Tones are probably the biggest difficulty for anyone learning to speak Mandarin. As a learner, you have to go through a long process from total unawareness of tones to eventually mastering them (which will probably take years).
Whilst all languages have vowels and consonants, some also have tones. Mandarin is one of these languages. Tones are just as important as the other two parts of each syllable (vowels and consonants). If you get them wrong, you’ll change the meaning.
Mandarin is generally described as having four tones:
- First tone: high and level
- Second tone: rising
- Third tone: often described as “falling rising”, but this misleading (see below)
- Fourth tone: falling
Every single syllable in Mandarin consists of consonant/s, a vowel and a tone. All three of these must be pronounced correctly to form the syllable.
You can read all the descriptions and look at all the diagrams you like, but nothing will be as effective as actually listening to the tones pronounced by a native speaker.
I really would recommend skipping all of the visual explanations of tones, and just listen and imitate as much as possible. Try this pinyin audio chart to get started.
A fifth tone
As well as the four tones described above, there is actually a fifth option for the tone of a syllable. This is variously called fifth tone, neutral tone, soft tone etc. It’s simply the absence of any strong tone, and should be pronounced softly.
More accurately, a syllable with “fifth tone” tends to inherit a little bit of the tone of the previous syllable. So if a fourth tone syllable is followed by a fifth, that falling fourth tone sound tends to stretch a little bit across the two of them.
Again, the best thing is just to listen to as much native speaker material as possible. There’s no substitute for actually hearing the tones.
Numbers vs tone marks
See also: Typing pinyin with tone marks on Linux
Tones are supposed to be indicated with tone marks in pinyin, but are often marked with numbers for convenience. Using numbers is easier to type, and also guarantees that the text will display correctly on any device.
he1 / hē he2 / hé he3 / hě he4 / hè
Neutral tone is hardly ever indicated with tone marks, although you very occasionally see it marked with a little dot. This isn’t standard use of pinyin though. It is sometimes indicated with a 5 if numbers are being used.
he5 / hė
Most often fifth or neutral tone is just not marked (it is described as the absence of a tone, after all).
After you’ve been studying for a while, you’ll probably find you can read out pinyin with tones quite fluently. Although, I find I can read it out but not follow the meaning for any kind of long sentence, as you get used to reading characters.
Chinese names for the tones
There are two main ways to talk about the tones in Mandarin. The first is equivalent to the English system of numbering them, describing them as “first sound”, “second sound”, etc.
These names are the easiest to learn and remember, and you can also drop the 第 and just call them 一声, 二声 and so on. There is another set of names for the tones which is a bit trickier to remember:
Notice how the first character in each of these names has the tone it describes. In both systems, “fifth” or neutral tone is called 轻声 (qīngshēng) - “light sound”.
Pronunciation of Mandarin tones
As pointed out above, the best way to learn tones really is just to listen to native speech as much as possible. Subscribe to Chinese learning podcast services such as ChinesePod and Popup Chinese, and make good use of listening materials that come with any textbooks you buy. Lingomi is a paid learning service aimed specifically at mastering tones.
Also consider using Skritter, as this not only forces you to memorise the tones for all your vocabulary, but also lets you hear the correct pronunciation every time you review a word or character.
There are a few pronunciation points that are worth pointing out here besides doing a lot of listening, though.
Third tone is often badly described
Third tone is usually described as “falling rising”, and diagrams will show its pitch descending slightly before rising back up. The tone mark for third tone also uses this shape: bǎ, mǎ etc.
When a third tone syllable is pronounced on its own, this is an accurate description. Any other time, though, third tone would be better described as “low and level”. This applies any time third tone is pronounced in natural speech.
John Pasden covers this in more detail at Sinosplice.
Tones often change
There are a set of rules that make tones change depending on what tones are around them. These rules are called tone sandhi. They seem a bit tricky at first, but actually make tones flow more easily and sound more natural. Once again, listening to native speech and imitating it is the best way to get the hang of this.
Studying Mandarin tones
See also: Ways to learn Mandarin Chinese tones
Tones are often handled quite badly by traditional education such as classes and textbook courses. The main problem is that not enough time is devoted to them, as they are seen as a preliminary that only needs to be explained once early on.
To speak Mandarin, you have to consistently study and practice tones right the way through. Just as you learn the vowels and consonants of new words, you must learn the tones too. There’s no way round this, really.
If you are taking classes, urge your teacher to be as strict as possible with your tones, constantly correcting you. Ideally the teacher will keep correcting you to the point where it gets embarrassing, and still keep correcting you until you’ve got it right. Our teachers did this in the first year of university, and it was uncomfortable but useful.
After that, teachers should still pick students up on any tone errors they make in class. The interruptions are worth it in the long run.
Learn tones from the beginning
Pretty much all students of Mandarin find that tones slow them down to an unbearable pace in the beginning. They’re very hard, and create quite a large stumbling block. A bad reaction to this is to skip them partially or entirely and press on with learning more stuff, with the expectation that tones can be added in later or will naturally fall into place.
This is nearly always a mistake. At the very least, it’s best to start memorising what tones should be for all vocabulary, right from the beginning. Tones should be practised every day as an essential feature of the language.
It does get easier, and they do start to fall into place, but only with a lot of effort. Not learning them from the start can create bad habits that are hard to shift later.
It’s also very disheartening to discover that despite you having studied Mandarin for over a year, Chinese people cannot understand most of what you say because your tones are wrong.
Combinations are more important
The best way to start learning tones is actually to learn them in pairs, not in isolation. Learning them in pairs makes it easier to string them together naturally in sentences. There’s also a distinct feel to each tone pair that you probably won’t get the hang of by studying them alone.
Get hold of some good listening materials, such as the services mentioned above, and start imitating tone pairs as soon as possible!
Personally I’ve never found mnemonics very helpful for learning tones. Some people really rate them, so they might be worth a go. I think just doing a lot of listening and copying will be enough to concrete the sound of each word in your mind.
If you do enough listening, you’ll develop an audio memory of words to draw from when you need them. The correct tones will just sound right after hours and hours (and hours) of listening.
I find spaced repetition extremely useful for memorising pronunciation. I use Skritter, which makes you memorise tones, as well as letting you repeatedly listen to the pronunciation of vocabulary every time you study it.
There is a generally accepted standard for colour coding tones to help with memorising them. This is:
- first tone: red
- second tone: orange
- third tone: green
- fourth tone: blue
- neutral tone: black
A lot of people, myself included, think that different colours would’ve suited the tones better. For example I think red goes much better with the abruptness of fourth tone. However, standards are useful, so I stick with the above colours for studying tones.
Common questions about tones in Mandarin
How important are tones?
In short: very important. You really need to start studying them immediately, and continue to study them, well, forever. They’re an essential part of Mandarin pronunciation, just as important as vowels and consonants.
I often find a comparison of tones and vowels quite useful. If a non-native speaker of English gets their vowel sounds wrong, quite a lot of the time you can still tell what they’re talking about. But sometimes you just have no idea, even if the error is small.
I think this is fairly similar to the tones situation with Mandarin. It’s very obvious when you get them wrong, but people can often still understand what you’re saying. Just as frequently, though, incorrect tones will totally confuse your listener!
All in all, tones can’t be ignored. You really do have to learn them properly.
What about tone of voice?
People often wonder how tone of voice works in a language with tones, and this is often a big difficulty for foreigners studying Chinese. Using the intonation of our own languages can interfere with the tones of Mandarin.
The most common example of this is foreigners accidentally slipping in a second or third tone at the end of a question. This famously converts 请问 (qǐngwèn), meaning “excuse me”, into 请吻 (qǐng wěn), meaning “please kiss”.
Mandarin does of course use tone of voice as much as any other language. Tone of voice actually varies a lot between any two languages, regardless of tones. Compare the intonation of French and English, neither of which have tones. Mandarin tone of voice also has its own distinct style, which allows for expressive pitch including the use of tones.
You can guess what I’m going to recommend for mastering this. Just listen to native speakers as much as possible, and the way tone of voice combines with tones will start to become natural.
What about songs?
A related question to tone of voice and tones is how tones work in songs. Surely the tune of the song plays havoc with the tones?
The answer is, yes, it does. Songs are just sung according to the tune, and listeners have to figure out what’s being said without the tones. This usually isn’t difficult at all though. This can be frustrating for learners - if they’re not necessary in songs, why are they necessary in speech?
My guess is that song writers are careful not to let the lyrics and tune be too ambiguous or difficult to understand. Also, songs are often quite tricky to understand even in your native language (vowels get malformed, there’s background sound etc.) Misheard lyrics are a source of much hilarity in all languages, so Mandarin isn’t any different.
Why does Chinese have tones?
This is a big question with a lot of linguistic research behind it. It could also be asked as “why do other languages not have tones?” The most common answer is that its due to the very limited number of syllables in Mandarin.
Mandarin only allows syllables to end with a vowel sound or one of the nasal consonants n or ng. There are no consonant clusters (consider that one English syllable can have up to six consonants in it, e.g. “sprints”).
Other syllables just don’t appear in the language. This means that there are only about 400 valid syllables in Mandarin if you’ve only got vowels and consonants. That gets quite tricky when you want to describe a universe with your language.
Having four tones expands this syllable set to 1600, which is much more versatile. However, there are still a lot of words that sound identical even with tones. This is why characters are so important to Chinese, as they unambiguously express meaning regardless of how the words are pronounced.