Friday, July 20, 2012

The Four Tones Are Totally Not That Bad

I remember a time I got annoyed at someone for referring to a certain holiday in November as THANKSgiving, rather than ThanksGIVing.

And if you understand the difference between saying THANKSgiving and ThanksGIVing, well congratulations, you are capable of understanding the different tones in Mandarin Chinese.

You may have heard that "Chinese is a tonal language." And you may have concluded that, obviously you had no idea what that meant and clearly learning Chinese is impossible. And I'm here to tell you it's NOT impossible. (source: I'm white and I speak Chinese.)

What is a tonal language?

"Tone" is the pitch of your voice while pronouncing a word. In a tonal language, the tone is actually really really important- if you pronounce it with a different tone, you're actually saying a different word.

Here is a diagram of the 4 tones in Mandarin Chinese. The top of the image would be a high pitch, the bottom is a low pitch. You know, like in music.

Image source.
(Oh, also- you see those numbers on the side from 1 to 5? Don't worry about them- no one's measuring whether your voice started at a 2 or 3. The important thing is just to go up or down correctly.)

You really have to hear them to get it, so here is a youtube video. Just listen for like 30 seconds- beyond that, she goes on to talk about other things. (You know, other things related to the fact that Chinese is totally not that hard.)

So you have nī, ní, nǐ, and nì. (And actually there's also a "5th tone" or "no tone", which is when you say it so fast that nobody can tell what tone it was.)

But Perfect Number! I listened to that youtube video like 5 times and they all sounded the same! I can never learn Chinese!

Yes, at first they do all sound the same. That's because in English it totally doesn't matter, so you're not used to paying attention to it.

(They all sounded the same for me too at the beginning. But guess what? After practicing it a billion times, they don't sound the same at all.)

Let me tell you a secret: Chinese people can't tell you offhand what tone a word is either. Maybe someone tells me "apple is píng guǒ" and as I'm writing it down, I ask what tone to put on the "ping".

And then I hear him quietly say to himself "ping ping ping ping" and then he tells me "second." He says it all 4 ways and then picks the one that matches.

And the moral of this story: Chinese people are not thinking about the tones as they talk. So don't worry, once you have enough practice, you don't have to either.

They know how to pronounce it with the right tone because that's the only way they've ever heard people say it. Not because they're thinking "okay this syllable needs the first tone, this next syllable needs the third tone..."

It would just sound weird to use the wrong tone.

When you speak English, no one ever asks you "was that a long or short A", right?

Not even the grammar police. Their only concerned with weather your using the right kind of "there." Image source.

So on one hand, the tones are totally not a big deal. With enough practice, it'll just come naturally, because you pronounce it the way you've heard it pronounced. (Personally, I don't think about the tones at all when I speak Chinese, unless it's a word that I'm unfamiliar with and I'm trying really hard to get the pronunciation right.) Also, if you get a few wrong, people can still figure out what you're saying, usually.

But on the other hand, it is really important because if you say them all wrong, no one will understand you. This is why it's SUPER SUPER important to have a Chinese person to practice with. Then they'll correct you. Easy. I think the tones would only be super-hard if you were trying to learn it completely on your own, with no audio samples of what it SHOULD sound like, and no feedback about whether or not you're close enough.

In summary: If you want to go learn Chinese, don't let anyone tell you it's too hard. I mean, it's hard- you're learning another language, what did you expect? But it's not impossible. When I started studying Chinese, I really thought it might be impossible for white people to speak Chinese, since I always heard Americans give reasons for why Chinese is "hard." Lies.

And the four tones? Totally not a big deal.


A quick note on the difference between the terms "Chinese" and "Mandarin." When people talk about "speaking Chinese" they almost always mean Mandarin, but there are actually many Chinese languages. As far as I can tell, everyone in China can speak Mandarin, but most of them also know a "local dialect" which is really another language. I speak Mandarin- I don't know any other Chinese languages. Most people (myself included) seem to use the terms "Chinese" and "Mandarin" interchangeably.

Click here for more posts on learning Mandarin. 


  1. Was anyone else excited about the fact that they *could* tell the difference between the tones? :D

    This was fun and interesting. Thanks.

    1. Haha- cool, I couldn't tell the difference the first time. ^_^ Good for you. Chinese isn't hard.

  2. Did anyone else notice that you used the wrong weather vs. whether under your Grammar Police badge? I giggled. Thanks for making my day a little brighter!

  3. Yep, that was on purpose. ^_^ Thanks for all your comments on my blog today!

  4. This drill was really helpful for me: