You may hear people say “in Chinese, if you change the way you say a word slightly, the meaning can change dramatically!”. Unfortunately, its statements like those that deter many people from learning about this great language and China’s long and rich history.
But really, it’s just something that takes getting used to. And, like in all languages, where there is a hard concept to get your head around, there will also be easier ones. Chinese makes up for the difficulty of tones with the simplicity of its grammar compared to, say, European languages. In Chinese, the reason for having tones is quite simple – there are far fewer variations in sounds (about 400) than in most other languages (such as English, which has approximately 12 000), and so tones are used to distinguish otherwise identical ones. Pretty cool, huh?
So, What Do They Sound Like?
Firstly, tones are not a completely alien concept for English speakers. In fact, we have them in English! They are just more subtle, and have slightly different meanings. However, the basic idea is the same. Thinking about the English equivalents of tones are a great way of wrapping your head around their use in Chinese.
- The First Tone – ‘mā’ – is indicated by the ¯ on top of the final. This one is the most difficult to explain, but it is kind of like the sound you may make when you get a fright (‘āh!’). It is a high sound that is distinguishable because it is a constant pitch that does not fluctuate like the others.
- The Second Tone – ‘má’ – the rising tone, is indicated by the ´ on top of the final. Fortunately, this one is easy to explain! In English, we use this tone, known as the ‘upwards inflection’, on the last word of a sentence when we want to make it a question. Read ‘are you cold?’ out loud. The rising sound of ‘cold’ is the same as the rising tone in Chinese. So, má sounds like you’re saying ‘ma?’. Get it? Good.
- The Third Tone – mǎ – the low or dipping tone, sounds a lot like when you say ‘Mum!’ when she asks you to do the dishes, except, it dips down slightly lower than we would in English.
- The Fourth Tone – mà – sounds like when you’re in class at school, and you’re trying to call somebody’s name without the teacher hearing. It’s that ‘psst… Dàn, Dàn’ sound.
Now, I guarantee that my explanations don’t completely clear up how to pronounce tones in Chinese. However, for me, thinking of them in this way helped me to accept them as being normal, which is necessary before you can master their use. I think that after reading my explanations above and listening to the tones pronounced individually, you shouldn’t have too much trouble understanding the concept of tones, at the very least. Don’t expect to be able to master them off the bat, though. This takes time, but not much else. Don’t forget that as a human, you have an innate gift for language, and with enough exposure completely confusing concepts become clearer.
Okay, I know what they sound like now. But how do I get used to using them?
There is one secret to mastering Chinese tones. Well, two really. Listening (a lot) and speaking (a lot). Listening should always come first, though, as with a language like Chinese, it is just not feasible to start speaking right away without completely butchering the language and being incomprehensible.
It is extremely important to learn the tones of every new word you learn. If you don’t know the tone, you don’t really know the word. For example, ‘da’ means nothing by itself, but can mean ‘to hang over something’ (dā), ‘to answer’ (dà), ‘to hit’ (dǎ) or ‘big’ (dà) depending on the tone. It’s not as difficult as it sounds, though. Often, even if you get the tone wrong, people will understand due to the context.
Once you’ve remembered the tone of the word you’re learning, don’t focus on it too much in speech. Instead, listen over and over to it being used in a sentence and see how the language fits together. Record yourself with a free application such as Audacity, and compare yourself to a native speaker. You will notice a ‘rhythm’ to spoken Chinese.When you get to an advanced level, you won’t think about the individual tones of the words you’re using. You will just know what the rhythm of the sentence should sound like.
To understand this, take a random word in English. Let’s say, ‘constitution’. There are four syllables, ‘con–sti–tu–tion‘. Say it out loud slowly. Then faster. Notice how there is an emphasis on certain syllables? In Australian English, at least, the emphasis is on the ‘tu‘. Try and say it with an emphasis on the ‘sti‘ and you will see how weird it sounds. Speaking Chinese with the wrong tones sounds like someone speaking English with the emphasis on the wrong syllable of every word!
Do Chinese people really use tones all the time?
You may notice that tones don’t always behave the way they’re supposed to. Sometimes certain combinations of tones will sound different together than individually. Particularly in colloquial speech, less emphasis is put on the tones or their use is reduced. They don’t disappear altogether, though. Not by a long-shot. But don’t worry about all that for now.
Just as you may hear people claim that tones are so important that people won’t understand you without them, you will likely also hear that tones are bullshit, and that people don’t even use them when they’re talking really fast.
The truth is actually somewhere in the middle. Does this mean you can get away with not learning tones? No way! Bad idea! Learn them. It is better to overemphasise tones at the beginning stages, as your speech will gradually become more natural sounding and more native-like as you improve. So get out there, and start practising!