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How important are the tones in Mandarin?

In another of my videos I talked about the four tones in Mandarin and we practised pronouncing them with single syllables.

A lot of people find the tones difficult to pronounce and remember at the beginning, and you start to wonder how important they really are, and whether people will understand if you say something with the wrong tones.

All the dialects of Chinese including Mandarin and Cantonese have tones; they are tonal languages, just like Thai, Vietnamese and other languages, which means that the tones are a crucial part of the language. If you’re not using them at all or you’re using them wrongly, then you’re not going to be speaking accurate Chinese, so in this sense, they’re pretty important.

Having said that, I’ve heard learners speaking Chinese without using any tones at all, because they never paid attention to them, and people could understand what they were saying. That’s because of context.

So, for example tāng is soup, táng is sugar, tǎng means lie down and tàng means scalding hot. If you just ordered a coffee and you asked for one of these, it would be quite clear that you would be talking about sugar.

The other reason is because words in Chinese are usually 2 or 3 syllables, and when you put them together in a combination, it leaves less room for misunderstanding, because even if you did get the tones wrong, the other person would probably be able to understand the word.

However, you can cause misunderstanding by using the wrong tones. For example, I once met a guy who was asking for ice in a restaurant. The most correct word to use should be 冰块, but he was just saying the first syllable, which should have been 冰 in the first tone, which means ‘ice’. Instead, he said 病 in the 4th tone, which means disease. He said 你有病吗, which means do you have a disease, or is there something wrong with you? instead of ‘do you have ice’.

This kind of thing doesn’t happen that much, but it is much better to speak in the right tones, to avoid any kind of misinterpretation.

We can compare what Mandarin sounds like without tones, and then with the correct tones. For example, the capital of China Beijing would be pronounced as Beijing in English but in Mandarin it should be said with a third tone then a first tone – Běijīng.

We could also take the examples of other cities eg  Nánjīng, Shànghǎi, Guǎngzhōu and Shēnzhèn

It’s the same with names. For example, Chairman Mao’s name might be pronounced as Mao Tse-Tung or Mao Zedong, but in Mandarin this should be pronounced with a 2nd tone, then a second tone, then a first tone: Máo Zédōng.

The first syllable is the surname, because the surname comes first in Chinese. And another example – the tennis player Li Na’s name should be said with a 3rd tone, then a 4th tone – Lǐ Nà.

If you say somebody’s name in the wrong tones and you’re not a native Chinese speaker, they’ll probably forgive you, but you could be saying something that means something very different, or it could even be something rude.

So you see that using the correct pronunciation and the tones is what makes the difference between saying the words in an English accent and speaking Chinese. It’s part of what makes Chinese Chinese.