Tones are an essential part of proper pronunciation. In Mandarin Chinese, many characters have the same sound. Therefore tones are necessary when speaking Chinese in order to differentiate words from each other.
There are four tones in Mandarin Chinese, which are:
- First tone: a level and higher pitch
- 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
Reading and Writing Tones
Pinyin uses either numbers or tone marks to indicate the tones. Here is the word ‘ma’ with numbers and then tone marks:
- First tone: ma1 or mā
- Second tone: ma2 or má
- Third tone: ma3 or mǎ
- Fourth tone: ma4 or mà
Note that there is also a neutral tone in Mandarin. It’s not considered a separate tone, but it is an unaccented syllable. For example, 嗎 / 吗 (ma) or 麼 / 么 (me).
As mentioned earlier, tones are used to determine which Mandarin Chinese word is being implied. For example, the meaning of mǎ (horse) is very different from mā(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.
The following table of tones has sound clips which allow you to hear the tones. Listen to each tone and try to mimic it as closely as possible.