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.
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.
The following is the example of ‘a’ with tone marks.
- First tone: a1 or ā
- Second tone: a2 or á
- Third tone: a3 or ǎ
- Fourth tone: a4 or à
The following table describes 4 tones and the neutral tone marking the sound “a”.
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
2. á ǎ à ā
3. ǎ à ā á
4. à ǎ á ā
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.
English translation: A mother was riding a horse; the horse ran slowly, she scolded the horse.
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