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Lesson Transcript

Victor: 大家好 (dàjiā hǎo), I’m Victor.
Amber: Hey everybody, I’m Amber and welcome back to ChineseClass101.com. And we have our special All About Chinese series today. Lesson 4, what are we going to learn about, Victor?

Lesson focus

Victor: Today we’re going to learn about the pronunciation of Chinese.
Amber: Yes, pronunciation, very important. And Chinese pronunciation, there are some sounds similar to English, some that are very different. So we’re going to help you learn about that, and also the dreaded tones. Not to be dreaded. Yeah, but we have Victor here, our native speaker. So he’s going to give us live demonstration of the four tones of Chinese.
Victor: Right. So you make sure you copy all the sounds I make today and then review at home.
Amber: And you’ll be set, you’ll sound just like Victor.
Victor: Exactly.
Amber: But I kind of think we should false advertise. Because, Victor, we say there’s four tones, but there’s actually kind of five.
Victor: Right, they are. Total, five. But the four most important ones, although the fifth one is also important.
Amber: Yeah, the fifth tone is kind of a non-tone. Some people call it the neutral tone. And basically what it is is it has no tone at all. That’s why sometimes people don’t say there’s five tones, cause it doesn’t really have a tone, so it’s sort of understated, like the Switzerland of tones. Doesn’t cause trouble, it’s neutral.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: Ok, so, first of all, before we get to the tones though, we’ve spoken a bit in the other All About Chinese lessons about the Pinyin system that’s very important to learn for Chinese pronunciation. So basically, let’s talk a bit about Pinyin first, Victor, a review. Chinese characters, when you look at them, they don’t give you any sort of very obvious indications of how to pronounce them. You can’t sound them out like you can an English word, right? So what is Pinyin then?
Victor: So Pinyin is a system used to label Chinese pronunciation. So they actually use Romanized letters.
Amber: That’s right. And basically, you can find, look at ChineseClass101.com if you’re at a computer right now, you can look at our Pinyin chart. In this Pinyin chart you’ll see on one side there’s all of the possible initial sounds of Chinese and also on the other part of the graph is all of the possible final sounds. So Chinese is different, it’s not made up of just random letters combined. There’s always certain beginning sounds to the word and certain ending sounds, which is the initial sounds and the final sounds.
Victor: Right. And you combine these to label the pronunciation of a single character. So every single character can be labeled by a Pinyin to tell you how to pronounce.
Amber: That’s right. And then some characters are stand-alone words, like for example, the word for “tree”. How do you say that, Victor?
Victor: 树 (shù).
Amber: Right, so 树 (shù) is one character. The 树 is S-H-U, fourth tone. But if you want to say “forest”, it’s actually two Chinese characters combined. Many Chinese characters are made up this way. So how would you say forest?
Victor: You say 树林 (shùlín).
Amber: Right. So the second character has its own 林, L-I-N, second tone. And so, put together, the word changes. So it’s kind of there’s often a root word, and then you can combine other characters together to make more complicated words. Ok, so speaking of the Pinyin, how many sounds altogether are there in Chinese?
Victor: There are about 400 word sounds in Chinese.
Amber: Right. And this is why, in fact, Chinese pronunciation is not that hard, because if you can master these 400 sounds, later you just change the tones and combine, and make more words. But there’s not really that many things to memorize in the beginning. Ok, so you’ll probably notice that Pinyin is made up of English letters, Romanized letters. Now, Victor, can we just read this like English even though it looks like English.
Victor: That, unfortunately, you can’t.
Amber: Oh, come on…
Victor: For the most part, they do sound very similar, but they are very, I guess, very small differences in certain places. And that you have to pay attention to and has very different way of pronouncing in Chinese.
Amber: Yeah, and we have some other lessons on ChineseClass101 that will help you with the more difficult pronunciations in Pinyin that you can also check out at the website. And also, the best way to learn, of course, is by listening to native speakers like you, Victor.
Victor: Yeah, or find Chinese friends around you. Bother them.
Amber: Exactly, and trying to imitate the sounds is a good way.
Victor: Harass them, try to make them talk to you in Chinese.
Amber: I’m sure they’ll be willing. Like I always harass you, Victor. But also you can check out the Pinyin chart, which has clickable audio. If you don’t have any Chinese people around you, which would be a miracle, because there’s always Chinese people everywhere, but if you are just you, in your bedroom, alone, you can click on the chart, you’ll hear the MP3 audio of a native speaker pronouncing each sound of Pinyin. You can learn really quickly that way. Ok, all of this Pinyin talk, but let’s get down to what everyone really wants to know about, Victor, the tones.
Victor: The tones, yes. The four tones. So I guess we’ll just go through each tone, individually, and then I’ll make a lot of examples and you can copy me and make sure that you’re listening out there, practice.
Amber: Yeah, I’m staying out of this one. It’s the Victor show today. Ok, so why don’t we start with the beginning. First tone, Victor.
Victor: Sure. The first one is very simple. Ok…
Amber: So I know a couple. Victor will pronounce it, and then I will give a play by play commentary.
Victor: Sure.
Amber: On the tone.
Victor: That sounds good.
Amber: Ok, so Victor, which word do you want to use? People generally are always going like MA. Should we use MA or should we mix it up?
Victor: Yeah, let’s just use that one.
Amber: Let’s go for the classic MA.
Victor: Right. So it’s M-A, that’s the M will be the initial sound here, and A will be the final sound.
Amber: And this is a good one, because it’s pronounced just like you would read it in English. MA, just like your mama, right?
Victor: So for every such word sound in Chinese you have four or five tones.
Amber: Yeah, so there’s four possible ways to say MA in Chinese. So we’ll start with the first.
Victor: The first one is very simple, very easy. It’s flat, it’s just Mā.
Amber: I have to repeat after him.
Victor: You have to just let it out, and do nothing to it. Just Mā.
Amber: Yeah, and the thing is that it’s steady and slightly high. Not like “MA”, no. but just on the higher end of your range of your voice. So everyone’s MA is going to be different, the important thing is that it’s somewhat high and steady.
Victor: Right. So it’s, once again, “Mā”.
Amber: “Mā”.
Victor: And to help you to visualize it, you can just think of it as a flat like. Like a flat, straight line. That’s how you will say it. And actually that’s how you will label the tone once you get to that level, because this is what they teach students in China to do.
Amber: Yeah, like in Pinyin you’ll notice there’s letters. But there’s also a symbol on top of the letters that tells you what tone to pronounce it in. So, in this case, the line is drawn just like Victor described. Just flat.
Victor: A flat, horizontal line. That’s the first tone.
Amber: Great. Alright, moving along. Second tone.
Victor: That’ll be “Má”.
Amber: Ok, second tone, it’s a rising tone. Here’s my commentary, play by play, starts a little bit low, ends high. I guess that’s what rising means.
Victor: Right. So it goes like this again. “Má”
Amber: Yeah, this second tone, to me, it reminds me a lot of in English how we say “Huh?” If you don’t understand something someone said. “Huh?” It’s exactly the same as “Huh?”
Victor: So it just goes up.
Amber: “Má”.
Victor: “Má” And to label it the symbol for that is just like a slash. So from lower end.
Amber: Forward slash, right
Victor: Right, forward slash.
Amber: Yeah, not back slash, forward slash. So if you see the forward slash above the Pinyin letter, you know it’s second tone. And even that’s how it feels, right? I mean the slash makes sense, it just goes up.
Victor: Yes.
Amber: Ok, next, third tone.
Victor: Ok, get ready for this one. “Mǎ”
Amber: Say it again. Play it again, Sam.
Victor: Mǎ.
Amber: Ok, some people think it sounds like second, but actually it’s different. Third tone dips down slightly in the middle and then slightly rises.
Victor: Right.
Amber: Now, to me, third tone was very hard to master. But you know what finally made me master it, Victor
Victor: What is that?
Amber: Was that if you feel a slight vibration at the base of your throat. That is how you know you’re doing it correctly.
Victor: Right, that’s good actually.
Amber: Do it again.
Victor: Ma.
Amber: Yeah, see? Second tone, do it again.
Victor: Ma.
Amber: It doesn’t have the vibration “ma”, it doesn’t go up, it’s more shallow. Third tone is more deep.
Victor: There’s two parts. You first kind of have to reel your voice in and then let it out kind of backwards.
Amber: So let me try it. Mǎ. See? It’s like, if you make a little croaking sound at your throat, you’re kind of getting it. Mǎ.
Victor: Right, it’s just “Mǎ”. So the second part it kind of goes up again. And the symbol for that will be like a checkmark. So it goes down first, and then it goes up again.
Amber: Yeah, like a little v. So when you see that in the Pinyin, you’ll know that that’s third tone. Now, fourth tone, the angry tone. Very easy for all of us to learn because we all get angry sometimes. So no matter what our language, we probably all use fourth tone sometimes or another. How does it sound, Victor? Give us a really angry one.
Victor: Mà.
Amber: Ah, it sounds so nice. Mà. it’s more like it.
Victor: Actually it’s kind of like Mà, the word, it means to curse at someone in Chinese.
Amber: Yeah, I know, it’s true.
Victor: So it’s kind of angry, I guess.
Amber: I know, I often think of that. So when you say “ma” for a tone, it actually means to scold someone.
Victor: Right.
Amber: So it’s perfect. So yeah, it’s kind of falling, and falling fast. A little bit more emphatic, but it’s true, we don’t always say it so angry sounding.
Victor: Right, so it’s “ma”.
Amber: Just slightly angry.
Victor: And the symbol for that will be a backward slash.
Amber: That’s right. So starting at the top, falling down. That’s the fourth tone.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: Good. And last, but not least…
Victor: Yeah. The fifth tone, also very important.
Amber: Neutral tone.
Victor: Not as difficult, is just the simple. Neutral tone. So in this case, will be “ma”.
Amber: Yeah, it’s sort of very short, not overly pronounced. And the fifth tone, the neutral tone, will actually only come, generally, at the end of sentences. And sometimes some measure words are also neutral tone, some small words like 了 (le), as well. Particles, different particles, that we add in the sentences. They’re generally all just small, little under pronounced parts of the sentence.
Victor: Right. And to pronounce it, you don’t really push it through. You just make the sound and leave it right there. That’s it.
Amber: That’s right. So can you give us an example of, say, neutral tone within another word? How would it sounds?
Victor: 好了 (hǎole) means “it’s ready” or “it’s good”, “it’s recovered” or whatever.
Amber: In that sentence, the 好 (hǎo) sounds like third tone.
Victor: Right, hǎo instead of mǎ it’ll be hǎo.
Amber: And then the 了 (le) just sounds sort of light.
Victor: Right. 了 (le) is the fifth one.
Amber: So say it again.
Victor: 好了 (hǎole)
Amber: 好了 (hǎole)
Victor: 好了 (hǎole)
Amber: Right, can see the 了 (le) just sort of…
Victor: Just comes out. I guess, should I just say the fifth altogether, and you can compare how they sound when they’re put together. It’s mā.
Amber: First.
Victor: má.
Amber: Second.
Victor: mǎ.
Amber: Third.
Victor: mà.
Amber: Fourth.
Victor: ma.
Amber: Neutral.
Victor: Yeah, so mā, má, mǎ, mà.


Amber: Yeah. And now, some people when they’re first learning, they have different techniques to help them, right? Some people gesture with their head, they’re like MA. Moving their head around. We don’t really recommend that, cause you look kind of weird, but if it helps anything goes. Or you can use your hand to remember what tone it is. But I think my best advice is don’t overthink it. Just try and listen and repeat. Listen to your teacher, your friends, anyone… or the Pinyin chart if you’re lonely, at home, in your room, just copy it.
Victor: Yeah, and people have told me before that when I say it fast, people can’t tell the difference. For the untrained ear. And like we talked about in other lessons, is when you are a foreign person learning Chinese, Chinese people give you a lot of leeway.
Amber: That’s right. They’re very kind and forgiving. Even if you say a swear word by accident. Ok, so everyone check out ChineseClass101.com, make sure you go there and take a look at the Pinyin chart.