Mastering Chinese Tones

Mastering Chinese Tones

Many people are wondering, “How difficult or how hard is it to learn Chinese?” To put it simply, pretty tough, when you consider what we don’t know about tones and Chinese characters. Still, there are several key steps that you can take to help you learn Mandarin Chinese much faster.

First, make learning the tones your number one priority! Mandarin has four basic tones. But, for an English speaker who barely even knows what a tone is, this can definitely be overwhelming!

Tones are the pitches that are used when speaking a particular sound—kind of like music added to the words that someone says. And boy, do they make a huge difference! You can say four entirely different things (with the SAME sound, but with different tones).

The basics of each tone are briefly explained below. Understanding how each tone works is crucial to your mastery of the language. If you skip over this as if it is nothing, then I can guarantee that most Chinese speakers will feel you know NOTHING about the language itself.

On the other hand, if you master the tones, you will get compliments all day long about how wonderful your Chinese is—even if you can only speak a few words!

The Four Tones of Mandarin Chinese

1st-toneFirst tone: a higher than normal flat pitch (This pitch is extremely annoying if repeated over & over again—much like a high monotone singer who is blatantly trying to annoy you!)

2nd-toneSecond tone: a rising pitch that begins at your normal speaking pitch and rises (This is probably the hardest to distinguish and even native Chinese speakers sometimes confuse the second and third tones).

3rd-toneThird tone: a falling & rising tone that begins at your normal pitch, falls, & then rises (It’s sometimes pretty obvious when you hear this pitch because it’s pretty distinct).

4th-toneFourth tone: a falling pitch that usually begins at a higher than normal pitch and falls softly (Most English speakers make the mistake of landing too quickly & makes it sound as if you are angry as you speak this tone. Be careful not to be part of the vast majority: Land with style and grace).

Listen to the Four Tones

Now that you have an overview of the four Chinese tones, take a moment to listen to them.  That way, you can understand what your voice should do, see visually above how the tone should sound, and hear what the four spoken tones sound like.

Second, learn PinYin (aka the Chinese alphabet) well. The Mandarin language has a simple beauty that is timeless and understanding the basics of the tones and PinYin will help you learn to speak Mandarin Chinese.

I began speaking (in an understandable way) after six months and was able to have conversations with people. However, I was informed by native speakers that it will take more than ten years to truly have mastery of the language!

So, how difficult is it to learn Chinese? After mastering the above tones and knowing how to learn Chinese PinYin, I think you can adequately decide for yourself how hard it is to learn Chinese!

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