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Lesson Transcript

Amber: Hi everyone, I am Amber.
Victor: 大家好 (Dàjiā hǎo), I am victor.
Amber: And welcome to ChineseClass101’s pronunciation series. Today’s topic is...
Victor: The Famous Tones of Chinese.
Amber: Yes the four tones that matter in Chinese. Well some people say five.
Victor: Famous or infamous
Amber: Yes.
Victor: Yeah the tong is an inherent part of the Chinese word or a character. The tong cannot be separate from the pronunciation. It’s part of the pronunciation for each word or each character.

Lesson focus

Amber: So basically every word sound that there is in Chinese can be said in four different ways or tones. And the tone is not separate from the pronunciation.
Victor: Correct. So for each way you can combine a sound that we mentioned in our other lesson that there are 400 word sounds in Chinese. For each of those combination, there are four or five ways to say them.
Amber: Right and so this five is very important to remember that the tone is the pronunciation of the word. If you change the tone of the word, people might misunderstand you because you are actually saying a different word.
Victor: Right.
Amber: So you can’t really let your emotions affect your tone or voice as much as you want in English.
Victor: Once you master the tone, then you can do it with the tone.
Amber: It’s the high level tone mastery. I know we keep talking about four tones but the truth is, there is actually five tones. Sometimes it’s a bit of false advertising because there is a fifth tone. The only reason it has no identity as a tone is it’s a bit of a nontone, right Victor?
Victor: Right, the neutral tone.
Amber: Yeah it has a bit of identity crisis maybe because the thing is it’s very understated.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: So people don’t often think about it so much.
Victor: It just kind of sits there. You don’t really have to do anything with it but it’s essential that you know what it is.
Amber: But it’s important to know that neutral tone will only ever come generally in the second half of a sentence or some of the particles that are very small like mood particles you will hear in Chinese are neutral tone as well.
Victor: Right.
Amber: So we will give some more examples later of how they all sound and how they sound put together. Okay so let’s just take a pinyin word m-a. In Chinese, it sounds like ma. Let’s start with the first tone. Victor, can you pronounce ma for us in the first tone?
Victor: It’s [MĀ].
Amber: Okay. So the first tone if you will notice, it’s higher, a little bit higher in your vocal range and steady. It doesn’t really change. It’s constant, [MĀ].
Victor: Right. It’s kind of flat and just [MĀ]…
Amber: So Victor, can you give us a couple other words in Chinese that are in first tone?
Victor: Well, there are a lot of them. You can say [TĀ] which is the word for he, she, or it.
Amber: Very common one.
Victor: Very common.
Amber: [TĀ]
Victor: Other ones include [DĀO], [ZHĪ], [SHŪ].
Amber: Even though they are different words, we can all hear there is a certain steady higher level tone and that is the first tone. Okay now the second tone, the second tone is a rising tone. Let’s hear it with the word ma again in second tone Victor.
Victor: That’s [MÁ], [MÁ].
Amber: Now, this to me kind of sounds like the intonation that we use in English when we are indicating a question, kind of like when we say “huh?”
Victor: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Amber: I think it’s the same, [MÁ].
Victor: Sounds very much like, [MÁ], “huh” like questions “huh?”
Amber: So you start a little bit lower and you just steadily rise to the top.
Victor: Yes.
Amber: How about some more examples of second tone words?
Victor: Like [DÁ], [CHÁNG], [BÁ]. Yeah that’s a few.
Amber: Yeah all that same rising tone like “huh?”
Victor: Yes.
Amber: Good. The next tone is the third tone. Now let’s hear an example of ma in third tone Victor.
Victor: It’s [Mǎ]. [Mǎ].
Amber: Now you will notice that the third tone dips down slightly in the middle. In fact, you can even almost hear or feel when you are saying it a slight vibration at the base of your throat if you are doing it correctly. Let’s hear it again Victor.
Victor: [Mǎ]. [Mǎ].
Amber: How about some other words in third tone?
Victor: [Dǎ], [Zhǐ], [Kě], [Měi]
Amber: Yeah they all have that slight vibration.
Victor: It’s kind of like you have to kind of dip your voice and then come back up again.
Amber: Okay. Now moving along, we have the fourth tone. Some people call it the angry tone. Let’s hear if it sounds angry Victor, ma in fourth tone.
Victor: [MÀ], [MÀ].
Amber: It sounds a little angry but you are so nice all the time, Victor, I never seen you angry.
Victor: It’s a little angry?
Amber: You never sound angry but basically because the tone is falling and it falls quite sharply, sometimes it sounds a little bit more emphatic or angry than the other tones.
Victor: Right. So [MÀ].
Amber: So how about some other words? Let’s hear how it sounds.
Victor: Other examples include [DÀ], [BÀ], [ZHÌ], [SHÀO], [SHÌ].
Amber: You sound a little bit mad, when you say that many in a row.
Victor: I think it’s kind of like you put a lot of emphasis on it you know.
Amber: Yeah. Okay and as promised, last but not least, we won’t leave it out. We have a understated humble neutral tone. Okay so Victor, how about the ma, how does it sound in neutral?
Victor: It’s very light. You just let it out. It’s [MA].
Amber: Yeah it’s probably just how we would say it in English if we read it on a page, ma, no tone.
Victor: Yeah, you don’t really put any emphasis in any particular way, just [MA], that’s it.
Amber: Yeah. So very famous neutral tone [MA] is the question particle 吗 (ma) that we put on the end of the sentence.
Victor: Right.
Amber: So for example Victor, can we hear ma in the sentence as a question particle?
Victor: So let’s say, do you want to drink tea and in Chinese, you will say 你想喝茶吗?(Nǐ xiǎng hē chá ma?)
Amber: Okay. The [MA] just is at the end, short and not accented.
Victor: Yeah the [MA] is in the end. 你想喝茶吗?(Nǐ xiǎng hē chá ma?) and just goes with it.
Amber: Okay. All right, so let’s hear a couple more neutral tones in how it sounds in combination with another syllable. We mentioned that the neutral tone if it’s in a compound word in Chinese, it will only ever be in the second half of the sentence. So I know there is a really common one that uses neutral tone which is the word for what.
Victor: Yes. So it is 什么 (shénme), 什么 (shénme). So the second word [ME], you can just let it out.
Amber: It’s just short.
Victor: Yeah, 什么 (shénme).
Amber: Now if it was like, I know there is no such word but say it was like (shénmè) it’d be like harder for this fourth tone.
Victor: Right. That will be different (shénmè)
Amber: Now let’s hear the neutral tone.
Victor: [shénme]
Amber: Yeah. It’s just a little lighter.
Victor: Yeah it’s a lot lighter and you know like [LE], you know, like 走了 (zǒu le)
Amber: Yeah. [LE] is also neutral tone and very common particle used in Chinese, good.
Victor: Yeah they are light but essential. Without them, you know, the sentences may not make sense.
Amber: Okay great. Well that was the four – well, sometimes five tones in Mandarin Chinese. I don’t think it was too bad Victor.
Victor: No it’s not. I think the trick you have to say all four or five of them all together and just kind of like get them in your brain.
Amber: Okay can you say them all together to get them in our brain?
Victor: So like slowly first time [MĀ],[MÁ], [Mǎ], [MÀ], [MA].
Amber: Yeah it’s true when they are all together. It’s kind of…
Victor: Yeah it’s kind of like a little jingle on your head. You have to kind of just get with it.
Amber: And you hear them relative to each other. So can I hear the jingle again?
Victor: [MĀ],[MÁ], [Mǎ], [MÀ] so you just keep going you know [MĀ],[MÁ], [Mǎ], [MÀ]. Just keep going like that.
Amber: Do it now no matter where you are. [MĀ],[MÁ], [Mǎ], [MÀ].
Victor: Do it now. [MĀ],[MÁ], [Mǎ], [MÀ], there you go.
Amber: I think from experience, the most important thing with mastering the tones is just to keep listening and practicing the pronunciation yourself.
Victor: Right.
Amber: And your brain will eventually adapt.
Victor: Right. You can just let it be. So no need to worry too much about it but do know what they are and how to say them and you know, with more practice, it will come to you.


Amber: Yeah. So done, that was it, nothing to fear and one more thing is, remember one of the best ways that you can do this where you can listen and repeat is to go to chineseclass101.com where we have audio files of native speakers and even a voice recorder where you can hear how your voice sounds in comparison. It’s also a really good way to learn.
Victor: Yep. So we will see you at the website.
Amber: And we will see you next time. 再见!(zàijiàn!)
Victor: 再见!(zàijiàn!)


Please to leave a comment.
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ChineseClass101.com Verified
Saturday at 06:30 PM
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Please share any methods that have helped you with learning the tones as well!

ChineseClass101.com Verified
Wednesday at 01:46 PM
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Thank you for your comment. It's normal to speak slowly while you're still learning the language. For native speakers, we don't really think about the tones, we're used to how words sound, you could think of it as putting the correct stress on the correct syllable of a word in other languages.

The key is to practice more, when you're more used to the sounds, you'll naturally be able to speak faster.

If you have any questions, please let us know.


Team ChineseClass101.com

ChineseClass101.com Verified
Thursday at 01:58 PM
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Hello Patrick,

Thank you for your comment. Haha I think Victor just mispronounced the word "pronunciation". 😅

If you have any questions, please let us know.


Team ChineseClass101.com

Thursday at 10:05 AM
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iPad self corrected. I meant to say, “Victor says ‘pronounciation’. Is that British English for the American ‘pronunciation’.”

Thursday at 10:01 AM
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Victor says “pronunciation”. Is that the British way of saying “pronunciation”?

ChineseClass101.com Verified
Saturday at 06:27 AM
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你好 robert groulx!

谢谢 for commenting. We are very happy to have you here. Let us know if you have any questions.

Kind regards,

雷文特 (Levente)

Team ChineseClass101.com

robert groulx
Friday at 05:34 AM
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thank you for the lesson transcript

favorite phrase is Yes the four tones that matter in Chinese. Well some people say five


ChineseClass101.com Verified
Thursday at 09:05 PM
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Hi Luis,

Thank you for your message.

You can adjust the audio speed by clicking on the dark gray ‘1x’ button next to the volume control icon on the lower grey menu in which you’ll see the audio playing. If you wish to slow it down you can choose either "0.75x" or "0.5x".

We hope it helps.

Let us know if you have any further questions.;)


Team ChineseClass101.com

Wednesday at 04:29 AM
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Kind of difficult to follow the lesson which icon I have to key in order to follow the speakers? ?

ChineseClass101.com Verified
Monday at 12:00 AM
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Hi, Elizabeth B. Jamison,

Thank you for your posting.

In the lesson, they said there are 400 kinds of combinations of the characters with different pronunciations.

It didn't mean there are only 400 words.

It is not strange in Chinese that over 10 characters belong to one pronunciation.


Team ChineseClass101.com

Elizabeth B. Jamison
Tuesday at 07:34 AM
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I am a total beginner and these lessons were SO helpful. I am finally understanding why there are tones. :-) Great lesson!

I find it hard to pronounce the third and fourth tones. Not sure how far to take the "down and up" -- I don't want to overdo it.

Question: In the lesson, I believe it said there were 400 words. Is that all? I know that the different tones add meanings, but 400 x 5 tones is still just 2000. That doesn't seem like enough words. What am I missing?

I teach Chinese students how to speak English, and I also teach English at a university, so this is very interesting to me. I love these lessons. Thanks so much!