Learning Chinese, besides the humongous amount of characters to memorize, the Chinese tones trouble many non native Chinese language learners. Chinese is a tonal language. If you want to speak the language perfectly, it is essential to master the tones. When the tones were not spoken correctly, you could totally change the meaning of the words which you want to express. For example, when you want to say ” Do you like dumplings?” 你喜还水饺吗？ Ni3 xi3 huan1 shui3 jiao3 ma5? If you don’t pronounce the shui3 jiao3 correctly (both third tones), you would probably alter the meaning and make it sound like shui4 jiao4 (both fourth tones). Then it becomes 你喜欢睡觉吗？”Do you like to sleep?” Hope this article will help you master the tones better and make you able to express what you intend to express without confusion.
The five Chinese tones:
First tone, high-level and flat tone: a steady high sound, as if it were being sung instead of spoken. Think about the —-ding—– sound when the microwave sounds when your food is ready. The tone can be mark as ma1 or
Second tone, rising tone, or linguistically, high-rising: is a sound that rises from mid-level tone to high. When say the second tone it is similar to say “What?” in English. It starts in the middle of the voice and rises to top. The tone can be marked as ma2 or
Third tone, low tone, or low-falling-raising: It is a deeper rising sound. The tone starts low, and then rises. It is differentiated from a second tone because it starts lower, dips down just a little, and then rises. The closest approximation in English is probably “huh?” when said in disgust. The tone can be marked as ma3 or
Fourth tone, falling tone, or high-falling: It is the shortest tone. It sounds like an angry “No!” Sometimes fourth tone is described as a “scolding” tone because it is terse and quick. The tone can be marked as ma4 or
Fifth tone or neutral tone or zero tone
The neutral tone is also called the fifth tone or zero tone (in Chinese: 輕聲/轻声 qīngshēng, literally means “light tone”). Particles and the second syllables in some phrases lack a tone. The exact tone that these syllables take depends on the tone that came in the previous syllable, but the neutral tone is always short and light, about half the length of a full syllable. If it was a first tone, the neutral tone is a little lower than the first tone. If it is after a second tone, the neutral tone is near the same pitch as the high end of the second tone. If it is after a third tone, it is after a little higher than the end of the third tone. If it is after a fourth tone, the neutral tone is a little lower than the end of the fourth tone. Neutral tone can be marked as ma5 or ma
Some tone change rules:
1. When two 3rd tones are used together the first 3rd tone becomes a 2nd tone:
For example: Ni3 hao3 becomes ni2 hao3 你好, xiao3 guo3 becomes xiao2 gou3 小狗
Yi (one) is a first tone syllable, but when it comes before the first, second, or third tones it is pronounced in the fourth tone:
Yi4 jia1 (one family) 一家
Yi4 nian2 (one year) 一年
Yi4 dian3 (one dot) 一点
When yi 一 comes before a fourth tone, it is pronounced in the second tone:
Yi2 ding4 (definitely)
bu4 不 (negating adverb) is a fourth tone syllable, but when it is used before another fourth tone, it is pronounced in the second tone:
Bu2 yao4 (don’t want)
Bu2 xie4 (no need to thank, or don’t mention it)
Try to exaggerate the tones as much as you can. Good tonal emphasis can lead you to better pronunciation of the Chinese five tones.
There is a master tone game you might want to practice a bit.