What the hell are the four tones of Mandarin?


I can’t pretend that my spoken Chinese skills are anything other than basic, but I know a decent number of useful words. I can say some everyday sentences (yes, these sentences are mostly related to greetings, shopping and ordering food… but it’s something!).

But even though I know I’m using the correct words, and I know what I’m saying, the local Shanghainese often look at me with confusion when I order my yībēi kāfēi (cup of coffee) or ask for the price (duōshǎo) of one knickknack or another. That’s because my mastery of Mandarin’s four tones can be described with one word: shit.

Mandarin Chinese has four “tones” that affect the way the words are pronounced. While that may seem like a perfectly straightforward concept to understand, attempting to comprehend and imitate those tones can be a struggle.

In Mandarin, each syllable of a word is pronounced with one of four tones: the first tone (high level), second tone (rising level), third tone (falling and then rising) and the fourth tone (falling). Each tone is represented by a different symbol in pinyin. Because many Chinese characters have the same pronunciation, the four tones differentiate those words when they are spoken.

The most commonly used example involves the Mandarin word “ma”.

  • First tone: mā (mother)
  • Second tone: má (to bother)
  • Third tone: mǎ (horse)
  • Fourth tone: mà (to scold)

Moreover, the toneless “ma” is also used at the end of sentences in order to signify a question.

It makes sense in theory. In practice it’s… confusing.

While the English languages does use tone to alter the meanings of certain words or sentences (think of the sharp, falling tone we might use when angrily saying a word like “No!” or the rising tone we use at the end of spoken questions ) they do not heavily influence the language. Our ears – at least my ears – are not trained to pick up these small nuances in vocabulary words and then process those nuances as different ideas. Unless it’s processing sarcasm.

Simply put – it is extremely difficult for me to hear the various tones in Mandarin unless someone is speaking really, really slowly. Trying to imitate those tones, particularly the falling-and-rising third tone, is even more difficult. And often results in a lot of laughter from the Shanghainese watching this bewildered American trying to order a bowl of wonton soup without the aid of a translator app.

For more on the four tones I recommend this video by a Chinese-American woman who made an explainer specifically for English speakers.


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