There are lots of Brits who struggle to learn foreign languages. In fact, many of us “study” a language the whole time we’re at school and somehow manage to leave without ever being able to speak it.
The Chinese language (and the Mandarin variety spoken principally in Beijing, in particular) has a reputation of being difficult to master.
Learning Chinese Mandarin, which is principally spoken in mainland China and Taiwan (Republic of China), can seem impossible and the writing system is almost impossible to decipher if you've grown up using the Latin Alphabet. Chinese pronunciation isn't much easier, either!
When you learn Chinese, you’ll quickly come across the concept of tones as you start to get to grips with some basic vocabulary and phrases.
It's not uncommon for a gifted learner to give up private Chinese tutorials do so because of the seemingly insurmountable challenge of mastering the tones in Chinese.
Something that started out as a minor annoyance can quickly into a massive thorn in your side. It’s better to avoid this kind of situation by getting to grips completely with this concept. You'll come across this almost immediately when you learn Mandarin so instead of shying away from this language learning challenge, why not embrace it and learn as much as you can during your Chinese lessons?
Discover our tips for most effective Mandarin learning...
What Are Tones?
English, much like German and Dutch, is not a tonal language. Mandarin, on the other hand, is. This means the same syllables in different contexts can be differentiated by using different pitches.
Linguists traditionally identify 4 different tones in Chinese. They can add a 4th dimension to Chinese languages which distinguish them from other languages by their use of pitch to change the meaning of syllables.
Turn your vocal chords into a musical instrument and see how pitch can be used to distinguish the four tones in Mandarin.
Thus, a syllable like “ma” (which is a common example used by Mandarin teachers) can have four meanings depending on the tone used. Tones in Chinese mean that several different phonetic interpretations of each character are possible.
In comparison, with 9 tones in total, Cantonese has even more tones than Mandarin. This inevitably can lead to a huge number of misunderstandings for non-native speakers of the language.
If you're struggling with written Chinese, don’t forget about the Chinese Pinyin system, either!
The Importance of Stress in Chinese
Mastering tones in Chinese is essential if you want to speak well and make yourself understood.
Intonation isn’t just used for expression emotions, after all. It’s used as an integral part of a sentence and should be considered as important to the meaning of a sentence as grammar is. Imagine you want to be polite but instead say a swearword because your tone wasn’t right...
With errors like this, it may be better to just focus on the tones and how Chinese is pronounced at the expense of learning the language.
Of course, a beginner isn’t expected to be able to decipher any given ideogram in their first year of Chinese classes. Instead, they can use Latin transcriptions of Chinese characters in order to better help them learn how to pronounce the words. In this case, the tones are differentiated using different accents or “diacritics”.
The best way to understand the importance of tones in Chinese is by looking at the Yuen Ren Chao’s Mandarin masterpiece, “The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den”. Throughout the poem, there is one syllable that keeps cropping up: shi.
Without the use of tones, the text ends up completely incomprehensible when read aloud. It should be added that this work was facilitated by calling the poet “Shi”, too.
Also consider which variation of Chinese you should learn...
Everything You Need to Know about the First Tone (阴平)
The first tone in Chinese is arguably the simplest. It's a flat tone using a high pitch. Logically, when written out in the Latin Alphabet, this tone is indicated by a flat accent. Let’s go back to the example we used before which will give us mā (mother) in the first tone.
While this might seem easy, you need to pay attention: it can be very difficult to hold a note (given that your muscles tremble a little bit) and even harder when you have to hold a high note.
Don’t worry about wavering in the beginning. If you remain calm and keep practising, you’ll get it! The best way is to start with a quick “la” like a singer would do in their warm up exercises.
Learn more about Chinese history, too!
Mandarin’s Second Tone (阳平)
The second tone follows a rising curve: It starts low and gets increasingly higher.
This uses an acute accent which points upwards just like the rising voice: má (to bother).
It’s a bit like the intonation you use to answer the phone: “Hello?”
The Third Tone in Mandarin Chinese (上声)
The third tone is probably the most unusual one for Europeans to pronounce. You don’t follow a straight route but rather descend from a mid-level tone before rising upwards to an even higher pitch.
That’s why this tone is indicated in the Latin Alphabet using a caron, an inverted circumflex accent.
For example: mǎ (horse).
In English, the accent would be a bit like pronouncing the word “what!?” as if you’ve been completely shocked by what you’ve just heard. As you can see, the third tone in Mandarin is probably one of the most complicated ones. It can sometimes seem completely impossible to say in certain sentences...
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules, too.
If the third tone appears in a sentence followed by another third tone, the first of the two is actually pronounced like the second tone while both of them are still written as third tones.
Generally speaking, when the third tone is followed by another tone (of any kind), it’s cut more so than it would be on its own and doesn’t rise as high. This makes it easier to speak but harder for learners to distinguish it.
Find out more about Chinese multilingualism...
The Fourth Tone (去声)
The last tone in Mandarin Chinese resembles the second tone but in reverse. You start as high as possible (using the same pitch as the first tone) before steadily descending until you reach the same low point as the third tone.
Unsurprisingly, this tone uses the grave accent (which points downwards) in the Latin alphabet: mà (to scold). It’s a tone that can sound somewhat angry. You should pronounce it as if you were giving an order to somebody.
A Fifth Tone? (轻声)
Did you honestly think that we’d finished? Of course not! While experts in Chinese generally agree that there are four tones in Chinese, there are lists where a fifth tone is added. This is known as the neutral tone by specialists.
It’s not as easy to hear as you might think. You’ll need a keen ear to be able to distinguish it. This tone (or absence of tone, maybe?) is emphasised by an unchanging vowel: ma (an interrogative particle).
Find out more about Chinese’s influence around Asia.
How Can You Master the Tones in Mandarin Chinese?
After reading about the complexities of tones in Chinese, you probably aren’t that interested in learning them any more! However, you should grab the bull by the horns (or the dragon by the tail, perhaps?) and start practising. It’s not impossible, after all.
Learning Mandarin Chinese isn't something you need to do alone! In fact, it’s very easy to get help from the comfort of your own home while sitting in front of your computer: You'll find absolutely tonnes of resources to learn Chinese online.
Technology is great for those who’ve started to learn Chinese with a key goal in mind. You can listen to the language and find interactive and audiovisual resources to help you learn how to hear and use the different tones.
Otherwise, you can always get Chinese tutorials from a qualified and experience private tutor. There are also plenty of academic establishments that are offering classes in Chinese either as night classes or as degrees in Chinese.
When I settled on Chinese as my second language, I found a Superprof to give me Mandarin lessons!
Private extracurricular organisations also offer group sessions and classes for younger students wanting to learn Chinese since the demand for the language is increasing.
A private tutor can adapt to the needs of their student. While nobody’s perfect, with just one student, an educator can focus on their strengths and weaknesses in order to ensure that they learn as much as possible during every hour spent with them.
You could always travel to a country where they speak Chinese and work for either a Chinese or Western company. However, it can be expensive, complicated, and a long way to travel.
If you’re not able to travel or attend classes, you could always do a correspondence course while looking for speaking activities on the Internet to boost your oral.
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