Tip: Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language (with audio clip)

OK. So what does that mean?  In Chinese, it means that the way your voice rises and falls can completely alter a word’s meaning. It also means that context is very important in Chinese. Even if you get the pronunciation wrong, a Chinese listener can often figure out what you are saying despite incorrect pronunciation.

The best way for me to explain the four Mandarin Chinese tones is to put it terms of how you speak to your own kids. Think about your own voice’s inflection.

  • When you praise them it is a soothing, sustained pitch  - -  Awww…so cute! (1st tone)
  • When you ask a question, you raise your voice up – - Sarah, did you brush teeth or not? (2nd tone)
  • When you ask a rhetorical question, your voice goes down, then up – - RIGHT, you cleaned up your playroom. let’s see… (3rd tone)
  • When you yell at your kid, your voice inflects downward- – No! (4th tone)

Here is a summary of the Chinese tones including the tone marks (alone) and over a pin yin word:

  • 1st tone – high pitch, flat tone       “ _ ”         mā
  • 2nd tone – rising tone              “ / ”                má
  • 3rd tone – dips down low, then rises high       “ v ”      mǎ
  • 4th tone – sharp downward tone       “ \ ”        mà

I will notate pin yin with proper tone marks on my blog.

Listen to the Four Chinese Tones

Key Point! Chinese tones are important and are best mastered by listening to Chinese speakers.

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