In this post we are going to discuss the five tones in Mandarin Chinese. Tones are what allow you to distinguish meaning between similar units of sound. For instance, the sound “ma” could mean five or more different things depending on the tone.

 

Tone 1 (high)             mā         妈            mother
Tone 2 (rising)             má         麻            hemp
Tone 3 (falling then rising, u-shaped)             mǎ         马            horse
Tone 4 (falling)             mà         骂            to curse or swear
Tone 5 (neutral)             ma         吗            (particle used at the end of a question)

 

When using our web app Say This Now, you will notice that all flip cards contain the phrase written in pinyin. As we explained in our introduction of pinyin, this form of romanization makes is easier for speakers of other languages to make sense of Chinese pronunciation. The tones are written above vowels to show how that unit of sound should be pronounced.

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The first tone in Chinese (一声) is a sustained high level tone. You pronounce this tone by raising your voice to a constant high pitch. See this video here for more.

The second tone in Chinese (二声) is a rising tone. You pronounce this tone starting with a lower pitch and raising the tone of your voice from low to high. This video will help.

The third tone in Chinese (三声) is a falling then rising tone. Think of this tone like a “U” shape. You pronounce this tone by dipping the tone of your voice down then rising up to finish. Here are examples.

The fourth tone in Chinese (四声) is a falling tone. It is helpful to think of the sound of this tone as how English speakers pronounce words with emphasis. This is a sharp tone that stands out. Pronounce this tone by starting high then proceeding to low and finishing there. Here is a video for assistance.

The fifth tone in Chinese is not reviewed as much as the main four but it is important to know. In Chinese most people think of the four tones. However, there is a neutral sound in Mandarin Chinese as well. This sound has an absence of tone. It is neutral and often occurs with particles.

I hope this helps you with your understanding of tones in Mandarin Chinese. Please feel free to contact us with any questions or suggestions for content.