called shēngdiào. Image Source: Ava’s Design

A tone in Chinese determines the way that you will voice the word which communicates the meaning of the word and the sentence.

  1. The first tone is neutral in the highest part of your voice.
  2. The second tone rises towards the highest part of your voice.
  3. The third tone falls then rises towards the highest part of your voice.
  4. The fourth tone falls to the lowest part of your voice.
  5. The neutral tone also called the “fifth tone” is like a short mid tone exclamation.

As you can see from the information in the chart, each tone has its own level with level 5 being the highest pitch in your voice and 1 being the lowest pitch in your voice. When using these tones, there is no need to change your voice as you already have the perfect range within your range of natural speech.

  1. The first tone is at level 5.
  2. The second passes from a level 3 to 5.
  3. The third goes through a combination 2 – 1 – 4.
  4. The fourth passes from 5 to 1.
  5. The fifth is very short without a range and is heard within the tone of 3.

To continue to study the tones, we will use PinYin (Hanyu PinYin) which is the Chinese system created to convert Chinese characters into Latin characters. This allows non-Chinese speakers to read the words as they are written and also to see clearly the accents as used on words to indicate the different tones used.

PinYin is very useful for foreign people who are learning Chinese however whenever you see Chinese written in this way remember that this is not how Chinese people write. PinYin is an aid used in very few real-life situations, although in some larger westernised cities such as Shanghai you may find PinYin on street signs, it is best in all cases to learn real Chinese characters.

The tones in Mandarin Chinese clarify the meaning. Tones can cause miscommunication if spoken incorrectly. Photo Source: Unsplash

Learning About The First Tone In Mandarin

This is the most straightforward tone to understand in the Chinese language since it is the most neutral tone. This first tone is characterised by the following elements:

  1. No intonation on the word.
  2. The vowels are stable.
  3. The tone is flat.
  4. The pronunciation is in a “high pitch” note.

In phonetic transcription, the first tone will materialize through a flat accent on the word. The most common example of the first tone is ‘mā’ (the mother). In Chinese writing, the only thing that changes when the tone changes are the accents on the words, and this Chinese accent is very important to help you to understand how to say the word.

The Corresponding Pinyin Accent For The First Tone

As the verbal characteristics of the first tone, the written accent is flat and looks like the letter is wearing a hat. This is the letter Ā ā that has the accent indicating that it should be said using the first tone.

Finding The First Tone In English

Generally, regarding pronunciation, the first tone corresponds in to English with the sound you make when someone asks a question that you can’t think of the answer to, and you reply ‘errrrrr’ as if you are trying to find the answer. Now look back at the graph above and say errrrr, this is the first tone in Mandarin.

First Tone Pinyin In Action

Now let’s take a look at the first tone within some real Chinese Mandarin sentence examples:

  1. zhōng guó which means China.
  2. zhōng wén which mean Chinese.
  3. bāng máng Which means to help.

A full sentence using Chinese words and phrases:

  • zhōng guó rén shuō zhōng wén – this means Chinese people speak Chinese.

As you can see from the examples the accent of the first tone is easy to identify and differentiate from the other tone accents.

Learning About The Second Tone In Mandarin

The second tone follows an ascending curve. It starts from a Middle tone and rises up towards a high tone. This is like the English expression of surprise or when asking a question, like when you pronounce “Hello? ” after answering your phone.

Keeping the same letters, as used for the first tone example má now means hemp. Notice that the accent mark has now changed. This second tone is characterised by the following elements:

  1. The tone is rising.
  2. The pronunciation starts on a ‘Mid-tone and moves towards high note.

The Corresponding Pinyin Accent For The Second Tone

Like the visual characteristics of the second tone, the written accent is rising up and looks like a line rising up at its end. This is the letter Áá which has the accent that indicates it should be spoken using the second tone.

Finding The Second Tone In English

Generally, regarding pronunciation, this corresponds in English to the sound you make when someone calls you, and you answer with “yeah”?. Now look back at the Pinyin chart above and say ‘Yeah?’, this is the Second tone in Mandarin.

Second Tone Pinyin In Action

Now looking at the second tone within some real Chinese Mandarin examples:

  1. fáng jiān which means room.
  2. zuó tiān which means yesterday.
  3. xióng māo which means panda.

A Full Sentence In Mandarin:

  • zhōng guó rén shuō zhōng wén this means Chinese people speak Chinese.

As you can see from this example the accent of the second tone is easy to identify and differentiate from the other tones.

Learning About The Third Tone In Mandarin

The third tone follows a falling then ascending curve which gives it a distinctive shortened ‘Nike tick’ or ‘V’ appearance. It starts from a Mid-tone drops to a Low tone then and rises up towards a high tone. This is like a mix of the English expression of suspicion, confusion and astonishment. If someone gave you a £1,000 tip for doing good work you might say ‘Really?!’. Your voice would go down first because you don’t believe it then it would rise up again at the end with a questioning astonishment as you hope it is true.

Keeping the same letters, as used for the previous examples, mǎ now means horse. Notice that the accent mark has now changed. This third tone is characterised by the following elements:

  1. The tone is falling and rising.
  2. The pronunciation starts on a ‘Mid-tone and moves towards a low tone then up to a high note.

The Corresponding Pinyin Accent For The Third Tone

Like the auditory characteristics of the third tone, this tone, is written with its accent falling and rising up at the end. It looks something like a tick mark. This is the letter Ǎ ǎ which has the accent that indicates it should be spoken using the third tone. 

Finding The Third Tone Sound for English Speakers

Generally, regarding pronunciation, this corresponds in English to the sound you make when someone offers you something of value, and you ask them with a bit of suspicion, surprise and questioning all in one ‘Really?!’. Now look back at the chart above and say ”Really?!’ (Rea = failing, lly= rising), this is the third tone in Mandarin.

Third Tone Pinyin In Action

Now let’s take a look at the Third tone within some real Chinese Mandarin examples:

  1. píng guǒ which means apple.
  2. méi yǒu which means not; not have; without.
  3. yóu yǒng which means to swim.

A full sentence In Mandarin Including verbs and sentence structure:

  • méi yǒu ná píng guǒ hé niú nǎi – this means (Someone) hasn’t taken the apple or the milk.

As you can see from the example, the accent of the third tone is easy to identify and differentiate from the other tones.

 Chinese Mandarin has five tones Chinese languages are tonal. Photo Source: Unsplash

Learning About The Fourth Tone In Mandarin

Keeping the same letters, as used for the previous examples, mà now means to curse. Notice that the accent mark has now changed. This tone is considered a reflection of the second tone.  This forth tone is characterised by the following elements:

  • Descendant (going down).
  • Starts high and ends low.
  • It is a short and sharp sound.

The Corresponding Pinyin Accent For Fourth Tone

Like the auditory characteristics of the Forth tone, this tone, is written with its accent falling. This is the letter À à which shows the accent that indicates it should be spoken using the Fourth tone.

The Fourth Tone In The English Language

Generally, regarding pronunciation, this corresponds in English to the sound you make when you hit your toe against the door frame and shout  ‘Aow!!!’, this is the Forth tone in Mandarin.

Fourth Tone Pinyin In Action

Now let’s take a look at the fourth tone within some real Chinese Mandarin examples:

  1. qián miàn which means the front.
  2. yán sè which means colour.
  3. wén huà which means culture.

A full sentence structure that has been conjugated in the present tense:

  • wén huà hé xí guàn yí yàng this means (Their) cultures and customs are the same.

As you can see from the example the accent of the Fourth tone is easy to identify and differentiate from the other tones.

Learning About The Fifth Tone In Mandarin

The fifth tone is the hardest tone to grasp as it doesn’t have a written accent in Chinese Pinyin, although occasionally you will see it with a small dot above the letter. This is because the fifth tone is something of a vagabond, as it can be used at any pitch and has no real tone of its own. It is almost the absence of any fixed tone. The fifth tone is dependent solely on sentence construction.

The Fifth Tone When Vocalised Is:

  1. A short and sharp sound.

This sound is like tapping your pen on a desk once very quickly. You can vocalise it with any letter, and it is swift. It is essential to know this tone and to be particularly attentive to distinguishing it when speaking.

It is essential to master all five tones if you hope to learn to learn to speak Chinese fluently. Why? Because the tones are central to clear communication in the language and no matter whether you are in Beijing or Taiwan. You will have trouble making yourself understood if you keep an English intonation or neglect the tones. Our top tip for learning how to use the five tones of Mandarin Chinese is that You had better practice, practice, practice. Good Luck.

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