The Four Tones of the Chinese Language

Mandarin Chinese is a very tonal language. A single word with the same syllable can take on a different meaning when read in different tones.

These tones gives Mandarin Chinese its unique quality, but also contributes to miscommunication if not given attention.


The first tone in the Mandarin Chinese language is a high and flat sound. It is represented by a single line or the number “1”.

When reading a syllable on the first tone, it is important to keep an even voice.


The second tone is often associated with a sudden rise in pitch. It is represented by a rising diagonal line or the number “2”.


The third tone is a very distinctive sound that falls and rises again. It is represented by a curved line that resembles the letter “v”. It can also be represented by the number “3”.


The fourth tone is read with a sudden drop to the bottom of the tonal range. Many readers often say it sounds like an angry command. It is represented by a downward diagonal line or the number “4”.


The fifth tone does not have a defined sound or pitch. The neutral tone is pronounced quickly, without regard to the pitch. The tone is not represented with a tone mark, but can sometimes be marked with “5” or “0”

Watch Little Fox Chinese’s video to hear how the tones sound:

Bopomofo Sound

The Bopomofo, or Zhuyin, is used to transcribe all the possible sounds in the Chinese language. It was first introduced in the 1910s. While the English alphabet derives from the first two letters (alpha and beta), the “Bopomofo” is named after the first four syllables in Mandarin Chinese.

Bopomofo is the most commonly used system in teaching reading and writing in most Chinese schools. It is also one of the most popular ways used to enter Chinese characters into computers and phones.

Bopomofo vs Pinyin:

Bopomofo or Zhuyin focuses on the sounds used to produce a Chinese word. Pinyin uses the Roman alphabet to transcribe a character.

Learning the Bopomofo system will help Chinese learners to get the actual sound needed to produce the correct word.

Watch this video by Little Fox Chinese to learn and hear how each Bopomofo input is pronounced.


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