A Guide To The Four Basic Mandarin Tones 

Tones are a crucial part of learning the Mandarin language as they can change the meaning of a word. By pronouncing the tones correctly, not only do you make your speech clear and easy to follow, but you can also improve your listening skills and understand native Mandarin speakers better. 

Here’s an example to demonstrate that: take a look at these three completely different words: 教师 (jiàoshī; teacher), 教室 (jiàoshì; classroom), and 礁石 (jiāoshí; reef). As you can see from their pinyin, they sound almost exactly the same, apart from the tones you use to say the words! 

This article will introduce the four fundamental tones in Chinese Mandarin and explain why learning them is important. 

What are Mandarin tones? 

Chinese is a tonal language. That means Chinese words have pitches. Why is that? The reason for tones in Chinese is pretty simple: there are significantly fewer sound variants (around 400) in Chinese than in most other languages (English has about 12,000). That’s when tones come in – to differentiate otherwise identical sounds!

Many newbie learners may think of Mandarin tones as just intonation – but they are not the same thing! Tones create different words and meaning, rather than just a way to convey emotions.

How many tones does Mandarin have? 

Typically, there are four tones in total. Here are their basic definitions and how you pronounce these four Mandarin tones: 

First tone 

The first tone is high and flat.

To pronounce it, keep your voice high and level, almost like a monotone or robotic sound. The first tone usually sounds longer than the other three tones, too. Practice pronouncing this tone by saying ‘aaa’ – say it in a moderately high pitch and keep the sound steady till the end.  

Second tone 

The second tone is a rising tone.

Imagine when you ask your friend ‘what?!’, the second tone goes exactly the same. It starts from a lower pitch, rises, and ends at a higher pitch. 

Third tone 

The third one is low, dipping then rising tone or a low-dipping tone. 

It may sound a bit confusing and complicated. Unfortunately, it really can be! The third tone is the trickiest of the four Mandarin tones. Let me explain. According to any standard textbook, the third tone should be pronounced in the following order: start at a moderately low pitch, then dip to a lower one before rising high. 

However, many linguists have observed that the third tone is only low-dipping-rising when used in isolation, in contrast with another syllable, or to emphasize something. In most situations, though, the third tone simply dips.

Fourth tone

The fourth tone is a falling tone. 

With the fourth tone, you start from a high pitch and drop sharply to a low pitch. Many learning resources compare this tone to an angry command in English like “Now!’ or ‘Stop!’. It also usually has a shorter sound than the other tones. 

Besides these four basic tones, there’s also another tone called the neutral tone. The neutral tone is not listed as the fifth tone because it does not have a defined pitch contour. The neutral tone is pronounced quickly and lightly. Keep the sound short, and don’t emphasize it!

This tone is usually easy to recognize. Remember that single-syllable words, except for grammatical particles, cannot have a neutral tone.

What do Mandarin tones look like in writing and reading? 

Mandarin words use a system called Pinyin to show tones and how to pronounce words properly.

Pinyin is a standardized system for spelling Mandarin words with letters of the English alphabet, making it easier for Chinese-language learners to pronounce the characters. It serves the same purpose as phonetics in the English language. Plus, you will see how tones can change a word’s meaning. Let’s take a look! 

ToneDescriptionTone marked in PinyinMandarin examplePinyin Meaning
1sthigh and flat̄   or 1mā or ma1mother
2ndrisinǵ or 2má or ma2hemp
3rdlow-dipping-rising/ low-dipping˅ or 3mǎ or ma3 horse
4thfalling ` or 4mà or ma4to scold

On a side note, syllables with a neutral tone have no tone mark (ma), or they are sometimes marked with the number 5 (ma5) or 0 (ma0). 

So, how important are tones really ? 

Some say tones aren’t actually that important as they find that even when they pronounce tones incorrectly, local people can still understand them most of the time, based on the context and vocabulary they use. So what’s the fuss about tones? 

It’s correct that you can get away with using the wrong tones when speaking Chinese, but it doesn’t mean tones aren’t important! In fact, that point is only valid if learning Chinese is just a short-term thing for you, like for a business trip or a holiday. 

You can think of Chinese tones as English vowels. ‘Bad’ and ‘bed’ are two totally different words, but if someone says to you, ‘I’m sleepy. I’m going to bad now’, you will still 100% understand what they mean. That being said, it’s not the proper way to speak! Native speakers just don’t make those mistakes, and it can create trouble and confusion in your interactions.  

Chinese tones are an integral part of the language. Don’t just presume you’ll be understood when you use the wrong tone! That’s why you should study tones right at the beginning of your Mandarin learning journey to form a habit. Do it correctly right from the start as there’s no point cramming new words and later on trying to fix every pronunciation mistake! Tones are important. They define what you mean and make your communication easier to follow and understand. 

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