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First lesson in Chinese – The four tones

If you’re learning to speak Chinese, the first thing you need to do is familiarize yourself with sounds of the language and the pronunciation.

And the most fundamental thing you need to learn are the four tones in Mandarin. That’s what I’m going to talk about in this post.

There are a couple of things you need to know first. Each Chinese character is pronounced as a single syllable, and English words, when they’re translated into Chinese, are made up of two or three characters, which would be pronounced two or three syllables.

Luckily, there is a method used in China used to teach pronunciation using the Roman alphabet called Pinyin. It’s used in most of the dictionaries and textbooks out there.

A lot of the sounds are pronounced in roughly the same way you would expect if you were reading the Pinyin as an English word, for example B A is pronounced ‘ba’ and ‘B A O would be ‘bao’. But there are some sounds which are quite different from European languages. We’ll get to that later.

But the key thing is that Mandarin is what’s called a ‘tonal language‘, and there are four different ways of pronouncing any given syllable. Pronouncing a syllable in a different tone can change its meaning completely.

But don’t worry, it’s not as hard as it sounds, and even when you make mistakes, people can usually figure out what you’re trying to say.

The four tones are something that you have to understand and pay attention to in your learning right from day one.

There are roughly four steps to mastering the tones.

1) Understanding what the 4 different tones are.
2) Learning to pronounce them yourself.
3) Learning to tell them apart and recognise them when you hear them
4) Connecting all of this together and focusing on the tones in your listening, reading and speech.

So it can take some time, but in this video we’ll cover the first and second step.

And to make things even easier for you, throughout my pronunciation course, I’m going to use colours to make the differences between the four tones really clear.

For the first tone I’ll use dark blue. The second tone will be orange. The third tone will be dark green, and the fourth tone will be red. If the syllable is unstressed and not pronounced in any particular tone, then it will be silver. These colours are not really based on anything specific, they’re just based on my own feeling about the different tones.

Let’s listen to what the four tones sound like using the syllable ‘ma’.

The first tone is pronounced with a pitch that it fairly high in your vocal range, and the pitch stays level as you say the syllable. Listen and repeat.

It shouldn’t be a really high pitch for you. It should be like uttering a constant pitch, not like singing a note.

The second tone starts towards the higher end of your vocal range and increases in pitch. It is a rising tone, almost like you’re raising your voice to ask a question. Listen and repeat.

The third tone starts at a mid pitch level. It falls in pitch then rises again, so it’s like a ‘falling and rising tone’. Listen and repeat it.

The fourth tone starts high in pitch then falls in pitch. It’s a ‘falling tone’. Listen and repeat the fourth tone.

From time to time, you’ll also come across syllables in Mandarin that are unstressed, so they’re not pronounced with a a particular tone. Some people call these syllables a ‘fifth tone’. But we can talk about that when we come to it. For now, let’s just keep things simple.

Notice the symbols used over the letters used to represent the 4 tones. The first tone is a horizontal line (mā), the second tone has a line that slants upwards (má), the third tone has a curved symbol like a v or a u (mǎ) and the fourth tone has a line above it that points downwards (mà).

Now we know what the four tones are, let’s try listening to them in order – 1, 2, 3, 4. Listen and repeat them in order.

So the first tone is a high pitch, the second is a rising pitch, the third falls in pitch then rises again and the fourth tone starts high and falls in pitch.

It takes a lot of practice to be able pronounce the four tones right, so now let’s try saying other syllables in the four tones. It’s important to notice which tone each character or word is when you learn and say it.

Keep practising the four tones and try to see if you can pick them out whenever you listen to Chinese.

And I’ll see you in the next post, where I’ll take you through more of what you need to know about Mandarin pronunciation 🙂