Chinese Tones are the Most Difficult when Learning to Speak Mandarin
If you are serious to learn the Chinese language, in the long run, you have to practice the 4 Chinese Tones religiously until you can hum them in tune without speaking a word. Oh yes, I can intone them with a closed mouth like a hummingbird 😛
In the first article, I have highlighted 5 Points Why Learning Chinese is Easy. The motive is to encourage people to speak Mandarin and not to give up despite its difficulty. No language is easy to master for any foreigner, isn’t it?
Subsequently, I have also introduced briefly to the Hanyu Pinyin formation which Chinese vowels and consonants are combined to help people identify and pronounce a Chinese character. The knowledge on the Chinese consonants helps people to type Chinese text on the mobile by keying the first two alphabets.
Many non-Chinese people have attempted to say out some Chinese sentences with ease. However, most people that I came across had the same problem. They could not pronounce the 4 Chinese tones accurately.
In such a situation, others might still understand you, but the intonation will sound flat and not as refined and pleasing to the ears as it should be. Sometimes, the meaning of a word changes because in the same tone you can have many different ways of writing. (Eg. wěi)
|wěi dà||wěi rèn||wěi bā||wěi zhuāng|
One example of the same tone sound above (wěi) needs to have one or more word accompanying it to become a vocabulary or a noun. If you ask a Chinese, what is the meaning of “wěi”? No can tell you precisely what that word means because it can have several meanings unless you show them the word in writing.
Simply said, the accuracy of the four Chinese tones requires a lot of time and practice. Just like someone who learns to sing but out of tune or could not hit a note, he or she has to practice until the perfect pitch is hit.
How Many Chinese Tones are there?
Chinese is a tonal language where the highlight of perfect spoken Mandarin for foreigners is the mastery of the Chinese intonation. There are 4 Chinese tones plus 1 neutral tone.
All the tones have an accent [ ¯ ′ ˇ ` ] marked on top of the vowels – a, o, e, i, u, ü. The Chinese accent marked [ – / v ] indicates the pitch and stress of a word. The number 1 2 3 4 are sometimes written to represent the four tones instead of the Chinese accents in writing.
The first tone with [ – ] 1 starts with a long, airy and high pitch sound and ends at 4 [ ] with a shorter, lower and stronger pitch. The fifth tone which is a neutral tone has no accent on it. It is not often used and there are not many Chinese words with a neutral tone. It sounds softer than the first tone.
Two Familiar neutral words: Ma and Zi
- How are you | 你好吗 | nǐ hǎo ma
- Child / Children | 孩子 | háizi
Many non-Chinese speakers have some problems pronouncing the 4 Chinese tones distinctively. Most can only make out 3 Chinese intonations. The common mistake is pronouncing 2 tones with the same stress.
Why is Chinese Intonation Important?
As mentioned in the previous article, Chinese can understand a sentence from a non-native speaker if they can understand the meaning from the context of the entire Chinese sentence. In another word, the shorter the Chinese sentence, the more difficult it is for the Chinese to understand the meaning if the intonation is not correct.
In another word, the shorter the Chinese sentence, the more difficult it is for the Chinese to understand the meaning if the intonation is not correct.
Let’s look at a few examples of fun Chinese sentences below: –
“Ma” in Chinese
The horse belongs to my mother.
Mǎ shì wǒ mā de.
*If you do not pronounce it with the correct tone on the two “ma”, it will end up as…
Mā shì wǒ mǎ de.
The third “吗 ma” is a neutral tone. “吗 ma” is always placed at the end of the Chinese sentence when asking a question. Hence, after “吗 ma”, the correct punctuation mark used will always be a question mark.
In the short and simple sentence structure above, it contains already 3 Chinese “ma” sound. Practise it and try asking your Chinese friends what they interpret from your sentence when you read it to them.
Does the horse belong to my mother?
Mǎ shì wǒ mā de ma?
My friends and I often joked around with the sentence below when someone said that they are going on a cruise or going to bed. When someone did not pronounce 船 and 床 clearly, it gave an opportunity for us to make a little joke out of it although it was just an innocent sleep.
Do you want to go on board of the ship OR go to bed (sleeping) / have sex?
Nǐ yào shàng chuán hái shì shàng chuáng ne?
Legendary boat, wear clothes on the bed.
Chuán shuō zhōng de chuán, chuān yī zài chuáng.
The above sentence construction is not an idiom or has any meaning. It is merely a tongue twister for practising your Chinese tone pronunciation and diction. There is a total use of 3 “Chuan” and 1 “Chuang”. Out of the 3 “Chuan”, two of them has the same tone.
Improve Your Chinese 4 Tones
The clear intonation of the Chinese pronunciation of every word will determine the spoken Chinese standard and experience for those learning Mandarin. The differentiation of the Chinese tones is not easy for many Westerners, as English and other European languages have no variation of tones in their pronunciation.
Some friends who speak in certain languages have a problem pronouncing the “ü / yu” sound. They pronounce with a “woo” sound. French and Dutch language has the “ü / yu” sound in their letter “u”, so it not a problem for them to pronounce Chinese words with that sound.
We will listen to the Chinese Pinyin Pronunciation and Practise Chinese 4 Tones together in the next post on Intonation Examples which I have prepared the audio files to help you accustomed to the sound. The more you hear them regularly, the better you can differentiate the different tones and speak better in the long run.