Chinese language is a highly tonal and homophonic language. It means there are a vast number of Chinese words having the same sounds while expressing different meanings.
In such case, correct tonal pronunciation is essential for intelligibility since different tones help clarify meanings of words and distinguish words from each other. Mandarin Chinese has four pitched tones–five if you count the “neutral” tone or the “toneless” tone. The four tones are usually depicted graphically with the following diagram to visualize “where” each one occurs in tonal space.
Tones help the relatively small number of Chinese syllables (approximately 400 compared to around 12000 English syllables) to multiply and express meanings.
Can you imagine that the Chinese use only one syllable in four different tones to express a sentence “did mother scold the horse”? The following table illustrates tone markings above the sound ma and describes how each tone is vocalized:
|1st||High and level|
|2nd||Starts medium in tone, then rises to the top|
|3rd||Starts low, dips to the bottom, then rises toward the top|
|4th||Starts at the top, then falls sharp and strong to the bottom|
|neutral||Flat, with no emphasis|
Now you understand why it is so important to use the right tone: if you use the wrong tone, you may end up calling your mama a horse. It also means learning Chinese in context is very important.