Four Mandarin Tones

If you’re at all like my husband and I, we had no experience with Chinese prior to signing our son up for Mandarin Immersion. My son is now in 2nd grade and I feel like I am starting to pick up on some of the Mandarin language basics. Let me be clear, I am not learning Mandarin with him, though maybe I should be? Anyway, one of these basics being tones and how the sounds directly affect the meanings of words. This lesson is something his program began to focus on in first grade. My son would practice at home using his hand to depict the tone he was trying to make for different words.

So, there are four tones in Mandarin Chinese, the tone associated with the vowel or group of vowels can distinguish the meaning of a word. The tones come through in little accent marks usually above a vowel or group of vowels.

  • Tone 1 - is long, it’s level and high.

    • means the number one, it is written with this 1st tone, the sound fades away

  • Tone 2 - begins low and rises.

    • yí to move, is written with this 2nd tone, the sound slightly rising

  • Tone 3 - is short, it begins, falls and rises back to where you started.

    • uses this 3rd tone and means to use, the sound bounces back a little

  • Tone 4 - begins high and falls.

    • uses this 4th tone and typically means easy/always, a strong sound like an exclamation

  • Tone 5 - neutral tone

These tones give fundamental meaning to what you’re trying to say. Thankfully, there are a number of wonderful resources to help you understand and speak using the correct tones. If you’ve purchased, A Parent’s Guide to Mandarin Chinese, you can reference pages 74 & 75 for more clarification and examples.


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