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The Mandarin Chinese tone system
Home > Languages > Mandarin > Tones

Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language. It means that a tone (i.e. rising voice) is associated with each syllable. The meaning of the word is completely different if you change the tone. For instance, the word " he " with a high level tone means " to drink ", and with a rising tone means the " river ". There are four tones in Mandarin Chinese : the high level tone, the rising tone, the falling rising tone and the falling tone.

Mastering the tones is the key to speaking Mandarin Chinese. Your sentences will have absolutely no sense if you do not use the tones correctly. It is easier than it sounds. To learn the tones, you either need good tapes or access to a native speaker.

Once you master the four basic tones, you have to discover how they interact with each other in the sentence. Here again, you can spend hours with grammar books that will explain how the falling rising tone is modified by the presence of another falling rising tone and how it gets shorter at the end of a sentence... Much better is to practice with conversation or tapes. The flow of the Chinese sentences will became very natural and you will stop worrying about the tones at every syllable.

One difficult aspect for Western learners is that you cannot use the level of your voice to express feelings or emotion. In English, for instance, you can transform any statement into a question by raising the level of the voice at the end of the sentence. This won't work in Chinese. Raising the voice change the meaning of the word ! This is very disturbing for a Western mind. Another example : in English, if you want to answer with enthusiasm to somebody, you could just say " Great ! ", and you would use what would be for a Chinese a falling tone. If you use the same word " Great " with a falling rising tone, you would transmit irony or disillusion, meaning in fact that this is not great at all. Not to be able to use this very useful tool to transmit emotion when you learn to speak Chinese makes it more difficult to communicate for a Chinese student, especially due to the fact that when you learn a language you often compensate your limited vocabulary or grammar knowledge with extra emotion in your voice. In fact, Chinese people can also transmit emotion with the level of their voice, but this is done in a very subtle way and it takes time to feel it.

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