Unlike most European languages, Chinese is a tonal language. This means that the pitch at which a word is pronounced can entirely change its meaning.
Tones add an extra layer of difficulty to learning spoken Mandarin. But the good news is that it’s perfectly possible to master pronunciation - especially for kids, whose vocal chords are far more flexible than ours.
In this article, we’re looking at what Chinese tones are and why it’s so important to learn them.
The five Chinese tones
Mandarin has four main tones and one neutral one. Here’s what they look like:
First tone (ā): High and level.
Second tone (á): Rising, like asking a question.
Third tone (ǎ): Starts mid, dips down, and rises.
Fourth tone (à): Sharp falling, like a command.
Neutral tone: Light and unstressed, often shorter than the others. It doesn’t have a tone mark, signifying to the speaker to use a neutral sound.
Why do you need to know Chinese tones?
For speakers of non-tonal languages, tones can be tricky to grasp. Not only do they require us to learn to pronounce new sounds, but they also add an extra step to learning to speak Mandarin.
Tones might seem like an unnecessary inconvenience, but they are actually a crucial part of the spoken language. Because they are what help the listener understand exactly what the speaker is saying.
And one small difference in the pronunciation of a word can completely change its meaning - which can lead to some funny misunderstandings!
Let’s look at a super simple example.
The following characters are all noticeably different in written form. But they are pronounced using the sound ‘ma’. So, without clearly pronouncing the tone, you risk the speaker totally misunderstanding what you want to say.
妈 (mā) - Mother
麻 (má) - Hemp
马 (mǎ) - Horse
骂 (mà) - Scold
吗 (ma) - A particle used to form a question
While context and sentence structure usually offer the listener clues as to what you’re intending to say, you can’t simply rely on this to be understood. That’s why it’s so important to learn your tones.
How do you learn the Chinese tones?
Teachers will usually begin a Mandarin course by introducing the five tones and getting students to practise by saying different words.
This can get pretty tedious pretty quickly, especially for young kids. Plus, drilling the sounds isn’t the best way to produce them.
Once kids are aware of the tones, the best way to pick them up is by exposing them to the natural language. They’ll instinctively start to mimic the sounds they hear Mandarin speakers use, making it easier for them to remember the correct pronunciation without getting bored.
Learn Chinese tones in an engaging way
Our StoryDraw Mandarin course exposes kiddos to the sounds of Chinese through stories. So, they’ll hear and learn the different tones whilst being immersed in an interactive adventure.
This not only makes learning tones more interesting but far more effective, as they aren’t being quizzed on which character carries which tone.
If you’d like to introduce your kiddo to the Chinese language in a low-pressure, enjoyable way, we’d love to hear from you.
Take a peek here at the "journey" of Chinese tones! [Click here]
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