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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.

Four tones of Chinese language

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:

Chinese English Tone Mark Description
 Four tones of Chinese language: Ma1 1st High and level
 Four tones of Chinese language: Ma2   2nd   Starts medium in tone, then rises to the top
Four tones of Chinese language: Ma3 3rd   Starts low, dips to the bottom, then rises toward the top
 Four tones of Chinese language: Ma4 4th Starts at the top, then falls sharp and strong to the bottom
 Four tones of Chinese language: Ma5 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.

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Related posts:
Introduction of Hanyu Pinyin – Basics
Introduction of Hanyu Pinyin – Initial Sounds
Introduction of Hanyu Pinyin – Final Sounds
Introduction of Hanyu Pinyin – Four tones

Tags: , , | categories Bilingual Baby, Chinese Lessons, From Lina | | datetime December 29, 2013 12:50 pm | comments Comments (3)

Comments

  1. 1
    Tallulah // November 25th, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    My children are learning my husband’s langugae, Twi, which is also a tonal language. They can hear the difference between the tones, whereas I cannot! As with Chinese, if you get it wrong, it can sound quite surprising, or even rude!

  2. 2
    Lina // November 25th, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    @Tallulah: Once you get to the advanced level of Chinese language, you will rely more on the context to get the right meanings.

  3. 3
    saim // February 10th, 2014 at 5:31 am

    Chinese is much easier than German language except tones

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