Four Mandarin Tones

There are four tones in speaking mandarin and it’s important to use the correct tones right from the beginning. Since this is your first lesson, you are fortunate in that you are starting from scratch and know no previous dialect. I’ll illustrate the importance of mandarin tones by saying four different Chinese characters, all pronounced ma. Although ma is the pinyin (spelling) of these four characters, their tones are markedly different and help distinguish one ma from another ma. Please listen carefully.

  1. The first mandarin tone is high and level as in 妈, with the volume held constant. 妈 means mother.

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  2. The second mandarin tone rises sharply and increases in volume like an exclamation of the word `WHAT ?’ in surprise. As in 麻 . 麻means numb.

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  3. Third tone as in 马 starts low, then drops lower before rising to a higher tone. 马 means horse and is also my husband’s surname which I took when I married him. 马 is a common surname in China.

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  4. Fourth tone as in 骂 is short and abrupt like saying the word NO. The tone starts high but drops abruptly in pitch and volume. 骂 means to scold.

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Let’s illustrate this lesson by pronouncing the phrase 妈 妈 骂 马 . Pronounced correctly in the right tones (1,1, 4, 3) the four characters mean `Mother scolds horse.’

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However, if I change the tones of the four words to (3, 4, 1, 1), I will be saying 马 骂 妈 妈 or `Horse scolds mother.’

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The Chinese characters I will be sending you are selected from the one thousand most frequently used words in China. I will embed the pronunciation of each word in the emails I send you. Please listen to the tone of the word and repeat it to yourself aloud as you type or copy the word on paper. I suggest that you type your daily Chinese word 20 times while saying it (in the correct tone) over and over as you type.

We Chinese often use two words to express an object or a concept.

A professor is jian 教 shou 授。 A road is ma 马 lu 路。In such cases, the second word will be introduced together with the first word in my emails to you.

It is my sincere and fervent wish to teach you so that you will be reading, writing and speaking Mandarin Chinese in a very short time.

Please write to me on my website with your questions, suggestions and/or criticisms. I look forward to hearing from you.