Four Chinese tones

The battle to learn the sounds of Mandarin

The challenge of the tones

Pronunciation has been my biggest challenge in learning Mandarin. Nothing prepared me for what was involved in learning a language that uses a tonal system. Ironically, I have found learning Chinese characters easier than the four tones that the language uses to communicate meanings verbally.

None of the four other languages that I speak, including my native tongue, English, use a tonal system. After six months of studying Mandarin seriously, I understand why other native English speakers say they find learning it hard. It may seem strange but this is one of the reasons I chose to study Mandarin: it is simply so different – I find it fascinating. In sharing my experience of tackling Mandarin’s tones I hope that I can help others in this difficult journey.

First, I should explain what is a tonal language is. Any particular sound or syllable can take a tone. In music, this would be associated with the sound’s pitch, its rate of vibration. In linguistics, giving the same sound different qualities changes it, and thereby changes its meaning. Some languages have a fully developed system for doing this, including Chinese, Thai, Zulu and Yoruba, to name but a few.

Chinese employs four tones that can completely change the meaning of a word, according to the tone used. The first tone starts high and stays level; the second tone starts at the middle pitch and rises; the third tone goes down from mid level and then rises to a higher level; the fourth tone starts high and falls (surprisingly sharply, to my ears). To pronounce a syllable, which is the basic unit of spoken language, correctly in Mandarin involves three components: a consonant, a vowel and a tone. These form the sound of the syllable and give it a particular meaning. Each character, written representation, in Chinese is one syllable with its own tone.

The life saver: Pinyin

In modern China, Pinyin is used to indicate, understand and learn tones. Pinyin expresses Mandarin using the Latin script. The system uses marks above the vowel to show which tone is being used in that word.

Teachers often start with the Mandarin word ma to explain tones. Using the wrong tone means that you will confuse the word for mother, (first tone), with horse, (third tone), . You wouldn’t want to call your mother a horse! So getting the tones right are essential in spoken Chinese. The graphic below demonstrates the four tones of the syllable ma, and changes in the meaning: mother, , horse, , fibre, má, curse, mà, .

Getting the tone wrong in a word could lead to anything from an awkward situation to complete incomprehension. When there is no tone on ma, , this indicates a question mark. That makes five possible forms of the sound ma – four modified by tones and one without a tone.

Chinese characters have no tone markings, they simply have to be learnt and understood with a given tone: the character takes the first tone and the character takes the third tone. This is where Pinyin is a life saver – and not just for non-Mandarin speakers learning the language. Most Chinese children learn Pinyin at school before they systematically learn Chinese characters.

Impossible to learn?

So, how difficult do the four tones make it to learn Chinese? Let me tell you my experience. I started learning Mandarin with an audio course and did not worry about the different forms of written Chinese – the characters and Pinyin. However, when I started to have language exchanges with native speakers from China, I had to learn Pinyin so that I could grasp which tone each word/character took. Pinyin not only makes it clear which tone to use, but which vowel it modifies: when there is more than one vowel in a word, you put it in on the first vowel in the order of A E I O U. Pinyin has made learning tones so much easier.

Typing the tone marks is often difficult on computers. Fortunately, Pinyin supports an alternative way of marking tones: numbers can be used after the vowel to indicate the tone. For example, takes the first tone and can be written ma1. Likewise, mà can be written ma4. This is enormously helpful when using a standard computer keyboard or smartphone, especially for new learners such as me. And even if you know characters well, it provides a quick way to communicate.

Learning about tones is one thing, but articulating them correctly is another matter. I have found it harder than I anticipated and some are consistently more difficult than others. The fourth tone, for example, still sounds too abrupt to me.

This raises a fundamental question about how I go about reproducing what I am learning. Let me give you an example of learning to pronounce words in Spanish, Italian and Mandarin. The Spanish and Italian word for beautiful is bello, though the pronunciation varies slightly. The Italian is easier for English speakers: it is literally bel-lo. In Spanish, the double ll changes to a y sound, so comes out as beh-yoh. But English speakers find both words relatively easy to understand since they are close to our experience of the letters of our own alphabet and to the sounds of our language.

Now, let’s take Mandarin. What does 美丽 mean? Unless you already know these Mandarin characters, you would not recognise that this word means beautiful; that it is composed of two characters; that, in Pinyin, it is written měi lì; and that it is pronounced using the third and fourth tones.

To be able to verbally articulate měi lì, and do it adequately, means not only that you have learnt it as a reference – that it is in your head as an idea – but that you have learnt it through constant practice and have internalised it. In reality, what you would be learning and developing is the very system of sounds that Mandarin consists of. This is, of course, something that native Chinese speakers have been learning and internalising since babyhood. It will take me years do, too, since the learning takes place through constant imitation and repetition.

The human factor

My language partners have been critical in developing my sensitivity to tones – they have constantly modelled them for me and corrected my pronunciation. They have helped me understand how important tones are even for basic communication in Mandarin. My partners provide me with the mirror and standard against which I can measure myself, so that I can develop my use of the tonal system: these four tones are at the centre of a system and are much more than just four individual sounds.

Without my language partners, I would not really be able to ‘hear’ myself, and thereby be able to correct myself. They have a very different ‘ear’ to me and, until I develop a minimum level of tonal expression in Mandarin, I will very much depend on them. I am fortunate to have them.

With time and a lot of work, and frankly, a lot of help, I will get to the point where I can adequately reproduce sounds that are closer and closer to standard Mandarin. The tonal system will become real inside me. It will provide me with a benchmark against which I will be able to judge how independent I become in communicating in Mandarin, and the incredible sounds that it has. That is my desire and my ambition. I still have a long way to go. I will get there step by step, syllable by syllable.


Ciyi Li 李慈一
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Many thanks for reading my post

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1 thought on “Four Chinese tones

  1. Chaya lee

    Wow, you give a really clear introduction to Chinese characters and Pinyin systems. I like your explanation of how to pronounce different tones and your picture! Also,your article is well-structure! I am looking forward to reading more articles from you:)


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