The 4 Tones in Chinese You Need to Master
Tones are a crucial part of learning the Mandarin Chinese language as they can change the meaning of any word. By pronouncing the tones correctly, not only do you make your speech clear and easy to follow, but you can also improve your listening skills and understand native Mandarin speakers better.
Here’s an example to demonstrate that: take a look at these three completely different words:
教师 (jiàoshī; teacher)
教室 (jiàoshì; classroom)
礁石 (jiāoshí; reef)
As you can see from their pinyin, they sound almost exactly the same, apart from the slight tone difference!
We will introduce the four essential tones in Chinese Mandarin and explain why learning them is important.
What are Mandarin tones?
Chinese is a tonal language. That means Chinese words have pitches. Why is that? The reason for tones in Chinese is pretty simple: there are significantly fewer sound variants (around 400) in Chinese than in most other languages (English has about 12,000). That’s when tones come in—to differentiate otherwise identical sounds!
Many newbie learners may think of Mandarin tones as just intonation, but they are not the same thing! Tones create different words and meanings, rather than just a way to convey emotions.
How many tones does Mandarin have?
There are four tones in total. There is also a fifth tone, known as the neutral tone meaning that the word has normal proinicaitoj
Here are their basic definitions and how you pronounce these four Mandarin tones:
First tone: the singing tone
Also known as the high-level tone, this tone is high and flat.
To pronounce it, keep your voice pitch high and level. The first tone usually sounds longer than the other three tones, too. Practice pronouncing this tone by saying ‘aaa’ – say it in a moderately high pitch and keep the sound steady till the end.
Second tone: the question tone
Also known as the rising tone, the second tone has a quick and rising intonation.
Imagine when you ask your friend ‘what?’ as the second tone has the same pronunciation. It starts from a lower pitch, rises, and ends at a higher pitch.
Third tone: the thinking tone
Also known as the low-pitch rising tone, the third tone starts normal, dips low, and then goes into a rising tone all in one go.
It may sound a bit confusing and complicated. Unfortunately, it really can be! The third tone is the trickiest of the four Mandarin tones.
Let me explain.
According to any standard Chinese textbook, the third tone should be pronounced in the following order: start at a moderately low pitch, then dip to a lower one before rising high.
However, many linguists have observed that the third tone is only low-dipping-rising when used in isolation, in contrast with another syllable, or to emphasize something. In most situations, though, the third tone simply dips.
Fourth tone: Reject Tone
Also known as the falling tone or the assertive tone, the fourth tone starts high and ends low.
With the fourth tone, you start from a high pitch and drop sharply to a low pitch. Many learning resources compare this tone to an angry command in English like “Now!’ or ‘Stop!’.
It also usually has a shorter sound than the other tones.
Besides these four basic tones, there’s also another tone called the neutral tone. The neutral tone is not listed as the fifth tone because it does not have a defined pitch contour. The neutral tone is pronounced quickly and lightly. Keep the sound short, and don’t emphasize it!
This tone is usually easy to recognize. Remember that single-syllable words cannot have a neutral tone.
What do Mandarin tones look like in Chinese writing and reading?
Mandarin words use a system called pinyin to show tones and how to pronounce words properly for learners.
Pinyin is the standardized spelling of Mandarin words with the English alphabet, making it easier for Chinese-language learners to pronounce the characters.
It serves the same purpose as phonetics in the English language. Plus, you will see how tones can change a word’s meaning. Let’s take a look!
Tone marks and Pinyin number
high and flat
̄ or 1
mā or ma1
́ or 2
má or ma2
˅ or 3
mǎ or ma3
` or 4
mà or ma4
5 or 0
Chinese particle-question marker
Syllables with a neutral tone have no tone mark (ma), or they are sometimes marked with the number 5 (ma5) or 0 (ma0).
How important are Chinese tones?
Some say tones aren’t important as they find that even when they pronounce Chinese tones incorrectly, local people can still understand them most of the time. The reasoning is because of the context and vocabulary they use. So what’s the fuss about tones?
While you can get away from using the wrong Mandarin tones, that doesn’t mean they are not important! Actually, the point is valid if you’re learning Chinese for a short period of time like for business or a holiday.
Think of Chinese tones as English vowels. For example, ‘Bad’ and ‘bed’ are two totally different words, but if someone says to you, ‘I’m sleepy. I’m going to bad now’, you will still 100% understand what they mean. That being said, it’s not the proper way to speak as native speakers don’t make those mistakes.
Mandarin Chinese tones are an integral part of the language, so don’t presume you’ll be understood when you use the wrong tone!
Frequently asked questions
What are the 5 tones in Chinese?
The 5 tones in Chinese are the first tone (singing tone), the second tone (question or rising tone), the third tone (thinking or dip tone), the fourth tone (singing or falling tone), and the fifth tone (neutral tone).
What are the tones of Chinese words?
There are 4 tones to know with a 5th neutral tone. To know which tones Chinese words are, look at the pinyin and tone markers above the vowel. From there, you will know the tones of Chinese words.
What is the 4 tone of Ma in Mandarin?
First tone of ma (妈): mā, ma1. The second tone of ma (麻): má, ma2. The third tone of ma (马): mǎ, ma3. The fourth tone of ma (骂): mà, ma4. There is a fifth tone of ma, 吗, which is the neutral tone. There is no special marker for the fifth tone.
As you can see, different tones in Chinese result in different meanings. That’s why you should study these tones right at the beginning of your Mandarin learning journey. They define what you mean and make your communication easier to follow and understand.