Beginners Guide to Chinese Tones

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It’s common to hear from folks studying Mandarin asking whether speaking proper Chinese tones are important. While many are duped into thinking Chinese tones can be ignored, learning proper Chinese tones is 100% essential to becoming a proficient speaker in Mandarin. Let me explain.

What are Chinese tones anyway?

As Mandarin has roughly half the amount of sounds as English, Chinese people use the same sound with different tones of voice to convey different meanings.

Confused? Here’s an example: ‘Ma’ pronounced in five different ways will mean mother, spicy, horse, the verb to yell, and a question particle.

From the example above, you probably guessed that there are five different tones in Mandarin. Each tone is marked with a separate tonal marker to indicate what pitch of voice to use when saying the word. The only exception is the neutral tone, which is not marked with a tonal marker.


So why is learning Chinese tones important?

As tones are an integral part of Chinese, you should start learning them from day one for the following reasons:

  • Native Chinese speakers, especially those not used to speaking with foreigners, cannot understand you if you speak with improper tones.
  • You cannot assume that native Chinese speakers will understand you from the context of the conversation. For example, the words sugar táng and soup tāng have the same pronunciation but different tones. If you were asking me for soup in a restaurant but spoke in the wrong tone, although I know the context of the conversation, I have no idea if you are asking for sugar or soup.
  • Tonal errors are habitual. Once you get in the habit of pronouncing a word with the wrong tone, it is really difficult to break that habit. You can avoid this by paying close attention to tones when learning new vocabulary.

What is the best way to learn Chinese tones?

Speaking with proper tones is something that comes with much practice, but there are a number of ways to help you get started such as the following:

  • Start by learning to hear the difference between each tone. There are plenty of resources for this online such as this video from Chinese Pod.
  • While learning new vocabulary, read new words aloud. This helps you memorize the proper tone in conjunction with the pronunciation and definition of the word.
  • When chatting with native speakers, try to listen out for the tone of each word you recognize. This not only helps reinforce your knowledge of tones you know but also increases awareness of tones not yet ingrained in your long-term memory.
  • Consistently ask native speakers to correct you when making tonal errors.
  • Find yourself a language partner or a tutor to give you more opportunities to practice and improve your tones.
  • Write down tones for every character you learn in your vocabulary notebook. Better yet, color coat tones to coincide with the tonal chart below, which can further assist your memory when struggling to remember the correct tone.

Can tones change in Mandarin?

Once you get beyond learning the basics in Chinese, you will start to notice that tones may change depending on the preceding word.

Take 一 (yī) for example, which is spoken with a first tone. Yet when followed by a character with a fourth tone, yī changes from the first tone to second tone (yì) as shown below:

一个 yígè
一样 yíyàng

Therefore, it is important to not only learn Chinese tones on a character to character basis but how they can change within any given sentence.

Tone change rules vary, but to help familiarize yourself with how tones can change, I recommend reading aloud graded readers such as Chinese Breeze or Du Chinese.

Both feature the tones in pinyin over the Chinese characters for each passage, which is great for general tonal practice and for learning areas where tones can change.

Final Thoughts on Chinese tones

As you start to learn Chinese tones, remember that native Chinese speakers learn to speak with proper tones through listening. If you feel like you are getting nowhere with strategies such as color coating vocabulary or using flashcards, learning like a native through listening is always a great way to master tones in Mandarin.

What are your thoughts on learning tones in Mandarin? Do you have any good strategies for mastering tones? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment!

Author: Kevin Peters

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