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How To Master The Four Chinese Tones Of Mandarin Chinese

1. What are the Chinese Tones

When you speak a phonetic language, the variations of your tone do not necessarily change the meaning of your words.  You might sometimes use different intonation to emphasise the meaning but in essence it remains the same.  However, in Chinese this is not the case. Even with the same initial and final, different tones represent distinctive characters and have different meanings. That could prove problematic when you realise there are many Chinese characters with the same initials and finals.  
Chinese is a tonal language, which means the way a sound is pronounced directly affects the meaning of what is said. That’s why chinese tones are a huge hurdle for speakers with phonetic languages who try to learn Chinese.  

1.1. Little background

There are many local dialects in China and they all have different pronunciations and tones, which might feel like many different languages.  For example, Cantonese alone has 6 tones. However, the good news is that the written language is mostly identical amongst these different dialects. We can credit the first emperor of the Qin dynasty for unifying the written language in China 2240 years ago. 
Mandarin, is the official language in China and its pronunciation and tones are based on the Beijing local dialects.  There are four main tones and a neutral one in Mandarin Chinese. Each tone has a distinctive pitch contour, which can be summarised as the following. 

1st High and level sound, pitch does not change A straight horizontal line: 
2ndRising tone, from low to high,just like the pitch in questionA rising diagonal line:/
3rd First falling and then going up againA curved “dipping” line: ˇ
4th Total falling tone which starts out very high and falls short and strongA dropping diagonal line:\
Neutral Pronounced very light and quickHave no tone mark

Patterns of chinese tones

2. Why Chinese Tones Matter

Typical chart of chinese tones and pinyin

If you can’t recognize the chinese tones, you will always struggle figuring out what Chinese people say.  And It can cause many embarrassing encounters when communicating with them.
At beginning, the pinyin chart does not look very difficult, as they are illustrated by Roman letters.  However, if you don’t spend enough time on mastering the tones and the proper pronunciations, the subsequent overload of similar vocabulary will ruin your confidence.  Enough practice with the help of your ears and mouth will help you tremendously, even though the beginning might be tedious and tough. Once you go through this essential part, you will lay an unbreakable foundation for your Chinese learning.  

3. How to improve your Chinese pronunciation 

Let’s look at some tips and suggestions to help you learn the chinese tones.

3.1. Master the basic rules of pronunciation and tones

As a beginner, the most important thing is to be familiar with all the pinyin sounds, spelling rules and tone changing rules. If possible, find a professional teacher who can speak standard mandarin Chinese and explain the differences among those similar sounds properly. At Eazzychinese, we have programs to help you master these and much more.

3.2. Make your own language environment

If you are learning Chinese in China or luckily are surrounded by a group of native speakers, just try to talk to them with what you have learnt. If you can’t follow them at the beginning, don’t feel embarrassed or upset. It’s a quite common phase. 
There are several other ways to create your own language environment if you are not in China or are not surrounded by Chinese speakers:
a)  Chinese learning audios or videos. Check-out my free lessons that will introduce you to the best way to learn Mandarin Chinese. Most Chinese schools do not even teach these techniques.

b)  You can listen some Chinese songs to perfect your accent.  
Also, learning from movies and TV shows is a great way to train your senses to the language. Additionally, you will also know more about Chinese culture as well.

3.3. Practice in words, phrases and sentences

Don’t just practice the individual characters. There is phonetic change in the flow of speech, especially the tones. Try to practice the phrases in two or four characters. Speak-out loud several times and listen for the tones and rhythm of the syllables. You will be able to feel the cadence of the language.  This will in turn help you pronounce the new words and form sentences more smoothly. 

3.4. Slow down and be clear

It’s natural to speak in a normal speed for the native speaker. But you are just a beginner, speed is the last thing you should care about. Instead, making your sounds clear and correct is more important.

3.5. Practice makes perfect

The key to learn any language is to practice. Practice by yourself to read loudly, clearly and slowly. At first your tongue will get twisted. That’s where speaking loudly will help. As you come back to the same text, your brain will have crushed it and make it more fluid for you. You can also practice with anyone who speaks Chinese well. You will be able to observe if the other person understands you, and then adjust and improve your pronunciation accordingly.  
Practice and practice again. If it does not work once (as it should), then do it one thousand times…… You will finally get it.

3.6. Tools, APP and Books

a) Books:You can check-out my listings of the best books to learn Chinese and why they are effective and yield results. These Mandarin Chinese textbook are ideal with audio files for better pronunciation and understanding. The lessons include vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar and sentence structure and even cultural information. New Practice for Chinese Readers is available on Amazon.

b) Pinyin Tools : you can find pinyin chart, tone chart, Pinyin to Chinese character converter app from here.

c) Pleco – This dictionary is one of the most useful and frequently used ones for people learning Mandarin. You can search either by Chinese character or pinyin spelling. If you have heard a new Chinese word that you do not understand, you can easily search through this site to figure out what it is. There is a premium version as well which includes audio pronunciations.

4. Is it really hard to learn chinese? 

This is a good question, and in my view the most appropriate answer is “Not if you take it as a jigsaw puzzle game (link to article)”. Mandarin chinese is complex, and this difficulty is exacerbated by the expectations many have of finding an easy way to learn fast. Instead, it’s better to think “I have a framework (e.g. 1,000 characters), I have great techniques from EAZZYCHINESE, I have great books to learn chinese and I will put the time. That equation will guarantee you success.

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