Introduction to Chinese tones

The beginning of any spoken Chinese learning journey is learning how to pronounce tones. This video, audio and article explain the function of Chinese tones in the language.

Chinese is a “tonal” language. What that means is that each syllable is pronounced not only with particular movement of your mouth to make the “shape” of the sound, but also with a very specific tone, by tone we mean the pitch of your voice as you pronounce a syllable — The tone used when pronouncing a syllable is a critical part of the pronunciation. Due to the existence of Chinese tones, learning Chinese is significantly different from learning other languages because they add unique new dimensions to the pronunciation of words.

Unlike many other languages, in Chinese you cannot simply launch into a word-learning frenzy, in Chinese the pronunciation of words is unique and uniquely challenging for western learners, and as such it requires a bit of work before you can even learn your first words.

English as an analogy

Well, since we are clearly English speaking, we can start from there. English has tones too, in English tones have a very different function than in Chinese, however they still exist. Since we are all learning Chinese from English it is beneficial to draw an analogy.

In English tones are used primary for inflection and they serve a grammatical function, but in Chinese tones have a much greater impact of the meaning of each individual word.

For example, think of different tones you could use to pronounce the word “so”, I am going to give several examples and in your mind you can imagine how you would pronounce them.

  • “So, you thought you could rival me!” — in this case perhaps the “so” is sharp and quick.
  • Now — your mother moans to you that the dishes are unwashed, your response “So?” — in this case your tone is rising, in an indication of cheek or rebellion.
  • Now imagine you are simply curious but not challenging about a question “So, why did you break up with him then?” — in this case perhaps the “so” is a level tone or constant pitch.

In each of these cases the tone is similar to a specific Chinese tone. But in Chinese, these three “so”s with different tones would actually be three separate and distinct words, they can be as radically different in meaning as the words “cheap”, “speed”, and “cosmology”. (I.E in most cases, absolutely no connection in meaning).

How many tones does Chinese have?

Chinese has four “formal” tones, and five if you count the so-called “neutral” or “staccato” tone. The next lessons go over these in detail.

Do any of the tones themselves have any meaningful significance?

While the tone of a word has a direct impact on the meaning of the word (or, put more correctly, the way each character in Chinese is pronounced includes a specific tone, and without that tone the pronunciation is incorrect), the tone that any particular word has in modern Chinese is merely a coincidence of the evolution of the language and has no particular significance.

Can I learn Chinese without the tones?

No. Tones are an essential part of oral Mandarin Chinese. It’s not really possible to learn Chinese without tones. Without the proper tones being pronounced, at best the speech sounds dull (Chinese tones are sharp, they give oral Chinese a sharp, precise, and mellifluous feeling), and at worst it’s not possible to understand what the person is saying / what they say becomes ambiguous.

Mastering tones is a very rewarding part of Chinese pronunciation (listeners will understand you clearer and better) and is a critical part of oral Chinese.

So — That’s the basics of the idea of Chinese tones. The next lessons talk about each tone in Mandarin Chinese individually.

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