Why Chinese Is Challenging: Tones

8 Sep

The Tones of Mandarin Chinese:


Until I learned the four tones of Mandarin Chinese, I was unable to communicate in Chinese. Saying hello (Nǐ Hăo) was about all the success I had for a month, and even that earned me a few smirks. The Taiwanese are not pretentious or picky; my speech was just not comprehensible when I pronounced each word with whatever voice inflection I wanted. Let me explain tones to you. It is the hardest language characteristic I have ever encountered.

A speaker of Chinese must pronounce every single word with a certain tone of voice.  The most common example is the word ma which, depending on how it is pronounced, has four different meanings: mother, hemp, horse, and scold. This is different than our comparatively infrequent English homophones such as “pair” and “pear”, which we differentiate between through context clues. Chinese speakers rely heavily on the tone of voice that is used to pronounce each word. Listen to this recording to hear a man pronounce mother in the fist tone, hemp in the second tone, horse in the third tone, and scold in the fourth tone.

Below, I differentiate between these four tonal sounds using English words. Focus on how the word “hey” would be said using the Chinese tone in each scenario. In the interest of making this explanation more understandable, the tones will be presented in reverse order.

Fourth Tone: You notice that a kid is preparing to hit another kid with a book, and in a stern voice you shout, “Hey, don’t do that.” Your voice is getting lower as you say the word “hey”, and you’re using your chest voice as opposed to your head voice. When I first moved here, I found it difficult to hear the drop in pitch. Pronounced like: hey (sternly with chest voice)
Third Tone: You are walking along the street and someone taps you on the shoulder. You turn around startled. But when you see that it’s your co-worker, you say, “Oh, hey”.  Pronounced like: hayey (but don’t carry out the “ey” too long).
Second Tone: You are in the grocery store with your spouse. Your spouse sees some hay for sale (by the way, you are a horse), and as a short-hand way of asking if you want to buy some today, your spouse says, “Hay?” In Chinese this tone is not just for questions, it is the way to pronounce many words no matter the context. Pronounced like: hay?
First Tone: You are singing the Do, Re, Mi song, and when you get to “Mi” you say “Hey” in its place like this: Do, Re, Hey, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do . Your voice is high pitched and even, not going up or down while saying the word “hey”. Not everyone will pronounce the first tone at the same pitch, just make sure it’s at a higher pitch than the other tones and that you keep the pitch even throughout the word. Pronounced like: hey♫
In English you can choose which words to emphasize or keep neutral, but in Chinese, the tone needed for each word is already determined. Imagine that English has to use these same four tones, and you must learn what tone every single English word uses. Let’s start with this simple phrase:

Ĭ wànt to drīnk wăter. (Though only the vowel has the accent, the entire word takes that tone)

Ĭ is the third tone (Pronounced like: hayey)

wànt is the fourth tone (Pronounced like: hey – sternly with chest voice)

to drīnk is the first tone (Pronounced like: hey♫ – a higher, even tone)

wăter is the third tone. (Pronounced like: hayey which is about how you normally say  the word “water”)

Say the sentence quickly, but stay true to the tones so you don’t say “I want rubber water” or something.

Imagine that you are learning a whole new language, say Chinese, and besides learning the vocabulary and syntax of the language, you also must learn the tone corresponding with each word. Actually, this is probably easier than trying to relearn English with tones, but it gives you an idea of what one is up against when learning to speak Chinese. I find it especially difficult when my desire to say the third tone does not transfer to my mouth actually producing the third tone. Keep in mind, that even making the correct sound to begin with, tones or no tones, can be difficult for some. For example, there is a sound I just learned that doesn’t exist at all in English. It’s a letter in their alphabet that sounds like “z” and “i” are fighting.

It is also important to know that the Chinese alphabet is not used in written communication; the written word is comprised of characters. The alphabet is just for learning to speak and sometimes for writing foreigner’s names (because there are no Chinese characters that mean Scarlett Johansson, for example). Here is the Chinese alphabet:

Representing these sounds with English letters can be deceiving such as in the “m” that leads you to believe that Chinese sound is pronounced “mmm”. But it’s actually “muh”.

Teaching my mouth to say each of the above sounds in the first tone is my initial challenge. Then as I learn words, which are made up of combinations of the alphabet sounds just like in English, I must use the other three tones at the correct times.

Here is an example of Chinese characters. This sign has English also, but half the time restaurants don't have English on the sign or the menu, and it's very daunting to eat there, especially for Carrie who is a vegetarian. We kept going to a restaurant that, unbenownst to us, is called "Beef Soup Restaurant" and trying to order vegetarian food for Carrie.

An example of Chinese characters (words). Each character is comprised of sounds that can be found in the Chinese alphabet that is posted above.

Earlier this week I learned how to say “I want to drink water” in Mandarin. Today at the park in Taipei, Taiwan, I overheard a mom say “Hē shuǐ” to her son. She was telling him to drink his water! I had no direct visual cues; I just heard the words while passing by. It was an amazing breakthrough for me. Chinese is beginning to sound like an actual language instead of just incomprehensible sounds.

I understand, now, why native Chinese speakers sound a bit like robots when speaking English. It’s not because they have no style; it’s because they HAVE to say each words with a certain tone of voice in order to communicate in Chinese. They make up for this by smiling a lot, at least in Taiwan… I heard the Chinese are more brash. The fact that a Chinese word like “shuǐ” (water) will always be said with the same tone of voice helps someone who is learning Chinese. This is one reason I heard it spoken at the park today. Think about Homer Simpson’s “Doh!” If someone says that same sound without the same inflection or tone, it just sounds like “dough”, and who’s going to pay attention to that if they hear it in passing, except bakers maybe.

Here is something interesting about working with children with a Chinese-speaking background. I suspect this is similar with speakers of other tonal languages such as Thai and Vietnamese. When speaking in English, these children do not vary the pitch of each word to match their emotions. So, when one of my students says, “Teacher, I need to go pee pee”, the robotic cadence of the speech causes his request to be drowned out by all the other chatter about the letter A or whatever. The word “teacher” is always pronounced in exactly the same tone of voice by each student, and it sounds like a computer program generated it- “Tea-cher”. In America a kid with an intense need to use the bathroom, will change his or her inflection to sound more dramatic or urgent. Native Chinese speakers do not typically do this, making them seem more respectful, calm, and collected, especially among Americans.


One Response to “Why Chinese Is Challenging: Tones”

  1. Erika September 17, 2011 at 8:34 pm #

    Very interesting!

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