Mastering Chinese Tones
Many people are wondering, “How difficult or how hard is it to learn Chinese?” To put it simply, pretty tough, although answering this question doesn’t address all the factors that go into learning a language. Still, there are several key steps that you can take to help you learn Mandarin Chinese much faster.
Often, on rating scales for native English speakers, you will find that learning Mandarin Chinese or even Cantonese rate as some of the most difficult languages in the world! Of the two, though, Mandarin is much easier to learn for a few reasons.
First, Mandarin has four basic tones while Cantonese has anywhere from nine to thirteen, depending on how you categorize the tones. For English speaker who barely even know what a tone is, this can definitely be overwhelming, so begin today mastering Chinese tones!
To hear a sample audio, click play below
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!
- First tone: a higher than normal flat pitch (This pitch is extremely annoying if repeated over & over again—much like saying “aaahhhhhhhhhh” at the dentist’s or doctor’s office).
- Second tone: a rising pitch that begins at your normal speaking pitch and rises (This tone sounds like you are asking the question “huh?” because your voice rises–just like when asking a question and your voice rises at the end of the sentence).
- Third 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. You could liken it to someone who is extremely frustrated and says, “Oh!” Or, maybe it’s more like a kid trying to tell you that “That’s NOT how it is!” and says, “No!”).
- Fourth 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. This tone should sound like a great sigh of relief).
Second, the Mandarin language has a simple beauty that is timeless. Cantonese, on the other hand, tends to be a rapidly and constantly evolving language strewn with idioms and colloquial (or slang) phrases that make it more daunting for the beginning Chinese learner.
Understanding the basics of the tones and then using a few other simple tools will help you learn to speak Mandarin Chinese and make the process go much more smoothly for you! (See How to Learn to Speak Chinese for details).
I began speaking (in an understandable way) after six months and was able to have conversations with people. However, my in-laws informed me 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!