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What are tones?

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December 31, 2014

I’ve heard Chinese is a tonal language; what does that mean? How do I make the sounds? Are there any tips to learning tones?

2 Answers

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As you probably know, there are four main tones, and one neutral tone.

Imagine three pitch levels of your voice. If you were to write what first tone looks like it would be a straight line across the highest pitch. If you were to hold it, it would sound like you were singing.

Second tone would be a diagonal from the middle pitch up to the top pitch, like you’re asking a question.

Third tone starts at the middle pitch, dips down to the lowest pitch, and comes back up to the middle pitch. It would look like a lower case “u”.

Fourth tone would be a sharp diagonal from the top pitch to the bottom pitch, like you were mad.

Fifth tone is neutral, and spoken with no intonation, as if you’re saying a regular English word. Picturing these diagrams in your head when you speak will help your voice too! Creative visualization!

Some people also like to use their hands or their head to follow along while practicing. Have a Chinese friend help you and ask them to be a tone nazi! It’s important to break bad habits before they start.

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To put it simply, Chinese phonetics contains 声母(shēnɡmǔ), 韵母(yùnmǔ) and 声调(shēnɡdiào).