Mandarin tones: how many they are and how to practice them

Mandarin tones
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Mandarin tones: how many they are and how to practice them

One of the first concepts you need to learn when learning Mandarin Chinese is tones (四声 sìshēng).

Indeed, Chinese is a tonal language which means that according to the tone you give to a word it may change its meaning. Tones are an essential part of proper pronunciation. In Mandarin Chinese, many characters have the same sound. Therefore mandarin tones are necessary when speaking Chinese in order to differentiate words from each other.

Mandarin tones

You’ll often hear that there are four main tones, although there is also a “neutral tone,” so you sometimes hear it said that there are five.

The way of how pronounce the mandarin tones can be resume like this:

First tone: The first tone is high and flat. Some feel that it sounds “robotic” because it is monotone.

Second tone: rising, start from a lower pitch and end at a slightly higher pitch

Third tone: falling rising, start at a neutral tone then dip to a lower pitch before ending at a higher pitch

Fourth tone: falling, start the syllable at a slightly higher than neutral pitch then go quickly and strongly downwards

Neutral tone: The neutral tone is said to be “light” or “de-emphasized,” meaning you don’t have to give it the same amount of stress, and it should actually be a bit shorter than the other tones.

Mandarin tones

Mandarin tones are used to determine which word is being implied. For example, the meaning of (horse) is very different from  (mother).

Thus when learning new vocabulary, it is really important to practice both the pronunciation of the word and its tone. The wrong tones can change the meaning of your sentences.

Believe it or not, Mandarin Chinese isn’t the most complicated tonal language in the world.

The Hmong language (which is spoken in China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand) can have as many as eight tones.

Although perfecting them is going to take some practice: it’s said that it takes about 2,200 hours (which is equivalent to 1.69 years or 88 weeks) to achieve a proficient level in speaking and reading Chinese.

practice mandarin tones

How to practice mandarin tones?

  1. Write the tones out. Not only is listening to tones important but writing them out is as well. You’ll never remember the tone for each word unless you make note of it.
  2. Practice repeating tone pairs out loud. A tone pair is when you have two words combined to make one, such as 星期 (xīngqī) — week, 经常(jīngcháng) — often. Many learners find it difficult to pronounce each tone and often the wrong one comes out. The best way to solve this problem is to not only practice tones by themselves but also paired together.
  3. Listen, listen and listen again. Hearing and recognizing tones can be just as tricky (if not more) than pronouncing them yourself. Finding a good audio source, listening to it and trying to identify tones.
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