Being a tonal language, Chinese has its own tone and pitch that determine the meaning of the word. Understanding Chinese tones is very important to determine the emotions behind the words spoken. You need to understand the sound of Mandarin Chinese tones and master them to hold meaningful Chinese conversations.
Each language has its own distinct sound system. Just like this, Mandarin Chinese also has its own sound system, and tones play an important role in it. The tone of a word determines its meaning in Chinese. When you change the tone or use the incorrect one, you change the meaning of the word.
- 妈 (mā) — mom
- 麻 (má) — hemp or flax
- 马 (mǎ) — horse
- 骂 (mà) — to scold or verbally abuse
- 吗 (ma) — a question particle
While each of these words appears to sound the same, they have different tones and thus different meanings.
If you want to learn Chinese online, you must develop an in-depth understanding of Chinese tones so that you successfully convey your intended meaning while holding a Chinese conversation.
Tones are used in everyday life regardless of the language you speak. In English, for example, the word “dad” can be said in a variety of tones:
- If you are excited to see your father, you might exclaim, “dad!” in a loud, excited voice.
- A child who does not want to do something may argue, “But, daaaad!” in a high-pitched, drawn-out tone.
- If you are looking for your father, you could say, “Dad?” in a rising, questioning tone.
First tone (flat tone)
When your voice becomes higher and flatter, you produce the first tone. The syllable is pronounced with a drawn-out tone that does not drop or rise.
The first tone in pinyin is written as a long line above the vowel or as the number 1 (for example, instead of m, you might see ma1). Because the numerical version isn’t nearly as common as the actual tone mark, you’re unlikely to see it as frequently.
- 妈 (mā) — mother
- 天 (tiān) — sky
- 黑 (hēi) — black
- 一 (yī) — one
- 发 (fā) — to send
- 深 (shēn) — deep
- 瓜 (guā) — melon
- 猫 (māo) — cat
- 三 (sān) — three
- 出 (chū) — to go out
Second tone (rising tone)
The second tone is produced by raising one’s voice. The pitch begins low and gradually rises. It’s written as a rising dash above the vowel or the number 2 (i.e. mang2) in pinyin:
- 忙 (máng) — busy
- 麻 (má) — hemp or flax
- 龙 (lóng) — dragon
- 喉 (hóu) — throat
- 来 (lái) — to come
- 明 (míng) — bright
- 难 (nán) — difficult, hard
- 还 (hái) — to return
- 时 (shí) — time
- 房 (fáng) — house
Third tone (dip tone)
The third tone is one of the most difficult for Mandarin students to master. The pitch decreases before increasing again. The third tone is written in pinyin as a dip above the vowel or the number 3 (i.e. wo3):
- 我 (wǒ) — I/me
- 好 (hǎo) — good
- 你 (nǐ) — you
- 很 (hěn) — very
- 点 (diǎn) — point
- 马 (mǎ) — horse
- 也 (yě) — also
- 狗 (gǒu) — dog
- 小 (xiǎo) — small
- 可 (kě) — can
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Fourth tone (falling tone)
To correctly pronounce the fourth tone, say the word with force, lowering your pitch. The fourth tone is written in pinyin as a falling slant or dash above the vowel, or as the number 4 (i.e. shi4):
- 是 (shì) — to be
- 后 (hòu) — behind
- 不 (bù) — no, not
- 热 (rè) — hot
- 日 (rì) — day
- 四 (sì) — four
- 爸 (bà) — dad, father
- 那 (nà) — that
- 下 (xià) — down
- 去 (qù) — to go
Fifth tone (neutral tone)
It is debatable whether the fifth tone is considered a tone. Instead of making your voice rise or fall, this tone is simply neutral, implying that the word has no tone.
Pinyin does not mark the fifth tone because there is nothing to change or emphasize, though it is occasionally represented by the number 5. (i.e. ma5).
Some neutral tone words include:
- 吧 (ba) — suggestion particle (turns a statement into a suggestion)
- 子 (zi) — child/son (usually comes at the end of words, like 孩子 (hái zi) — child)
- 儿 (er) — R sound
- 的 (de) — possessive particle
- 呢 (ne) — particle for asking questions back to the original asker
Knowing the five contour levels will assist you in determining which pitch to use when pronouncing each tone. However, if it does not help (or makes you more confused), you are free to disregard it.
There are five pitch contour levels:
- 5 = High
- 4 = Mid-high
- 3 = Middle
- 2 = Mid-low
- 1 = Low
- First Tone = Level 5 to Level 5 (or, “high pitch” to “high pitch”)
- Second Tone = Level 3 to Level 5 (or, “middle pitch” to “high pitch”)
- Third Tone = Level 2 to Level 1 to Level 4 (or, “mid-low pitch” to “low pitch” to “mid-high pitch”)
- Fourth Tone = Level 5 to Level 1 (or, “high pitch” to “low pitch”)
- Fifth Tone = no pitch
You should be aware that when Chinese tones are used in specific sequences, they can change. In other words, when certain tones are combined with others, they become different tones.
Third tone + third tone = second tone + third tone
When a third-tone word is followed by another third-tone word, the first tone becomes a second tone.
我很忙 (wǒ hěn máng) — “I am busy” becomes 我很忙 (wó hěn máng)
It is worth noting that the tone change is not written in pinyin. You simply need to remember to change the first word to a different tone.
The third tone can become neutral
When the third tone is followed by another tone, it can become neutral or dropped. This is optional, but many Chinese speakers do it because it reduces effort and speeds up speech.
Even if you don’t use it, you should be ready if a Chinese speaker does. For example, (kosh) — “test” can be shortened to (kaosh). Again, pinyin does not indicate this tone change.
一 (Yī) + fourth tone = 一 (Yí) + fourth tone
When followed by a fourth tone, the word (y) — “one” changes to a second tone.
You’ve probably witnessed this without even realizing it. Unlike most other tone changes, this one is marked for you in many textbooks and online courses.
- 一下 (yī xià) — “a bit” becomes 一下 (yí xià)
- 一定 (yī dìng) — “definitely” becomes 一定 (yí dìng)
一 (Yī) + any tone = 一 (Yì) + any tone
Any time 一 (yī) is paired with another tone, it changes to a fourth tone: 一 (yì).
- 一般 (yī bān) — “usually” becomes 一般 (yì bān).
一 (Yī) can become a neutral tone
When placed between two words, 一 (yī), like the third tone, can lose its tone. Dropping the tone is optional, but the same rules apply if you don’t.
- 休息一下 (xiūxi yī xià) — “to rest a bit” becomes either:
- 休息一下 (xiūxi yí xià) with a second tone, or
- 休息一下 (xiūxi yi xià) with a neutral tone.
- 快一点 (kuài yī diǎn) becomes either:
- 快一点 (kuài yì diǎn), or
- 快一点 (kuài yi diǎn).
The number 一 (Yī) stays the same
When counting, the number 一 (yī) does not change its tone. However, the number 一百二十六 (yī bǎi èr shí liù) — “126” becomes 一百二十六 (yì bǎi èr shí liù).
This is also true when counting items, such as 一个苹果 (yī gè píng guǒ) — “one apple,” which changes to 一个苹果 (yí gè píng guǒ).
The key to mastering tones in a short period of time is not simply repetition. It is how you practice and what resources you use.
You can write the tones on paper. Just like, you practice vocabulary words while highlighting Chinese words in English, this exercise will help you understand Chinese tones.
Tones can be just as difficult to hear and recognize as they are to pronounce. Finding a good audio source and listening to it while attempting to identify tones and tone pairs is an excellent way to improve listening comprehension.
Learning Chinese tones is surely not an overnight process. You will master these Chinese tones if you consistently work on them. Learning a foreign language seems difficult at the start.
Every language has its own style and techniques, for instance, there are several ways to say thank you in Chinese. Once you started learning Chinese, you will learn these techniques gradually.