For western people, the principle of tones is quite difficult to handle because we do not have such in our languages. Our only intonations are to mark the intensity of the words in the sentence and to change its meaning from a polite way to an order. If you want to improve a bit your knowledge concerning those tones before coming to China, here are some tips to practice and recognize the differences.


The 5 different tones

It is important to learn the Chinese tones, since the meaning of each word depends on it. As you might know, Chinese language uses 5 tones. 5 tones!? Yes! The principle of tones can be a hard burden for those learning Chinese and is the origin of frustration for many foreigners. But there is good news! Since the last one is a neutral tone (and thus no different from our usual pronunciation), we really only have to learn 4 tones. Here they are:
For the 4 different tones, we will use the sound “ma”:

-The first tone (mā) is flat but high: “MAAAA”. (Mother)
-The second one (má) is a rising one: “maaAAA”. (Hemp)
-The third one (mǎ) is falling then rising: “MaaAA”. (Horse)
-The fourth one (mà) is falling: “MAaa”. (Scold)

It is important to learn Chinese tones, since the meaning of each word depends on it. [Tweet this]

The picture on the right represents the different pronunciations of the 4 different tones:

Practice Chinese tones

Specific rules

Some specific rules exist for the third tone:
When two third-tones are placed in a raw, the first one will be pronounced as a second tone: nǐ hǎo becomes ní hǎo.

• If 3+1/2/4 then 3=low falling; if 1/2/4+3 then 3=low falling:
Placed before a first, second or fourth tone, the pronunciation will change into a low falling tone. It is the same when the third tone is at the final position.

When the third tone is isolated, then it will keep its basic falling rising tone.

• If 1/2/4+5 then 5=fall; if 3+5 then 5=rise:
The fifth (neutral) tone obeys some rules too. After a first, second or fourth tone: the fifth tone will fall. But it will go up after a third tone.


Some more exceptions

Other exceptions are related to:
(不)which means “no”:
1.不 is usually a fourth tone
2. But when followed by another fourth tone, 不 becomes a second tone

(一) which means “one “:
1. When alone, 一 is a first tone
2. Before a fourth tone: 一 becomes a second tone
3. Before any other tone: 一 becomes a fourth tone

It might be a lot of information, but you will get used to it quite quickly, so don’t worry! Little tip: You can improve your level faster if you record yourself. This way you will be able to recognize your mistakes easily.

Good luck!

Luc Derouet


Discover China and Chinese culture yourself!

Start now