Learn Chinese NYC – Basics for Pronounciation and the Four Tones

2010 January 27

Congratulations on choosing to learn the new buzz language in New York City, Chinese. When learning Chinese it’s important to first learn the pronunciation of the language. Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, with 4 tones that can change and distinguish the meaning of words. It’s important to become familiar with the tones in the beginning, mastering the tones will take time and energy with a trained teacher. Don’t worry though, Cantonese has 7 tones, and Vietnamese has 9 tones, so comparatively learning Mandarin should seem quite easy!

When learning Mandarin we’ll use the word “ma.” Ma can mean four different things, depending on which tone you pronounce it with. Without further ado, here’s the tones you’ll use when pronouncing Mandarin:

– First Tone – called the “high level” tone – is a high enlongated sound. The map of where your voice travels to is written above the character, like as below:

Ma pronounced with the high tone means “mother,” and it sounds like how you’d say “ahhh” when you go to the dentist.

– Second Tone – “Rising Tone” is a tone that slowly rises from low to high inflection. It sounds like you’re asking a question.

Ma with the second tone means “hemp.” This tone sounds like you’re asking the question “whaaat?”

– Third Tone – “Falling and then Rising” You’ll start at about the mid level with your voice, go down deeply, then back up again. The tone mimics inflection when you sound surprised.

Ma with the third tone means “horse.” It sounds like if you were to ask the question, “Really?”

– Fourth Tone – “Falling Tone” This tone drops abruptly, it’s the sharpest and most quickly pronounced tone. The intonation sounds like you’ve quickly told someone “no!”

Ma with the fourth tone means “scold.” Seems fitting, as the sound of the fourth tone itself sounds like a mother telling her child a quick “no!”

Those are the four tones for learning Chinese. Without a Mandarin speaking teacher to check your pronunciation, I would suggest just learning the four tones, the differences between them and the order they come in. When referring to the tones in Mandarin, in Chinese you literally refer to them as “the first tone” or “the fourth tone,” so it’s important to get the order right. Also to practice I would suggest attending our Dumplings and Chinese event on February 9th, or taking private lessons or a group class. Thank you for reading and if you have any further questions regarding learning Chinese, please ask.

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