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What are the Chinese tones?

In English, tones are used to indicate whether a sentence is a statement or a question. Changing the tone in English will change the mood or the emphasis of the sentence, but not the meaning of the sentence. Chinese sentences apply the same rules.

However, Chinese is a tonal language; each Chinese character has a tone. Each pinyin syllable in Chinese can have 5 possible ways to pronounce by varying the tone (pitch). There are four tones and neutral tone (toneless) in Mandarin Chinese. One syllable, pronounced in different tones will usually mean different things. Comparing with English, which only has rising tone and falling tone, Chinese has four tones including flat tone, rising tone, falling-rising tone and falling tone. This fact makes the Chinese Tone Training a fundamentally important part of any serious Chinese learners. Since even you can pronounce the pinyin of a Chinese character correctly, if you do not master tones, Chinese speakers will not understand you.

Learning Chinese pronunciation is the toughest part. Do not worry! With this 21 day pinyin crash course, you shall get familiar with pinyin and mastering it very quickly!

Focus from Day 1 – Tones

Since tones are the most difficult part for Chinese learners, we focus the tones from day 1 in this Pinyin Crash Course. We will practice tones every day in the 21 day’s Pinyin Crash Course.

Tone marks

In Chinese it is always very important to pronounce characters and words with correct tone. In transliterated Chinese, tone markings are written over the central vowels in most syllables. Some syllables have no specific tone, and then no sign is put above any vowel, or called neutral tone. In Mandarin Chinese there are four tones and a neutral tone.

  • The 1st tone, flat tone is marked with a line over a vowel such as “a” + “-” = “ā”.
  • The 2nd tone, rising tone is marked with a rising line over a vowel such as “a” + “´” = “á”.
  • The 3rd tone, falling-rising tone is marked with a hook over a vowel such as “a” + “v” = “ă”.
  • The 4th tone, falling tone is marked with a falling line over a vowel such as “a” + “`” = “à”.
  • For neutral tone also called toneless tone (called “light sound” in Chinese), no marking is put above any vowel. For example, “a” + ” ” = “a”.

Using numbers to indicate the tones

In addition to use tone marks, Pinyin uses numbers to indicate the tones.

Pronunciation Guide

The following is the example of ‘a’ with tone marks.

  • First tone: a1 or ā
    Play
  • Second tone: a2 or á
    Play
  • Third tone: a3 or ǎ
    Play
  • Fourth tone: a4 or à
    Play

The following table describes 4 tones and the neutral tone marking the sound “a”.

TonePinyinDescription
1stāflat tone
2ndárising tone
3rdǎfalling-rising tone
4thàfalling tone
Neutralano tone

Each tone has a distinctive pitch contour which can be graphed as bellow.

Tone Exercise

Tone Exercise 1: Tone Combination Drill

In this exercise, we will combine first tone syllables with the second, third, and fourth tones.
Listen to the audio first, and then repeat.

1. ā á ǎ à

Play

2. á ǎ à ā
Play

3. ǎ à ā á
Play

4. à ǎ á ā
Play

Tone Exercise 2: Tongue Twister Drill

Listen to the tongue twisters below. Try to mimic the sound as closely as possible.

Pinyin: mā mā qí mǎ mǎ màn mā mā mà mǎ
Chinese characters: 妈妈骑马, 马慢, 妈妈骂马.

Play

English translation: A mother was riding a horse; the horse ran slowly, she scolded the horse.

Tone Quiz

Choose the right answer.
Start

Congratulations - you have completed Tone Quiz.

You scored %%SCORE%% out of %%TOTAL%%.

Your performance has been rated as %%RATING%%


Your answers are highlighted below.
Return
Shaded items are complete.
1234End
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If you are interested in learning Chinese, please take a look at the Free Chinese Lessons that are practical and fun.

9 Responses to “Learn Chinese Pinyin in 21 Days – Day 1: Tones”

  1. Pere Herewini-Te Awa

    This made understanding how to pronounce Chinese so much easier than any other resource I have ever used. Thank you so much for this wonderful resource.

    Reply
  2. Karlis

    great source where to start learning, made it nice and simple and i would say this is best for beginners.

    Reply
  3. Anthony Davies

    I’ve just started on my Mandarin journey and this website is full of everything I need to start. Xiè xiè)

    Reply
  4. Maargen

    The resources on this website are wonderful, but I can’t tell you how frustrated I am that the tones are apparently voiced by a child. Since I don’t speak Chinese I try to sound EXACTLY like the speaker. I don’t know what element of the vocalization is all right to change. Is it ok for my voice to go be deeper on this tone than a child’s? Is it ok for it to be stronger than a child’s? I don’t know.

    I wish there was a choice to hear these vocalization a by adult males, adult females, and children, so the learner can hear an approximate version of what they should sound like, depending on their age and gender. Right now, to repeat what I hear precisely is to speak like a child. Very frustrating

    Reply
    • aihua

      Hi Maargen,

      To learn to speak a new language, following and copying a native speaker’s sounds is a great way. Ideally, we should provide girls’, boys’, men’s and women’s voice recording to help you learn how to make the sounds. However, due to cost, the free Pinyin course only offers you, one voice recording made by me, Aihua, an adult female.

      For English, which is the standard female voice(sounds)? I guess it is difficult to answer the question. A language is a tool to communicate.If you play a role as a kid/teenager,young man/woman, old man/woman, etc. in a movie, you need to change your voice(sounds) accordingly. Otherwise, I do not think you need to act like somebody.

      Reply

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