Learning Chinese, or Mandarin, as many say it when referring to the Chinese language, can be a major challenge for many. Unlike most languages in Europe and North America, Chinese does not have Indo-European roots. This makes the grammar and pronunciation of the language more difficult for many beginners who have just started out learning the language.
One of the most focused areas of differences compared to many other languages is how tones are used in Chinese. There are five tones that, when used, change the meaning of seemingly similar sounding words. Despite the challenge of pronouncing in Chinese, focusing on precise pronunciation of the tones when starting to learn Chinese will make it much easier for Chinese to understand what you are saying.
Here we briefly explain how to use the five tones when speaking Chinese, discuss how the tones sound, and give some basic advice on how to use them in practice.
The first note is often described as ‘monotonous’ or ‘flat’. This is not an inaccurate description but may give the impression that it is not a unique tone. What is important to know about the first tone is that it is flat and high.
To pronounce the first tone, you should raise your voice when speaking the syllable and keep the same inflection all the way. This means that you do not change your voice to be louder or lower from beginning to end.
The second tone starts low but then increases to a moderately raised pitch. It is similar to the raised voice when asking questions in many languages.
The third tone is, for many, the most complex of the Chinese tones and is usually the tone new students of Chinese are struggling with the most. With this tone, the pitch drops lower before rising again, a difficult inflection to master in a syllable. This can be called a ‘tonal dipping’ and results in a highly distinctive sound.
What is good to know is that the pronunciation of Chinese words with this tone is easy to hear and understand when done correctly. Many people, therefore, think it is easier to understand this tone and the Chinese words containing this tone.
The fourth note can be seen as the opposite of the second note. It starts high and then drops to a low pitch. This usually sounds quite powerful when spoken correctly.
For those who have not learned Chinese before, the pronunciation of Chinese words with the fourth tone might sound like giving commands.
There is some debate among those who teach Chinese whether there are four or five isolated tones in the language. This is because many describe the fifth note as neutral, without any intonation.
Without a defined pitch cantor, the “fifth note” is usually pronounced quickly and without much weight. Since this tone mixes with the general flow of speech we have when we speak Chinese, some do not consider it a tone in itself.
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