Introduction to Chinese language - the tones

The Chinese language is based on it’s characters. I think everybody recalls these objects when discussing Chinese, and it is difficult to imagine this language without the hanzis (ch. characters). Every single character has at least one reading, but sometimes more, which is represented using a writing system called “pinyin”. The pinyin is a fairly new invention, it has been created approximately 60 years ago, mostly for foreign learners, so that one can master the language without knowing the actual characters. In the same time, it turned to be so effective that it is now used in Chinese schools teaching native students. Basically it uses the English alphabet with the tones added on the top of the vowels.

Chris Lonsdale speaks fluent Chinese


We can hear it quite often that Chinese is the most difficult language in the world, because it has tones and many people think it is impossible for humans other then Chinese people to master. I think this way of thinking is very misleading. I have found some examples on the internet, that proves the opposite. Check out the following YouTube video, and listen to this linguist from New Zealand ( Chris Lonsdale ), who speaks fluent Chinese. Tones are indeed difficult to use and understand, since most of the European languages don’t use them. This is partly true though, since if we say a specific sentence using different intonations, the meaning might change as well. Therefore, we have some kind of knowledge about tones from the beginning, which we can rely on and start learning the five or if strictly speaking four tones of mandarin Chinese.

Chinese pagoda

The 0th tone is called toneless or neutral tone ( Chinese: 轻声 ),which might be the easiest to learn, since these syllables don’t have tone. Thus these syllables should not be stressed or tone should not be added. When they are written using pinyin, there is no mark above the syllable. For example: zhe – 着, de - 的 or 子 - zi. There are linguistics who don’t even treat it as a tone (that is why 4 or 5 tones are distinguished). First tone or high level tone ( Chinese: 第一声 ) are marked with a horizontal line above the syllable, such as 遮 – zhē, or 资 - zī. You have to pronounce these characters without changing your voice level.

Second tone syllables ( Chinese: 第二声 ) are marked with a 45 degrees right-leaning stroke when using pinyin, such as折- zhé or 德 - dé. You need to pronounce it as if you were asking a question. So zhe? or de ? respectively. The third tone or falling-rising tone is the most complex one. You need to pronounce these by starting from the first tone level, lower your voice, and then bring it back to the same level. When using pinyin, a small letter “v” above the syllable marks the direction of voice level change. For example: 锗 - zhě or 紫 - zǐ. The last tone is called fourth tone or falling tone ( Chinese: 第四声 ). You need to pronounce these syllables as if you were clearly stating something, so you need to lower your voice. The pinyin uses a 45 degrees left-leaning stroke for the fourth tone. For example: 这 - zhè or 字 - zì.



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